The History of Downtown Fort Myers
Ft. Myers was one of the first forts built along the Caloosahatchee River as a base of operations against the Seminole Indians. Ft. Denaud, Ft. Thompson, and Ft. Dulany (Punta Rassa) all pre-date Ft. Myers. When a hurricane destroyed Ft. Dulany in October 1841, the military was forced to look for a site less exposed to storms from the Gulf of Mexico. As a result of the search, Ft. Harvie was built on the grounds that now comprise Downtown Ft. Myers.
Renewed war against the Seminoles in 1850 caused a re-occupation and extensive reconstruction of Ft. Harvie. The post was then renamed Ft. Myers in honor of Colonel Abraham C. Myers, who was soon to wed the daughter of Major General David E. Twiggs, then commanding Ft. Brooke (Tampa). The expanded fort eventually became quite an impressive base. At it’s peak, it featured a 1,000 foot wharf, and more than 50 buildings constructed of hardy yellow pine. The cleared ground around the fort fell roughly within the area bounded by the present day Hough, Monroe and Second streets.
Abandoned in 1858, Ft. Myers was re-occupied for a few weeks the following year. The War Between the States brought federal troops back in 1863 for a stay of 2 years, but at the wars end, Ft. Myers was abandoned by the military once and for all.
1864 – 1875
In the years after the war, people from all over South Florida came to Ft. Myers in search of scarce building materials. Unfortunatly, many of the forts buildings were literally dismantled and carried away. Also during the years after the war, cattle baron Jacob Summerlin often drove his herds past the old fort grounds on the way to Punta Rassa where they were shipped to Cuba to be paid for in gold. During the late 1860’s, and in the 1870’s a number of settlers began to drift into the area, and by 1876 there were enough people living on properly surveyed land to justify creating the community officially. In that year, the plat for Ft. Myers was recorded in Key West , county seat fo Monroe County, which then included all of what is now Lee County.
Most of the growth during the remainder of the ninteeth century was in the vacinity of the old fort grounds – present Downtown Ft. Myers. Virtually all of the early construction was wood frame and very few of these structures remain. During the 1870’s, two general stores, a school and a number of private homes were built. In 1876, when Ft. Myers was platted, the United States Post Office offically changed the towns name to Myers, supposedly to aviod any confusion with Ft. Myer, Virginia. Although local people continued to call their home “Ft.” Myers, the name was not legally restored until 1901.
A few hotels began to appear during the last two decades of the ninteenth century, the first being Keystone, at the foot of Park Street. By 1885, the population was upto 349, the Ft. Myers Press was in operation, people were beginning to settle along the river away from the immediate fort area, and Ft. Myers was about to gain its most famous resident. In 1885, Thomas A. Edison visited the town, fell in love with it, and within 2 years, he had built his home and laboratory on the banks of the Caloosahatchee River.
A colorful addition to the area during this period was the appearance of a number of pineapple plantations along the river. The year 1884 was critical for Ft. Myers. Lee County was created (out of Monroe), a new courthouse was built, a second newspaper – Tropic News – opened, and a severe freeze in the state resulted in much of the citrus industry moving farther south – some of it to this area.
The twentieth century dawned with 943 residents in Ft. Myers. The town was experiencing what an historian called a “building boom.” The “boom” actually began in 1898 with the construction of what is now called the Murphy-Burroughs home setting the standard. Within the next few years a number of more elaborately decorated framed vernacular homes appeared along First Street and out along Palm Beach Boulevard.
The growth of the community was greatly facilitated in 1904 with the arrival of the Coast Railroad, with its terminus at a dock on Monroe Street. During the same year, construction began on the Bradford Hotel which still stands on First Street. A power plant, several banks, commercial ice plants and new hotels reflected the increase pace and growth during the first decade of the century. Another notible sign of growth during the first two decades of the 20th Century was the beginning of several residential developments such as Edgewood, Wardwood Grove, and what came to be called Dean Park. Streets were paved Downtown, and the famous palms were planted along McGregor Boulevard, which itself was improved to Whiskey Creek on the road to Punta Rassa.
1920 – 1927
The 1920’s brought what was called the “Boom Time” to all of Florida, and Ft. Myers shared in the riches. Most of the Mediterranean Revival buildings seen throughout the City were built during this period. In fact, the Mediterranean Revival style, which combines serveral other prominent architectural styles, typifies Florida during the 1920’s. Excellent examples of Mediterranean Revival construction are to be found in commercial buildings in the downtown area as well as in private homes in all parts of the city.
Growth radiating out in all directions from the old fort grounds was to be seen during the 1920’s. Still-prominent developments such as Seminole Park, Riverside Park, Edison Park, Valencia Terrace, Allen Park, Alabama Groves and others had their beginnings in the Boom Time. It was also during this exciting period that the Seaboard Railroad came to town offering competition to Henry Plant’s older Coast Line. Today three terminals from this period can still be seen in the city. The opening of Tamiami Trail, linking Ft. Myers with Tampa and Miami, added even more to the fantastic growth during this time.
1930 – 1939
Ft. Myers suffered along with the rest of the state when a combination of poor publicity, hurricanes, and inadequate planning brought a collapse to Florida’s boom time. The onset of the depression brought development and growth to a virtual standstill all over the country. Still, there was some moderate progress. Some of the more elegant buildings in Ft. Myers were built during this period. The Federal Building was completed; and the Edison Bridge was constructed making travel to the north much more convenient.
In addition to the site of the original fort, described earlier, is the site of the yacht Basin. Identical to the Ft. Pierce Basin, the Yacht Basin was originally designed for Sarasota by the W.P.A. Mayor Dave Shapard, on a special trip to Washington, succeeded in transferring the project to Ft. Myers.
Construction began in 1936, with World War II bringing the Coast Guard to the Yacht Basin under the direction of Louis Conant. After the war, Captain John Mickle oversaw operations as a municipal marina with a capacity of fifty boats. In 1957 Captain Ed Hanson was installed as dock master, expanding facilities in 1972 to present day 246 boats.
1940 – present
The big story of the 1940’s in Ft. Myers, as everywhere else in the world, was World War II. Every county in Florida had air bases to take advantage of Florida’s fine flying weather. Lee County’s bases brought servicemen, and sometimes their families to Ft. Myers. Many of these people, and their visitors, came back in later years to become permanent residents.
In the years since World War II, Ft. Myers has grown along with Lee County and the rest of Southwest Florida. Gradually, vacant commercial and residential sites have been filled in. Development has been concentrated east and west along the river, and south along Cleveland Avenue. New commercial buildings and shopping centers have cropped up in all parts of the city. Fortunately, the older downtown area, and much of the city’s historic districts, have retained much of their old charm. Today Downtown Ft. Myers is filled with businesses ranging from boutiques, restaurants, cafes, antiques stores, jewlers, financial houses, apartments, and professional offices to a convention center. Also Centennial Park is a popular place for visitors and residents to gather for concerts and other functions.
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Florida Repertory Theatre in Downtown Fort Myers