New England hotelier, Karl Abbott, came to Fort Myers for the first time in December, 1897, with his father, Frank Abbott, the newly appointed manager of the great Royal Palm Hotel. Young Karl’s first glimpse of Fort Myers was from the deck of the stern-wheeler, St. Lucie, as he and his parents steamed up river from Punta Rassa.
“Along the river,” he wrote in his memoir, Open for the Season, “cattle grazed neck deep in floating hyacinths. Snowy egrets frosted the dark green of the jungled mangrove. I saw a great bald eagle atop a giant pine, and laughed as flocks of coots skittered across our bow, or ran across the water, holding up their feathered skirts like frightened girls. Countless thousands of blue-billed ducks whirled and circled in long festoons against the sunset sky.”
As St. Lucie Captain Warner pointed out the home of the inventor, Thomas Edison, “Fort Myers came into view and I fell in love with the town at first sight.”
To a 6-year-old boy from New Hampshire, the town of Fort Myers, with its “clusters of little houses set in the lush green of the giant banyans” and “Silver King Bar and Billiard Hall with a dozen cowponies hitched to the tierack in front,” seemed to possess a storybook quality. Abbott was especially taken with the “merry-go-round in a vacant lot back of Frank Carson’s Livery Stable. “The cowboys,” he said, “were deserting the saloons to ride it.”
Abbott describes the grand opening of the Royal Palm Hotel, and his conversations that winter with Thomas Edison, “a gentle, kindly man with a wonderful smile.” He tells of hunting with “a big Negro named Pink Green. Pink was on the chain gang,” but had been let off to help Mrs. Abbott in her flower garden. Pink also rowed young Abbott 8 or 10 miles down the Caloosahatchee to a rookery island where they shot “curved-bill curlews for the table.”
In a wild country inhabited by “cowboys, ‘gator hunters, and fugitive renegades,” the guests of the Royal Palm lived in splendor and ease, amusing themselves with formal balls and Sunday evening debates, with cards and croquet and afternoon tea. Among their diversions, hunting and fishing were foremost.
On a subsequent visit in 1901, Abbott awoke one morning to find “the old stern-wheel river steamer Gray Eagle” tied up to the dock of the hotel. Mr. Hugh O’Neill, himself, the New York City department store tycoon who built the Royal Palm, had chartered the boat for an fishing and hunting trip upriver.
The Gray Eagle was a 70-foot, flat-bottomed boat with a large deckhouse, wood-burning boilers and “a single stack that belched great clouds of smoke.” As she plodded daily up and down the river, Abbott wrote, “You could see her coming for miles.”
Among O’Neill’s guests on this river excursion were Mr. and Mrs. Edison, Tootie McGregor and the Abbotts. With Captain J. F. Menge at the helm and the Abbott’s boy, Karl, perched in the bow, they headed up the Caloosahatchee.
“Exhilarated beyond measure as each turn of the tortuous river gave new and haunting vistas,” Abbott saw Indian curlew, lady of the lake, blue crane, egret, white ibis and countless thousands of other birds “of marvelous plumage.” He saw alligators that “slithered into the water” as the boat chugged along, passing fields of sugar cane and orange groves “where the dark branches were heavy with gold.” He gazed in awe at the towering cypresses of Fort Denaud as they moved slowly astern, “their great branches extended as if in perpetual prayer, with long strands of Spanish moss hanging from them like vestments.”
Abbott does not, unfortunately, record the conversations of the Edisons and Tootie McGregor, but he does say that as soon as the “comfortable old craft” tied up at the site of old Fort Thompson, “the men took their guns and disappeared over the side into the eerie twilight of the jungle,” and the women took up their fishing rods.
When the men returned from their hunt, “colored cooks” prepared “a dinner to warm the heart—venison, wild turkey, ducks, pigeons, quail snipe, and fish…”
After dinner, Captain Menge and his crew provided an impromptu concert, concluding the evening’s entertainment with a spectacular display of pyrotechnics; they set fire to the Spanish moss hanging from the oak and cypress trees along the riverbank. Sheets of flame, mirrored in the dark river, rolled from tree to tree, eliciting “gasps of admiration” from the guests who watched with awed and fire-bright faces.
The Gray Eagle returned to Fort Myers the next day, her decks proudly displaying the day’s catch of “sixty black bass, several dozen terrapin, fourteen pigeons, fifteen ducks, seven wild turkeys, seventy-five quail, and many jacksnipes, curlews, flintheads, and ibis.”
The Spirit of Enterprise
Karl Abbott was 21 years old the next time he came to Fort Myers. The year was 1913. He was astonished by how much the town had changed. “Gone was the little cow town nestling at the side of the river,” he wrote. “The spirit of enterprise, egged on by a chamber of commerce, was a contrast to the sleepy atmosphere of bygone days.”
Now trains arrived regularly, there was a new hotel called the Bradford [courtesy Tootie McGregor], the Royal Palm had been enlarged [courtesy Tootie McGregor], a swimming pool built beside the hotel casino, and boathouses added to the hotel pier. Now, instead of fishing guides who rowed hotel guests 15 miles to Punta Rassa, rowed them around as they trolled for fish all day, and rowed them back to the hotel at night, “long, sleek motorboats” housed at the hotel dock “whisked sportsmen to the fishing grounds.”
Incredibly, a road from town all the way to Punta Rassa was under construction [courtesy Tootie McGregor] and the riverbank along this road was dotted with “lovely estates.”
“A number of yachts lay in the harbor and life was carefree,” he mused. Carefree, at least, to the “special clientele” at the Royal Palm, for as Abbott noted, the old “gun-fighting spirit” of the frontier was “still there, just under the surface.” He then went on to describe a gunfight between “two wealthy turpentine still operators” on the train station platform in Bartow. Both men were killed.
Fort Myers was in rapid transition at the beginning of the 20th century. Like the cowboys staggering out of the Silver King Saloon to ride painted wooden horses round and round on a merry-to-round, the city was trading its wild and wooly past for a carousel world of commerce, tourism and recreation.
Today, 103 years later, the river is still bright with sailboats, sleek motorboats still whisk sportsmen to their fishing grounds, and snow white birds still float to island rookeries. The “spirit of enterprise,” like carousels whirling round and round with painted horses going up and down, continues unabated, and tourists are still falling in love with the town nestled on the bank of Abbott’s “broad and beautiful Caloosahatchee.”