Top Ten Moments in Fort Myers Beach History

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It’s the end of 2016 and everyone is doing their Top Ten List of significant moments or biggest events – colleagues here at The Island Sand Paper themselves pulled the most important stories and best photographs of the last year for elsewhere in these pages. As for me, my Top Ten is the most historic moments to ever impact Fort Myers Beach.

As with any of these lists, mine is woefully inadequate – remember, I bring no special talent or expertise to this endeavor except my own opinion! Every one of you will read it and think, “That Idiot Gary – how can he include the Lani Kai but leave out the 1926 Hurricane that formed San Carlos Island,” or like occurrences, so I invite you to email your comments and criticisms to info@fortmyersbeach.news.

Like the annual December 31 countdown in Times Square to raise the beach ball at 10 seconds to Midnight, I will start at #10 and count up to my Top Spot.

#10: Fort Myers Beach Pier

The original went up in the 1930s as a wooden edifice, with the adjacent land used for parking, picnicking, swimming and sunbathing without amenities. Lee County acquired the property in 1948, and built a bathhouse in 1953. The mid-1970s brought the new concrete pier that the County dedicated in 1976. In May 1991 a major storm with extremely high waves struck the island, causing extensive pier damage, leading to a significant reconstruction into the one we use today, allowing fishermen, locals, and tourists alike to enjoy recreation, socializing and breathtaking sunsets, as well as being the backdrop for about a billion photographs.

#9: Matanzas Pass Bridge

Sometimes called “The Sky Bridge,” to longtime FMB residents it will forever be “The New Bridge!” Its 1979 opening either eliminated the biggest nightmare in beach history – the 1928 concrete swing span that often got stuck in the open position, backing up traffic for hours – or was the Worst Decision Ever as it made access easy, leading to overcrowding and congestion, especially in-season.

Conversation about The New Bridge continues, with the Florida Department of Transportation, in the ever-ongoing battle to solve beach gridlock, is considering amending the current trolley lane to a right-turn-only one, while adding a northbound sidewalk so there will be one on each side.

From its 65-foot height, the Matanzas Pass Bridge offers a striking view of the sunset, unmatched anywhere on the island. And if you happen to be in your late 50s, as are some newspaper reporters, and you can still hike up and down it and feel healthy, it is also a Badge of Honor!

#8: reFRESH Estero Boulevard

Too soon? Not history yet? Like it or not, for better or worse, what occurred this past year and will continue for the next several will majorly-impact Estero Island for the rest of this century, including water lines, sanitary sewer force mains, outfalls, stormwater cleaning and removal, a new center roadway lane, bike lanes for most of the island and huge wide sidewalks that tourists, residents and families already enjoy in the downtown area.

It also sadly brought a devastating financial impact to several businesses in the initial stretch that, in addition to negative news concerning Zika and polluted water, were unable to weather the traffic delays and parking issues and went under, making them and the roadway project that helped cause the losses history.

#7: Calusa Indians

The start of it all and our first known inhabitants, up to 50,000 Calusa lived on the sandy shores of Southwest Florida. Calusa means “fierce people,” with history judging them tough and warlike, as the Spanish explorers were targets of their violent attacks. They fished for food and used spears to catch eels and turtles. Living on the coast, the Calusa became great sailors, traveling in 15-foot dugouts carved from cypress logs. The Caloosahatchee, meaning “River of the Calusa,” was their main waterway, though they sailed as far away as Cuba.

The Calusa were the first “shell collectors,” using these for tools, utensils, jewelry and shrine ornaments. Shell mounds are still found today, like the site on FMB at the iconic Mound House Museum. Its construction is entirely shells and clay, and is thought to be the long-ago home of Carlos, the Calusa chief.

They died out in the 1700s, as enemy tribes from Georgia and South Carolina raided their territory, with many captured and sold into slavery. Spanish and French explorers carried into the region disease such as smallpox and measles that wiped out entire villages. The few remaining Calusa left in the 1760’s for Cuba, when the Spanish turned Florida over to British control.

#6: Lani Kai Island Resort

Fenway and Jet Blue Park have the Green Monster. Fort Myers Beach has it’s own large green icon frequented by the most “interesting” characters on the island, and that is saying a lot! There is a compelling local theory floating around the community that it is actually a portal to an alternate universe! To most, however, a visit to Fort Myers Beach is not complete without a trip to this Local Legend, with its cool white sand beach and even cooler cocktails.

No matter into which camp you fall, you can’t deny its impact. Tell folks from Nowhere, Maine, to Someplace, California, or anywhere in-between, that you are from FMB and, donuts-to-sand-dollars, the first words you hear back are “Oh – The Lani Kai!” To families with small children to teenagers to generations of Spring Breakers and vacationers, the Lani Kai is where they first fell in love with Fort Myers Beach.

The hotel that opened in the mid-1970s has undergone countless renovations over the decades, including the addition of the 6th floor restaurant and tiki bar. The Lani Kai, along with Times Square, continues to be The Place people associate with FMB.

#5: Shrimping

In April 1950, fishermen discovered in the Tortugas sweet shrimp that were quickly christened “pink gold!” Soon as many as 150 shrimpers made FMB their homeport, bringing in new income and related businesses. These shrimp were unusually large, 4-1/2 inches long after removing the head. At its inception through the late 1970s, with the closing of the Campeche fishing grounds, over 1 million pounds of shrimp unloaded annually on Fort Myers Beach, with pink shrimp today still contributing millions of dollars to the local economy.

#4: Times Square

In a very real sense, the pulse of the beach and heart of our Town! The pier, iconic businesses, the entertainment, sunsets, artists, tourists, musicians, Roxie, fudge, ice cream, fireworks, Town birthday cupcakes and – sadly – panhandlers; all combine to give our little slice of Paradise its unique character.

It’s hard to recall that, not too long ago, automobile traffic from the base of the Matanzas Pass Bridge and Estero Boulevard ran right through the now-pedestrian-only Times Square, meaning you had a free side of car exhaust with your hummus from Plaka’s or burger from Pete’s that were already legendary beach eateries all the way back then.

Time Square’s importance grew with the establishment of Lynn Hall Memorial Park, dedicated to the tragic memory of the Lee County Deputy Sheriff murdered there in April 1979. Deputy Hall, on routine patrol, approached a suspiciously parked car that, unbeknownst to him, contained a wanted fugitive. A struggle ensued, with the criminal murdering the Deputy with his own service revolver. Lee County officially dedicated the park in memoriam to this public servant who literally gave his life for our community in December 1981. Rarely anywhere has such a tragic occurrence happened at a place that in the almost 4 decades since brings so much enjoyment to so many.

#3: Water Quality

For millennia water flowed south from Lake Okeechobee, into the Everglades through the historic River of Grass, leaving the Gulf of Mexico off FMB clean and pristine green, with Estero Island a vacation and residential paradise. But farming and sugar production rerouted the dirty and polluted Lake Okeechobee discharges into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee Rivers, fouling our once immaculate coast; causing increasing incidences of red tide; threatening our essential tourism, shrimp and fishing industries; our very health; and source of clean drinking water. Clear and safe water made FMB; if we lose this pure delicate resource, we lose everything – it’s that simple and important.

#2: Town Incorporation

When Lee County got it wrong, in the opinion of many locals, by allowing the 12-story DiamondHead Resort & Spa, the longtime movement to break away and incorporate as an independent town finally gathered enough steam to pass by a thread-bare 174 votes in July 1995, after 6 previous defeats dating back decades.

Since then, the Town crawled, took its first baby steps, began talking, made it through adolescence, got sore from growing pains, struggled through those difficult teenager years and now is on the verge of being able to legally drink, which considering the length of recent Town Council meetings might not be a bad thing! Hope your 20’s treat you well, Fort Myers Beach, because remember – Never Trust Anyone Over 30!

Incorporation was to forever cure the island’s political strife, but today frustrated residents – usually around Election Time – often threaten to unincorporate because Lee County ran things so much better. Sometimes you can’t win for losing!

An important incorporation sidebar – the original DiamondHead location was to be at the very north tip of the island on the last remaining undeveloped parcel on both the Gulf and back bay. Smarter heads prevailed, with Lee County purchasing that land to create Bowditch Point Park, and the DiamondHead moving south to its present spot.

#1: Hurricane Charley

This small but powerful Category 4 storm struck with a vengeance on, appropriately enough, Friday the 13th of August 2004, becoming the first hurricane to deliver such a devastating blow to Fort Myers Beach since Donna in 1960.

In a very real sense, its destructive effects are still being felt today, as Charley wiped out much of the hotels and businesses in our Downtown, thus dividing the Town populace for over a decade now, on how or if we should rebuild this once-vibrant corridor.

There you go – my Top Ten list of significant moments and events in Fort Myers Beach history. Hope I got you thinking, & Happy New Year!

 

Gary Mooney