A Walk through Estero Island History
Some have characterized Fort Myers Beach, up to the 1980’s, as a “quaint little fishing village.” But Crescent Beach/Estero Island/Fort Myers Beach (as it has variously been known over the past 150 years), rather than a seldom-visited backwater, has been a magnet for tourism and leisure-seekers since the early 1920’s.
The island’s days as a fishing and farming outpost tapered off as the original homesteaders died or sold their properties. Of course, the scale and extent of tourist facilities has expanded in the past 100 years as livelihoods evolved and infrastructure improved.
With the advent of the motorcar, development became a fact of island life. In 1919, homesteaders E.E. Damkohler and C.S. Fickland started the Seagrape Subdivision on Mango and Chapel Streets. In the 1920’s, as a land boom engulfed Florida and gradually spread to the southwestern part of the state, subdivisions began to bloom on the northernmost two miles of this island (at least, they were blueprinted and platted). Two hotels sprang up like mushrooms after a spring rain.
The first bridge from the mainland to the northern end of Crescent Beach opened on May 6, 1921. Only one car at a time could traverse the narrow span of that wooden lift bridge, at an eyebrow-raising toll of 50 cents per car plus 15 cents per passenger. On the day the bridge opened for business, 97 cars crossed over onto the Beach. The gateway to tourism flung wide.
The shell-paved main road – first called Eucalyptus Avenue and then Estero Boulevard – extended only from the bridge to Connecticut Street (site of the Mound House) until the mid-1930’s.
No development or homesteads existed north of the bridge, and to drive further south required a detour onto the shore. But there wasn’t much reason to drive south into the mangroves and dense jungle growth, until a scattering of cottages popped up in the late 1930’s and ’40’s on McPhie Township lands. (The cult-like Koreshan Unity had occupied the south end of the island since 1893, but moved to a new community in Estero in 1904.)
According to Fort Myers Beach historian, Rolfe Schell:
“In the 1920’s Hugh McPhie was said to have been offered a million dollars, the equivalent of perhaps 80 million today, for his holdings. . . . he didn’t accept the million dollars, but finally did sell his first 112 acre homestead in 1940 for a paltry $40,000.” [McPhie owned a second, 65-acre homestead on which he built a beachfront house in a coconut grove. He died there in 1947.]
The year 1921 saw the first surge in development. That year Silver Sands, the island’s first cottage court motel, was built. Beachside and bayside cottages and fish camps emerged over the next four decades as popular tourist lodgings.
In 1921, local businessman Tom Phillips and Chicagoan Harry Fiedler dug the island’s first canal at First and Crescent Streets. Phillips also built the 70 by 70-foot Crescent Beach Casino near the island’s north end. By 1930 – after the addition of a restaurant, dance floor, gambling casino and rental rooms – its name was changed to the Gulf Shore Inn. It’s still a popular beachfront restaurant that has survived several major hurricanes.
Captain Jack DeLysle, a flamboyant entrepreneur and rum runner, built a 3-story resort and the Seminole Sands Casino and dance pavilion on the Gulf side of Connecticut Street. It was a notable landmark for 3 years, until it burned to the ground in 1924.
On a broad expanse of sand, Dr. Virgil Voorhis opened the island’s only trailer park that still serves as the Red Coconut RV Resort.
Then, on October 26, 1921, a severe hurricane lashed the island. After 18 months of rebuilding, Crescent Beach was again open for business. In June 1923, over 200 cars passed over the Matanzas Pass Bridge in a single day.
Island life in the ’20’s and ’30’s
The island held so few buildings that houses had no addresses and were designated by the names of their owners. Everyone who owned a place pretty much knew everyone else, even if they were only seasonal visitors.
Longtime retiree-resident Red Russell, quoted in Jean Gottlieb’s book Coconuts and Coquinas, said of Fort Myers Beach in the 1920’s:
“There were few – if any – people living permanently on the Beach in those days. There were a few houses that were for rent, but as far as making your home on the Beach, it was out of the question because there was no electricity, no central water system, and of course the sand flies and mosquitoes made it almost unlivable, especially in the summertime.”
Crescent Beach was a playground for Scout troop campouts and weekend gatherings on the shore. At low tide, cars drag-raced on the hard-packed sand. Beach racing was finally banned when one bystander was hit and killed by a car.
Fishermen, oyster gatherers and farming/fishing families squatted on a few mangrove islands in Estero Bay or lived on houseboats. One woman rowed to Crescent Beach from her houseboat and sold oysters door to door. Mullet were so plentiful that the slapping sound when they jumped kept some locals awake at night.
Creative livelihoods of the era included a small canoe factory built and operated by Red Russell, just over the bridge on San Carlos Island (which was part of the mainland until the 1926 hurricane carved out Hurricane Pass). Thompson’s Juke Joint – in the north-end concrete and coquina-rock building that now holds a cigar store and tourist shop – sold bottled mixed drinks and later groceries.
Fishing guide Luke Gates owned and operated the Ko-Kee-Na canning factory on the corner of Connecticut Street and Estero Boulevard, which sold coquina broth. Tiny, colorful coquina mollusks were gathered by hand from the beach. Said to be a natural tonic and hangover remedy, coquina broth sold nationwide for several years, until a hurricane destroyed the factory.
A fisherman had built a small house on an island in Big Carlos Pass off the south end, where he and his wife raised chickens. That entire island washed away in the 1928 hurricane. The shallows gradually built up again, and by the 1970’s had formed the critical wildlife area now called Little Estero Island.
Telephone service started in 1922, with 12 phones installed in a party-line service (each with a distinctive ring). Local calls were on-island only; to phone Fort Myers was long distance until 1970.
A more reliable communication method was the telegraph. The Beach Hotel, and later the Gulf View Shop (current site of Lin’s Garden Chinese restaurant), served as Western Union message centers that would deliver telegrams for 25 cents. Residents (a couple of dozen households at most) and visitors were encouraged to register so they could be located. The late 1930s’ peak-season population was estimated at 400.
Rudimentary electrical service started in 1927 – limited to buildings near the Matanzas Pass bridge – and could only power lighting, not appliances. Most houses had an icebox and took deliveries from the iceman.
Privately supplied water (at a cost of $3 per month) was available at the island’s north end, but most islanders used rainwater stored in cisterns and sulphurous groundwater from artesian wells.
Commercial garbage disposal started in the late 1930’s, for $1.50 per month. Until then, householders flattened their cans, burned what they could and buried the rest in backyard pits.
Perhaps the greatest torment of beach living was the plague of mosquitoes and gnats (no-see-ums). People set up smudge pots in their dwellings, sprayed Flit on window screens and avoided the outdoors after dusk.
As early Beach resident Kim Davison recalled in the book Coconuts and Coquinas:
“You could put your hand on the window screen and count to ten, take your hand away and you’d have a black silhouette there of mosquitos trying to get through the screen to get your hand.”
The Shape of Progress
While Fort Myers Beach has grown, diversified and developed since that long-past era when peak population was measured in the hundreds, the island’s reputation as a “quaint fishing village” is outdated by more than a century.
From a population of 711 in 1950, island residency grew to 2,464 in 1960 and – after the south-end bridge opened in 1967 – leapt to 4,305 by 1970. The drivers of growth were bridge access, paved roads, reliable electricity, municipal water service, mosquito control, advertising and, of course, air-conditioning.
Limited space on this 7-mile sand-spit doesn’t preclude continued development, but certainly imposes a maximum capacity. Whatever that maximum may be, and whatever one’s definition of progress, here’s hoping the quaint and the swank can co-exist on our island. After all, the laid-back charms of cottage life and friendliness on Fort Myers Beach are what drew most of us here in the first place.