Given that Boca Grande is Spanish for "Big Mouth," one assumes that the natives are loquacious; however, the meaning is actually derived from the mouth of the waterway, Boca Grande Pass, located at the southern tip of Gasparilla Island. The pass was used as a busy shipping point for many years as the waters are naturally deep. Boca Grande, a small residential community on Gasparilla, sits quietly in southwest Florida.
Laidback residents employ a unique method to travel here as I observe numerous golf carts buzzing around the tiny neighbourhood and imagine that environmentalist, Al Gore, would be proud. All but two streets are designated golf cart paths.
Here, they once processed phosphate from the Bone Valley, and it was loaded onto waiting cargo vessels at the dock at the southern tip of the island where I witnessed fishermen plying their trade amidst the rocks. Phosphate was a valuable mineral for fertilizer, in great demand throughout the world and therefore a source of wealth. A railroad terminus with a 1,000-foot long pier was built to transport the mineral. The Charlotte Harbor and Northern Railroad was completed in 1907. For 50 years, phosphate was shipped, trains off-loaded directly onto ocean going freighters carrying the valuable commodity to far-flung ports.
In 1969, Port Boca Grande ranked as the fourth busiest port in Florida. A deeper Port of Tampa ended this lucrative business, but Boca Grande is resilient, for example, attracting Hollywood star Denzel Washington to film his movie, Out of Time, using the quiet village, re-named "Banyan Key" for its background. When Hurricane Charley hit Boca Grande in 2004, it caused $20 billion US damage to Southwest Florida. Many buildings and most of the banyan trees were destroyed.
Nonetheless, Boca attracts the affluent, many of whom own a second home here. It's a frequent hangout for the Bush family, particularly George who enjoys the fishing. One can spot them easily by noticing the Secret Service boats nearby. Hammerhead sharks are common in Boca Grande Pass, a world record 1,280 pound specimen caught in 2006. It took five hours to land the female shark which was pregnant with a record litter of 55 unborn pups. The reproductive tract alone weighed nearly 250 pounds.
Like indigenous natives, settlers came to Gasparilla Island primarily to fish. By the late 1870's several fish ranches were operating in the Charlotte Harbor area. The museum at the century-old lighthouse holds an impressive display of fish caught in these waters. By 1910, Boca Grande Pass was famous for unequaled tarpon fishing.
Built in 1890, the Boca Grande Lighthouse is the oldest building on Gasparilla Island and the most recognized landmark, centerpiece of Gasparilla Island State Park. It is not only a working U.S. Coast Guard lighthouse but also a museum of local history, open to the public and known as the Boca Grande Lighthouse Museum. I watched a large, thick-skinned lizard clamber along the hot boardwalk beside the museum and dive into the brush, not interested in becoming another display item beside the fish mounted on the walls.
Lighthouse keepers and their families lived and worked in the lighthouse from 1890 until 1951. The U.S. Coast Guard automated the light in 1956 and in 1966, removed the light from the building, which was deteriorating from neglect. Lee County took it over in 1972, and began a long process to save the building. As a result, the lighthouse was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.
Exhibits include Native American displays, the Spanish, arriving in the 1500's, local fishing industry, lighthouse history, the development of the railroad, Port Boca Grande and the town of Boca Grande, tarpon fishing, and the geology, flora and fauna of the Charlotte Harbor estuary.
Boca Grande is well worth a visit and a pleasurable way to spend a day. Just watch out for the golf carts!
Mike Keenan writes for QMI Agency (Sun Media) Canada's largest newspaper publisher, printing 44 daily newspapers as well as a web portal, Canoe.ca. Besides regular columns for the St. Catharines Standard, Welland Tribune and Niagara Falls Review. Mike has been published in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Buffalo Spree, Stitches, West of the City and Hamilton-Burlington's View Magazine. His work is found in QMI published dailies such as the Toronto Sun, Ottawa Sun, Vancouver Sun, London Free Press, Calgary Sun, Winnipeg Sun and Edmonton Sun.
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