At last we reach the Florida West Coast, a few miles along the Tamiami Trail northwesterly from Everglades. The little town of Naples, an ancient winter haven for a few quiet northern people, which rather resisted the boom-time efforts to modernize it, lies on the Gulf at about the southwest corner of the 4,000,000 acres of ownerless land which Hamilton Disston, the Philadelphia saw maker, bought from the state of Florida in 1880 for twenty-five cents an acre. The million dollars which Mr. Disston paid the state took Florida out of the financial slough of despond in which it had been floundering since the end of the Civil War, and started it on the road to its present prosperity. For Mr. Disston and his associates it was far from a wild speculation. It was sold in blocks of fifty thousand to half a million acres, at from 50 cents to $1 an acre, to groups and syndicates in Europe and America, who in turn colonized and sub-divided it, and to ranchers, some of whom or their heirs still hold enormous tracts of the prairie land of the Kissimmee Valley and the flat plains of the Arcadia country lying north and west of the Everglades swamps.
No railroad leads to Naples now. The Seaboard Airline extended its tracks to the little town in 1927, tore them up in 1937. The southernmost rail-head on the West Coast is Fort Myers, the charming little city where Thomas A. Edison had his winter home and where his friend Henry Ford used to come after New Year’s to be neighbor to his mentor and personal hero, the Wizard of Menlo Park. Fronting on the Caloosahatchee River, western terminus of the new cross-state canal, Fort Myers is a rendezvous for yachtsmen and for fishermen. In winter its population of fishing sportsmen exceeds its permanent population of commercial fishermen. Its fertile and prosperous back country produces the usual Florida varieties of commercial truck crops and a large volume of excellent oranges and grapefruit. One of the most beautiful thoroughfares in America is the principal street in Fort Myers, along which every traveler northward or southward on the Tamiami Trail passes between two rows of towering royal palms, extending for a mile or more along the broad avenue.
The Caloosahatchee River empties into a sound protected from the Gulf by a series of long, narrow keys, on which are located some of the most famous of Florida’s fishing resorts. Punta Rassa, Pine Island, Boca Grande, Gasparilla and Sanibel are names familiar to sportsmen all over the country. These keys also guard the mouth of Charlotte Harbor, the wide bay into which the Peace River drains the run-off of the west slope of Florida’s central ridge. Twenty-four miles north of Fort Myers we pass through the ancient fishing village of Punta Gorda, where a magnificent new hotel provides accommodations for winter visitors who prefer their fishing and their water sports in comparatively calm and unexciting surroundings.
Fifty miles from Punta Gorda northward the Tamiami Trail brings us to Venice, one of the most attractive small communities in Florida. Venice is the only developed spot on the Florida mainland which fronts directly on the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, with no outlying keys or islands. It has the only bathing beach, therefore, which one does not have to cross a bridge to reach from the adjacent town.
Venice had its inception in the imagination of Dr. Fred H. Albee, world-famous orthopedic surgeon of New York. Shortly after the World War, Dr. Albee came to Venice with the idea in mind of building in the mild West Coast climate a modern and completely equipped hospital in which the natural advantages of longer hours of sunshine and year-’round outdoor recreation facilities would be joined with the skill of medical science in the treatment of disease. Acquiring the large tract of shore front acreage upon which Venice is now located, Dr. Albee called in the late John Nolan, famed city planner and planning engineer of the New York Port Authority, who laid out an ideal city. His comprehensive plans were followed by the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers when that organization acquired the site from Dr. Albee, and the actual building of the city began.
The collapse of the Florida land boom halted the full realization of the Brotherhood’s dreams for Venice, and it fell to Dr. Albee to carry on from where the Engineers left off. Much of the city, with its modern apartments, hotels and homes in a prevailing Spanish-Mediterranean architecture had already been built according to the plans drawn by Mr. Nolan, at a cost of some $30,000,000, before the Brotherhood began the liquidation of its holdings. A number of New York men prominent in the nation’s affairs became interested in Venice in 1933, and were convinced of its future. Among them were Senator Royal S. Copeland, the late F. Kingsbury Curtis, New York attorney, and Anthony Cuculo, contracting builder. These men acquired considerable holdings in Venice, and began their development.
In this year also, Dr. Albee opened the Florida Medical Center as a general hospital, acquiring the largest hotel building adjacent to the Gulf, and remodeling it according to mod ern hospital standards. Staffed by surgeons and physicians from several of the nation’s leading hospitals and clinics, the Florida Medical Center today regularly draws patients from every state in the union and many foreign countries, and has won recognition as one of the ranking institutions of the country. Dr. Albee, as medical director, has continued active as its head since its founding.
Shortly after the opening of the hospital, the Kentucky Military Institute chose Venice as its winter headquarters, and to a large plant consisting of several modern buildings in the prevailing architecture near the center of the city, the school transports its entire student body and faculty for a three months term each year. One of the oldest private military schools in the country, the institute has an enrollment of some 400 cadets, who are joined in residence at Venice by many of the parents and friends of the faculty.
Since the opening of the Florida Medical Center, and the increasing yearly recognition of Venice as an important health center, the history of the city has been one of steady absorption and placing into use of buildings and homes abandoned with the ending of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers’ activity, and today the city is recognized as a thriving and growing community, with new homes and enterprises steadily being added, and civic improvements being made.
With a winter population of 1,700, the majority of the residents own their own homes, and a number of private estates here are included in the show-places of the West Coast, among them being the homes of Dr. Albee on the Nokomis bay-shore and the shore-front home of Senator Copeland. Located in the center of the West Coast’s famed fishing grounds, Venice is known for its tarpon fishing, and is recognized for its annual Venice-Nokomis Tarpon Derby, which draws the sportsmen of the country each summer; and is credited with having held the first of such competitive fishing events in Florida, with yearly awards going to winning anglers. In 1937, the Federal government spent $200,000 on waterway improvements at Venice inlet. The pass to the Gulf from the bays and numerous inlets, and from the docks at Nokomis, has been jettied and dredged to a maximum depth of nine feet at mean low water, giving Venice the only jetty-protected waterway on the mainland Gulf Coast. The jetties extended 1,200 feet from the original shoreline and are built of huge steel cylinders, concrete capped and interlocked by steel plate in a new design used for the first time in Florida and for the second time in the country by the government.
North from Venice a matter of twenty miles we come to Sarasota, steadily increasing in popularity as a winter and summer vacation resort and as a place of year-’round resi dence. Sarasota is the art center of Florida, if not of the whole South, as well as the financial and commercial metropolis of a wide area extending from the Gulf many miles back through rich agricultural territory.
First settled by a group of young Scotsmen who were sent out from their native land to colonize and develop a large tract which a British syndicate had bought from the Disston asso ciates, Sarasota has long claimed the honor of being the place where the first golf course in America was laid out, by J. Hamilton Gillespie, son of Sir John Gillespie, the head of the syndicate.
Sarasota’s fame is widespread largely by reason of the enthusiastic efforts of two persons to make it a great winter resort and art center. One of these was the late Mrs. Bertha Honore Palmer, widow of Potter Palmer of Chicago, and the other was the late John Ringling, proprietor of the Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus. The Potter Palmer estate early purchased some hundreds of thousands of acres from the Disston associates and Mrs. Palmer, for years the acknowledged leader of Chicago society, conceived the idea of making Sarasota the fashionable winter resort for Chicago people of wealth and social standing. Her vision was of a sort of West Coast Palm Beach. Hand in hand with that ambition went the investment of large slices of the Potter Palmer fortune in the development and improvement of the city and of its rich agricultural back country. The Palmer influence is still strong in civic and financial affairs of Sarasota and Sarasota County; a compilation of a social register of wealthy families who have winter homes in Sarasota would be headed, if not dominated, by names from Chicago’s “Society Blue Book.” The Palmer National Bank is the city’s chief financial institution.
For a city of 10,000 permanent population, which doubles in winter, Sarasota’s business center impresses the visitor by its extent and the signs of surprising commercial activity, even in midsummer. One reason is the wealth of the back country of which Sarasota is the commercial and shipping center. Another is the tendency, increasing yearly, to lengthen the Sarasota tourist season. One factor in this is the annual international tarpon fishing tournament, of which Sarasota is the headquarters, and which is held from May 15 to August 1st, attracting fishermen from all over the United States and many who come from Europe especially to participate in the contest.