Boca Grande is located on Gasparilla Island in the northwest corner of Lee County. It is bordered on the west by the Gulf of Mexico, on the east by Charlotte Harbor and on the south by Boca Grande Pass, from which Boca Grande gets its name. The name means "big mouth" in Spanish. The pass is one of Florida's deepest natural inlets and can accommodate most ocean going freight ships and tankers. It is also world famous for its fine tarpon fishing.
Historically, commercial fishing is probably responsible for the first white settlers in this area, many of whom were Spanish or Cuban. They came in sailing vessels and founded "fish ranches" where they caught and salted down mullet and other fish for shipment in sailing ships to Havanna and other markets. This began in the mid-eighteen hundreds, then later, numbers of wealthy American and British sportsmen would sail into the harbor and anchor their sea-going yachts for a season of hunting for deer and turkey, and fishing for tarpon and other game fish.
About 1900 a few Florida pioneers from nearby inland communities such as Punta Gorda and Arcadia came to our island and took up "homesteads" and settled the village of Boca Grande as a permanent town site. In 1885 phosphate rock was discovered in the Peace River just above Punta Gorda, an event which would change the economy of Boca Grande and Florida for many years.
With phosphate, a valuable mineral for fertilizers and hundreds of other products, becoming in great demand all over the world, our deep water pass and harbor became important. By 1889 large sailing ships as well as steamships anchored in the harbor. Cargoes of phosphate were loaded from barges. They were bound for ports all over the world. As these ships were strangers, they required pilots to safely navigate them through the entrance channel to a safe anchorage for loading operations. Captain Peter Nelson, Captain l.W. Johnson (my father) and my uncle Captain W.H. Johnson became licensed pilots and partners in the activity of piloting these ships into and out of the port.
With the opening of mines in Polk County, the C.H. & N. (Charlotte Harbor & Northern) Railroad Company built a railroad from the mines near Lakeland to Boca Grande, with main offices here. Docks were built on deep water at the port, and after some 20 years of having been loaded from barges, cargo ships could now be loaded directly from the docks. The railroad company bought property and developed the town. They built homes for employees, a power plant, a bank, a water system, a telephone system, streets, street lights and sidewalks. This was in 1910.
Boca Grande is now home to some 700 people year around, with some 2,000 in the winter. A large part of the population is made up of wealthy retirees, second home owners, weekenders, shopkeepers, commercial fishermen, sports fishermen and caretakers.
INTRODUCTION: By Robert Johnson
The history of Port Boca Grande can be divided into four distinct periods: 1888 - 1907; 1907 - 1958; 1958 - 1979; and the present. Before 1888, there was nothing in Boca Grande, and before the railroad came in 1907, there was little.
When my grandfather and his brother (lredell and William Johnson) came here in 1888, phosphate had just been discovered in the Peace River. It was barged down the river and loaded onto four-masted, square-rigged sailing vessels off Boca Grande, then shipped to ports in New England and Europe.
In 1890 the quarantine house, the lighthouse and the pilot station were built. The lighthouse stands in its original location, and has been restored. The quarantine house, although it has been moved, is still standing. It is about 300 yards north of the lighthouse on Belcher Road. It can be recognized by the ship lookout, or widow's walk, on the roof. Those were lonely days in Boca Grande. It was merely an outpost. Punta Gorda was the town at that time, and there was more on Cayo Costa Island than on Gasparilla Island.
In those days, pilots had to search the horizon for ships. Later, a system would be worked out by which a ship's captain would signal Sand Key (in the Florida Keys) and the message was telegraphed to Punta Gorda that it was on its way to Boca Grande. The period from 1907 to 1958 were peak years for Boca Grande. Because Boca Grande Pass was the deepest natural inlet in Florida, the American Agriculture and Chemical Company (Agrico) deemed it a perfect place for a phosphate port, and in 1907 work began on linking Port Boca Grande to Arcadia by rail.
The first fully automated phosphate loader was built, a power plant was constructed by the railroad, an inn was built and the town was laid out by 1912. Boca Grande enjoyed a "boom town" status with electricity, transportation and employment. According to a 1920 census, the population of Boca Grande was 700, the same as Sarasota.
By the 1920s steam ships had completely replaced sailing ships, and in 1926 the Charlotte Harbor and Northern Railroad was sold to Seaboard, marking the end of an era. The early years of the war were a busy time for the port's pilots. During the summer of 1942, before ships started traveling in convoys, all the ships in the area would come into the harbor just before dark to evade German submarines.
In one night the pilots brought in 11 ships, some of them so large they barely fit through the channel, an unnerving experience since they were often carrying explosives. During World War II all phosphate shipping was brought to a halt. Like the men, all ships were pressed into service. Black powder and TNT were shipped from Port Boca Grande to England before the United States entered the war.
In late 1942, mines, assembled in Placida, were shipped out of Port Boca Grande to Key West.
After the war things got back to normal at the port and there were no big changes until 1958, when the oil terminal was constructed, making Boca Grande a two-terminal port, due to a growing demand for phosphate for fertilizer and the world population increase.
But in the early 1970's phosphate shipments from Port Boca Grande began to decrease because new terminals constructed in Tampa Bay could handle larger, deeper draft vessels. What was once the first automated loading terminal in the world became antiquated equipment at Port Boca Grande.
The fall of 1977 saw the railroad petition the Interstate Commission for abandonment of the phosphate facility, and after all the appeals were exhausted, the final order came in 1979. The last phosphate ship was loaded Sept. 30, 1979, 91 years after phosphate was first shipped out of Charlotte Harbor.
As a final note is has been announced that Florida Power and Light is going to close the oil terminal at Port Boca Grande January 1, 2001. This will be the end of the 100 year history of the port known as Boca Grande.
"Ain't gonna need this house no longer" was not said of the old Quarantine doctor's home on Belcher Road at the port. This is the oldest house on the island, having been built by the state of Florida in 1892 as the residence of the quarantine doctor.
At that time in history the various coastal states assumed the responsibility of protecting the health of the people from contagious diseases by strictly quarantining all vessels entering from foreign ports. The pilot, upon bringing the ship into port, was required to anchor in a designated location and hoist the yellow flag requesting the doctor. The pilot was required by law to remain aboard the ship until the doctor boarded from his own "quarantine boar' and examined each and every crewman for any communicable or quarantinable disease. "Yellow jack (yellow fever) was the most feared malady of this era, as many Florida cities had been stricken. The authorities at the time did not realize that the pesky mosquito was the culprit.
When built, this house was actually located near the bay, about where the foot of the oil dock is now and it stood on pilings about eight feet off the ground. It was a beautiful, well built structure with a cupola or "widow's walk" on the peak of the roof 35 feet above the ground from which the doctor or his boatman could spot incoming ships flying a yellow signal flag. The house was painted a bright yellow and was fitted with green shutters at all the windows. A wide set of steps went from the ground in front up to the railed porch. Mosquito bars, netting on frames, hung from the ceiling over all the beds. The lighthouse and the assistant keeper's house, some 300 yards farther south, both built in 1890, and the pilots' bachelor quarters, a few hundred feet to the north, made up the settlement of South Boca Grande in 1895.
The old quarantine doctor's house is unique in that the height of the ceilings is 13 feet, contrasting with the usual height of eight feet in today's houses. The Johnson family purchased the property when the federal government took over the quarantine service and built its own station across the bay inside the point of La Costa Island.
Becoming the home of one or another of the Johnson family and "look-our' tower for approaching ships by the pilots for nearly a century, the old house has weathered a number of bad hurricanes and years of sun and salt. Today the house is receiving much needed renovation and, continuing its participation in the history of the port, it is awaiting the occupancy of yet another generation - the great grandaughter of Capt. l.W. Johnson, pilot of the port from 1889 until his death in 1933. Before and After renovation Photos.
Since at the time of this "Port Log" recording we are celebrating Valentine's Day, our thoughts are reminded of numerous romances which began with, and because of, shipping at the port. Of course no one really knows how many romances have occurred, but we would like to recall a few courtship's which flourished and developed into love and marriages lasting many years.
First was Loren "Wren" Johnson, the striking, dark-eyed, 18-year old daughter of Capt. I.W. Johnson. She caught the eye of Walter Wainwright, chief engineer of the S/S Millinocket out of New York. Walter was from the "eastern shore" of Virginia and had a gift of storytelling which no one, including Loren, could ignore. They were married in the Johnson's home at the port during the summer of 1912 and lived to celebrate their 60th anniversary.
Dellzell Johnson was not to be outdone by her older sister, nor was Capt. Thomas J. Sammon to be outdone by his close friend Walter Wainwright, so another romance was inevitable. Dellzell, a pretty blonde who had just turned 17, was quite impressed with Capt. Sammon, Master of the S/S Millinocket, which was calling at Boca Grande about every two weeks, transporting phosphate to Searsport, Maine, New York and other east coast ports. At first Capt. and Mrs. Johnson took a dim view of their youngest daughter marrying a seafaring man, but Cupid won out and another wedding took place in the Johnson home later that summer. In the meantime, Capt. Sammon had just been promoted to Master of A.H. Bull's newest ship, the S/S Hilton, so the newlyweds sailed to New York on their honeymoon aboard the Hilton. Six children were born to this marriage.
Footnotes: Introduction: by Robert Johnson Boca Grande "The Early Years" by Capt. Carey Johnson