Paul Sessions is a true native, Fort Myers born & bred. “I have vivid recollections of the historic stone arches that led to Fort Myers Beach,” he recalls with a twinkle in his eye. “When you crossed the arches, you knew you were at Fort Myers Beach; you realized you entered a magical place where you were going to make memories.”
Today he is the vanguard of a group of locals who want to bring back that magic. While the volunteer organization is new, the idea is not. “This is far from unique; people discussed this in one form or another for years,” Paul says, “but no one ever reached the point we are now.” He and Steve McDonald spearhead a true online grassroots movement: “Conversations actually began as chatter on Facebook, then one thing led to another, and before you knew it we had Restore Fort Myers Beach Arches. Even our first formal meeting to date occurred online!”
Sessions explains that the arches not only preceded San Carlos Boulevard but San Carlos Island. “They went up in 1924 as the intended entrance to a housing subdivision that never came into existence,” Paul states. “People immediately recognized them as singular structures because the minute you went through them, you knew you were on the beach. Generations of kids, including me, would climb to the top, just to say we did it!” Arch construction was so superior they survived the back end of The Great Miami Hurricane of 1926. “That storm was so powerful that when it cut right by them, it dug the trench that is Hurricane Pass, turning San Carlos into an island.”
The devastation required a new route to Fort Myers Beach. “The original was John Morris Road that took you over a wooden drawbridge, but The Great Hurricane destroyed that,” Paul relates for perspective. “It was obvious that reorienting the entry to conform to the new topography required more of a straight-line road. This became San Carlos Boulevard that incorporated the arches into its design, leading to the swing bridge that so many still remember.”
It was roadway construction that brought the arches to prominence; it was another transportation enhancement that led to their demise: the Matanzas Pass Bridge of the late 1970s.”Since it had a high passageway to allow boats to sail underneath, eliminating the need for a draw or swing like the prior spans, its construction area took up a large footprint, meaning the arches would be under today’s present bridge. There was simply no way to construct Matanzas Pass without removing the arches because they were physically in the way.”
Paul says that as construction continued in 1979, there was an abrupt effort to save the arches, not to hinder the new bridge, but to preserve them in some form. “People understood the arches had to come down, because the swing bridge outlived its day,” theorizes Paul, “but perhaps there might be other options, like moving them to a new location or disassembling them and storing the stone for future use.” There was literally a last-minute reprieve – “sort of a ‘Stay of Execution,’ if you will” – but by the time word reached the site, the arches were already down.
Restore Fort Myers Beach Arches is working on architectural drawings based on realistic concepts to eventually submit to the State as a potential plan. Paul explains that whatever will be the final selection, it will not be an exact recreation of the original arches because “San Carlos Boulevard, to accommodate traffic, is so much wider than previously, so they will need to be much larger. Price estimates are unavailable until the designs are complete. This is definitely a work in progress.”
The group is in need of volunteers, particularly with expertise in project management, engineers and draftsmen, and fundraising. They initiated conversation with the Lee Board of County Commissioners, hopefully as a grant funding partner, but have yet to dialogue with the Fort Myers Beach Council, explaining that it was better to wait until after the recent election that led to two new members as well as a change in the mayor. Paul hopes, however, the Town is receptive because “the very backdrop of their deliberations are the historic arches. If they have any doubt about their lasting legacy, all they have to do is turn around! When the Town came together, they decided on what images best defined the community. They could have chosen a lot of things to trumpet ‘this is Fort Myers Beach, this is who are,’ and selected the arches to reflect that vision.”
Sessions hears the rumor that any new arch will use the original stones that supposedly still exist at various locations on Fort Myers Beach. “That is true, but only to a limited extent. All the stone no longer exists, so there is no way to rebuild the actual arches. Plus the new ones will be so much larger to span the modern roadway. To use some of the original ones, though, is the best-case scenario, to link the past to our present and future.”
Paul knows better than anyone that Restore Fort Myers Beach Arches is only a few steps along on what will most likely be a long journey. “We are just scratching the surface right now,” he cautions, “but for generations past and for generations to come, crossing under the arches means that you are on Fort Myers Beach, you are home or at your home-away-from-home. When you see Mickey Mouse ears, you think Disney, and when you see the arches, you think Fort Myers Beach. As symbols, they are really iconic!”
He permits himself to dream for the moment, how the arch restoration would feel when it comes to fruition. “We are only in the engineering process and already I am often speechless. To imagine being at a ribbon-cutting ceremony one day – all I can think to say is ‘Wow!’”
To volunteer or learn more about the project, go on Facebook and search Restore Fort Myers Beach Arches.