In 1982, the old Atlantic Coast Line railway station at 2031 Jackson Street in Fort Myers, closed since 1971, was reborn as the Southwest Florida Museum of History.
In towns across the United States, abandoned railway stations often become museums or gift shops or local art galleries. As train depots were necessarily peripheral to the central business districts of town, and are today, therefore, not well situated to attract walk-by tourists, it is often difficult for the non-profits or retailers in these railway stations to sustain themselves.
The SWFL Museum of History has suffered from its location off the beaten footpaths of downtown Fort Myers. Programs showcasing special, traveling exhibits and talks by local historians have been popular with interested, older citizens, but the building housing the museum has steadily deteriorated over the past 40+ years, and this past summer, preparatory to relocation, the museum closed permanently at this site.
Like a quaint little old lady, abandoned in a sea of construction, of barricaded, jack-hammered streets, the old ACL terminal stands bravely, chin lifted, awaiting her fate.
Her Flaming Youth
She sprang to full-blown, jazz-age life in 1924, the year that Fort Myers was poised to join the rollicking, rowdy party known as the Florida real estate boom of the 1920s. We had finally built a bridge across the broad Caloosahatchee to provide access to our city by automobile and the “tin can tourists” were flowing in like water through a sluice. Over the next two years, while real estate agents were hawking land and lot sales like carnival barkers on the streets, ordinary citizens and real estate speculators wheeled and dealed, buying and selling on a spinning wheel of fortune. Fort Myers issued building permits with irresponsible liberality and multi-story office buildings, hotels, apartment houses and tourist courts, homes and subdivisions, new schools and churches, automotive garages and filling stations, ice cream and hot dog concessions burst like seeds from loamy soil. Hotels and rooming houses were packed with tourists, laborers, and eager, new residents. The population doubled, doubled again, doubled again. The city limits were pushed to 8 times their former extent.
The shimmering show gal of the party was the beautiful new ACL railway station on Jackson Street, presented to the city on the evening of February 4, 1924. Over 3000 people attended the ceremony in which the Gulf Coast Special #316 pulled into the new terminal for the first time. As the train advanced slowly in billowing clouds of steam, its whistle shrilling, the Fort Myers Concert Band struck up a rousing Sousa march, its lively fifes, snare drums and clashing cymbals bringing wild cheers from the crowd. Young men and women stood in their open-air roadsters shouting and waving, the girls’ cheeks, snugged by cloche hats, blushing with excitement.
The new ACL station was all the rage of 1920’s architectural fashion. Spanish mission style in contour, she stood proud as a Spanish dancer, her red, pantiled-tile roof like the curve of a woman’s smile, her castanets the clicking wheels of the trains on the clacketing rails of her steel-tipped dancing shoes. In the whirling castanet rhythm of the wheels and the hand-clapping of footsteps on stone, the song of the Flamenco singer rose in whistle-screaming arrivals and in wails of departure. Through the thrumming veins of the ACL, new life flowed into the city.
Middle Age Decline
Inevitably, the Florida boom echoed into silence. The party was over. At the same time, the completion of the Tampa-to-Miami Tamiami Trail initiated a new era in travel.
Nevertheless, in 1926, the ACL’s old nemesis, the Seaboard Air Line Railway system, reared its head and gazed with a steely squint upon the future promise of Fort Myers. The SAL licked its chops. Tourist traffic may have slowed, but it would return. The SAL pounded its own trestle across the river and ran tracks parallel to Palm Avenue into Fort Myers. On January 8, 1927, daily SAL passenger service began with 2 passenger trains, the West Coast Limited and the Orange Blossom Special, arriving and departing daily.
The unforeseen Depression of the ‘30s, however, followed by WWII almost derailed both the Seaboard Air Line and the Atlantic Coast Line railways, and by 1955, the continued dwindling of revenue had forced the SAL to abandon the last of its southwest Florida lines.
In 1967, the determined Seaboard railroad merged with the ACL and the newlyweds returned to Fort Myers as Mr. and Mrs. Seaboard Coast Line. In the face of shrinking revenues, however, the marriage could not survive and in 1971, the SCL sold its track and discontinued all passenger service into Fort Myers.
The last passenger train to depart Fort Myers pulled slowly away from the aged ACL station on Jackson Street without ceremony. The unnoticed and unrecorded moment was historic, for passenger railway service to and from Fort Myers had ended forever.
Rescue and Revival
For the next 11 years, the ACL terminal building remained empty and closed, a fading former beauty ignored and crowded by the urgent needs and business of a growing city. She was not entirely forgotten, however. Unwilling to see her bulldozed, a group of citizens raised $400,000 to fund the conversion of the old lady into a history museum, the city anted up the rest, and in 1982, the Southwest Florida Museum of History opened its doors to the metamorphosis within.
In the high-ceilinged rooms once crowded and noisy with travelers, time was held in suspension. Replicas of dinosaurs and Paleolithic people stood poised in glassy-eyed, arrested motion, and the artifacts of pre- and post-historic south Florida life lay corpse-like under glass. The silence was broken only by an occasional murmuring among the visitors who hovered silently for a moment before each display and then moved quietly on.
The museum board and staff were creative and dedicated to their mission, but over the ensuing decades, revenues could not keep pace with decay. Something had to be done.
In 2015, a brilliant solution was reached. The Imaginarium Science Center and the SWFL Museum of History would partner to create a new and dynamic experience of the past. By merging physically, they would bring into real-time, interactive life the lesson that history is interwoven with and inextricable from the science and technology of every age. One advances within the context of the other.
As if from a crypt, the museum will resurrect as a lively learning center to stir the imagination and inform the minds of children and adults for generations to come.
The merger is a happy new beginning for the SWFMH, but it leaves the old ACL terminal empty once more. The City of Fort Myers is hearing proposals from organizations that are interested in leasing and renovating the building for non-profit use.
And thus, this locally designated historic landmark, the turnstile upon which our history, in perhaps its period of greatest transformation, revolved, waits for rescue. Like a venerable old lady, she awaits in proud silence the recognition and respect she deserves.