Ambrose McGregor, Berne Davis, Bradford Hotel, Bradford McGregor, Dean Park, Edison, FL, Fort Dulaney, Fort Myers, Fort Myers Hotel, George Shultz, Hugh O'Neill, John T. Murphy, McGregor Blvd., Morgan Dean, Morgan Hotel, Patio de Leon, Peter Tonnelier, Punta Rassa, Royal Palm Hotel, Shultz Hotel, Stone Block Building, Sydney & Berne Davis Art Center, Sydney Davis, Tarpon House, Tootie McGregor, W.Hl Wood, Walt McDougall
In February, 1866, 150 years ago next month, the first settlers on the site of present-day Fort Myers, Florida, arrived on a sailing ship. At the time, the only way to get here was under sail or by covered wagon. In the latter case, both wagon driver and oxen were likely to arrive gaunt and bloodied by the ordeal.
Only sixty years later, Fort Myers had grown from 2 log cabins to a city with whole subdivisions of homes and people were arriving by rail and highway.
This rapid transformation was made possible, in large part, by early, enterprising tourists.
Our story begins in 1881, when a squall at sea blew in a soggy newspaper illustrator from New York City.
LOOK WHAT THE WIND BLEW IN
On a blustery day in March of 1881, illustrator Walt McDougall was fishing with friends in the Gulf when the wind picked up. They tied up at the nearest wharf and lumbered through sweeping rain into the barracks of old Fort Dulaney at Punta Rassa, now a relay station for the International Ocean Cable Company. The cable station manager was a stout, genial guy by the name of George Shultz, from Newark, New Jersey. When the McDougall party came loping down the dock, laughing and shouting in a cold, driving rain, Shultz and his wife welcomed them in.
McDougall so enjoyed the food and peculiar accommodations at Punta Rassa that he told all his friends up north about it. Curiously, other sports fishermen cabled Shultz for reservations. The word spread and soon wealthy businessmen from up north were roughing it in Shultz’s old barracks with bare floors and tin washbasins. Besides their rustic accommodations, these gentlemanly sportsmen enjoyed the convenience of keeping up with the stock market and cabling in to their offices via the IOCC telegraph.
The Shultzes quickly named their barracks home the Shultz Hotel, and when his guests inquired as to other local places of interest, Shultz invariably pointed them upriver to the up-and-coming little town of Fort Myers.
THE MULLET AND THE TARPON
The destiny of a fledgling town can pivot upon something as simple as the flick of a mullet’s tail.
In March, 1885, a sports fisherman from New York, vacationing at the Shultz Hotel, lowered a mullet wired to a hook into the sparkling water of San Carlos Bay. He was not prepared for what happened next. A 5’9” tarpon hit with a force that nearly jerked the rod from his hands. The fisherman’s rod plunged and the man locked his chin to his chest and dug in. For the next 26.5 minutes and over a half mile of sea, he battled 93 pounds of silver, water-shattering tarpon.
At the time, fishermen believed that a tarpon could not be caught with anything but a shark hook and chain, or a harpoon, but on March 12, 1885, W.H. Wood landed one at Punta Rassa, Florida, with a 5-foot bamboo rod. Sports writers sent illustrated articles to magazines all over the world, igniting a tarpon-fishing craze that washed a rising tide of millionaire tourists in to Punta Rassa. George Shultz merrily renamed his hotel the Tarpon House, and when his guests inquired as to other local places of interest, Shultz invariably pointed them upriver to the up-and-coming little town of Fort Myers.
THE WINDS OF DESTINY
Two weeks before Wood caught his tarpon, another fisherman put up at the hotel because chilling rain has spoiled his vacation in St Augustine. This fisherman was a former telegraph operator, so he and Shultz got along fine. They were relaxing on the veranda one day, their heads wreathed in clouds of cigar smoke, when Shultz mentioned Fort Myers. Mr. Edison decided to take his yacht up for a look. Upon his return, he told Shultz that he was thinking about building a winter lodge in Fort Myers. Shultz undoubtedly chuckled and, clinking the mouth of a whiskey decanter against the rim of Edison’s glass, commented with twinkling eyes, “Now that oughta get us some attention.”
But for the next decade, nothing much happened in Fort Myers. Civic improvements were minimal. An oil-burning street lamp was rigged up on First Street; a two-room school house was knocked together.
On a brisk February morning in 1892, a 50-year-old tourist from Cleveland, Ohio, slopped in his bedroom slippers down the breezeway of the Tarpon House, his housecoat and the ends of its untied belt flapping behind him. He had a cable to get off to John Rockefeller in New York before he and his wife and son made their sight-seeing excursion upriver to Fort Myers.
Ambrose McGregor, one of the major stockholders in Standard Oil, with an estimated worth of $16 million dollars, would see past its rough exterior the extraordinary potential of the young town. Advised to bring his ailing son, Bradford, to a warm climate in winter, the McGregors purchased the Edison’s guest house for a winter residence and proceeded over the next years to lubricate the economy of sleepy Fort Myers with $150,000-worth of land purchases and to finance, in 1897, the construction of the first brick building in town.
Like Edison and McGregor, jovial New York City department store tycoon, Hugh O’Neill discovered Fort Myers, in 1893, while on a fishing vacation at the Tarpon House. Shrewdly assessing the town’s advantages, he decided that with a top-notch hotel, Fort Myers could become the leading winter resort in southwest Florida. When he announced to his friends in Fort Myers his plans to build one, glasses clinked and cheers rang out into the street.
O’Neill put Fort Myers on the map as a tourist destination. When his ultra-modern Fort Myers Hotel (later renamed the “Royal Palm Hotel”) opened in 1898, he hired a publicity agent to write up the fishing exploits and social activities of the hotel’s upper-crust guests for distribution to every major newspaper in the U.S. Many of these guests would build winter homes here and return to help build a city. One of them was Montana cattleman John T. Murphy, who built the Murphy-Burroughs home and helped found the First National Bank of Fort Myers.
LAYING TRACK INTO THE 20TH CENTURY
In 1904, Fort Myers was fully roused from its 19th century somnolence when the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad laid track into town, linking Fort Myers, with the solid clink of iron couplers, to the world.
New industry mushroomed. Wood frame buildings came crashing down and stone masons raised new ones, like the massive Bradford Hotel (1905), financed by Ambrose McGregor’s widow, Tootie. Streets were graded and shelled, making the town’s first sight (1904) of an automobile brief, as the machine flashed down First Street at a breathtaking 18 miles an hour.
A RISING TIDE
In the decade preceding WWI, Fort Myers experienced an exceedingly high tide of good fortune.
Tootie McGregor of Ohio returned to urge and, in large part, to finance the construction of Fort Myers’ first hard-surfaced road, McGregor Boulevard, which laid the infrastructure for the expansion of Fort Myers in the building boom of the 1920s.
Peter Tonnelier, drug store magnate from Michigan, discovered Fort Myers when he, like Walt McDougall and T. A. Edison, tacked upriver out of stormy weather. He stayed to become the second largest property owner and builder in Lee County. Buying up town sites at sky-high prices, he appreciated real estate values, pulled down the wood frame buildings on west First Street and raised hotels and mercantiles of enduring stone. He created the Patio de Leon court, finishing the buildings with fanciful, Mediterranean Revival detail.
John Morgan Dean, furniture mogul of Rhode Island, came to hunt and stayed to form land development, construction, citrus and packing companies that would fuel the economic and residential expansion of Fort Myers. He created Dean Park, the first subdivision ever developed in Fort Myers, and built the Morgan Hotel downtown, laying out the street that now, with the building (the Dean), bears his name.
And in 1925, Sydney Davis, a Virginian, stepped off the ACL train at its new station on Jackson Street. Offered a position in the Lee County Bank as assistant cashier, he stayed to amass, through banking, investment and men’s haberdashery, the fortune that his widow, Berne, would give back in massive contributions to the city’s horticultural and cultural advancement, including the $1 million restoration of the historic federal building downtown, transforming this Neoclassic Revival masterpiece into the Sydney & Berne Davis Art Center.
NOW ARRIVING FROM—AT GATE—
In only 150 years, Fort Myers has grown from a frontier homestead of 4 adults to an international tourist destination. The builders of the city have arrived stepping out of covered wagons and off sail and steam boats, and they have stepped into the sun, suitcase in hand, out of railway terminals. And they are still coming, wheeling in SUVs off the exits of interstates, or with the silken sqreak of wheels and in the roar of over 200 feet of shimmering fuselage, streaking down the runways of RSW International Airport, one of the top 50 U.S. airports for passenger traffic.
George Shultz would be tickled pink.