Rediscovering Old Florida
Punta Gorda is one of the oldest cities on the Gulf Coast of Florida and was a hotbed of controversy and infighting that almost destroyed it in the making.
After the Civil War ended, the reconstructionist military presence brought scores of Union troops deep into the state, including untouched areas south of Tampa. In 1876, Florida split the deciding vote between Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and Democrat Sam Tilden, decades before anyone had even heard of hanging chads.
The final vote outcome was decided in a smoky back room, granting the election to Hayes, in return for the military leaving the Sunshine state. But several of them loved the area so much that they returned as homesteaders.
The first settlers to move into the land off of Charlotte Harbor were two brothers – Jarvis & Frederick Howard, who named their village Solana. Their nearest neighbors were the Lockharts, whose home was part of 30 acres sold in 1883 to retired Col. Isaac Trabue, a lawyer from Kentucky, who hired a surveyor, Kelly Harvey, to plat out a city named after himself.
Unfortunately, Isaac Trabue did not attract the best company. His town became known for harboring bums and criminals. He saw salvation for his town in the Florida Southern Railroad. Jobs and industry were expanding the small town. But Trabue had already built up too much bad blood, and in 1887, 34 men, including Harvey the surveyor, Henry Plant, the owner of the railroad (for whom Plant City is named), Albert Gilchrist, future Governor of Florida, and WH Simmons, the city’s first mayor, gathered in a private meeting and voted to incorporate and return the land to its Native American name: Punta Gorda.
Trabue stuck around long enough to build the waterfront parks the area is still known for and appoint the first African American postmaster, Robert Meacham, before heading back north. Plant would stay, extending the railroad from its original terminus in Tampa to Punta Gorda. Just like in Tampa, Plant built the Hotel Punta Gorda for the tourists arriving on his train line.
While the railroad brought tourism and the high society friends of Plant, as well as Barron Collier and his fellow cattle barons, the town couldn’t shake its history of criminal activity and the train brought more of this type as well. Between 1890 and 1904, 40 murders rocked the town, including the blatant killing of the City Marshal, John H. Bowman, in his home, in front of his family.
The discovery of phosphate in Punta Gorda, its mining and shipping became the chief industry for the city for almost a decade. Robert Kirby founded the Punta Gorda Herald (now the Charlotte Sun Herald) in 1893. When DeSoto County was split, Punta Gorda became the seat of the newly formed Charlotte County.
With the outbreak of World War II, Punta Gorda became one of several communities in Southern Florida to host a US Army air field to train combat pilots. Following the war, developers once again flocked to the Gulf Coast of Florida, expanding the borders of Punta Gorda as well as adding to the city’s neighboring communities.
In 2004, Hurricane Charley ripped through Punta Gorda, the first such storm in 40 years. The town took the storm’s aftermath as a challenge, rebuilding historic buildings and constructing a new Harborwalk, revitalizing the series of waterfront parks Trabue built more than 100 years prior.
Today, Punta Gorda is home to more than 15,000 year round residents and several thousand tourists and snowbirds. With Royal Palm lined streets, beautifully restored period homes, and many brick-lined streets, the largely waterfront community still retains its old Florida feel.
The Army airfield is now the Punta Gorda Airport, serving 10,000 passengers annually on Frontier & Allegiant Airlines, as well as several small commercial and private aircrafts. It also hosts the Florida International Air Show.
While the railroad halted passenger service in 1971, the Punta Gorda Atlantic Coast Line Depot still stands and is both a historical museum and, every December, used as the northernmost boarding location for the Seminole Gulf Railway from Fort Myers.
Punta Gorda is one of the most bicycle-friendly towns in the United States, with bike paths connecting 90% of the city – and a free to use bike loaner program for visitors.
The recently reopened Harborwalk runs 2-1/2 miles along the shore, connecting several parks, old and new, terminating at Fisherman’s Village, a waterfront shopping, entertainment, and vacation resort complex on the pier where the Peace River feeds into Charlotte Harbor.
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