Gasparilla Island’s first inhabitants were the Calusa Indians. They were living on nearby Useppa Island by 800 or 900 AD. Charlotte Harbor was the center of the Calusa Empire, which numbered thousands of people and hundreds of fishing villages. Nine aboriginal sites have been identified on Gasparilla Island and more than 200 others have been found on nearby islands. The sites are identified by shell mounds which also contain pottery shards, fish hooks, and arrowheads. Some of the mounds in the area are 20 feet or more high.
The Calusa were a hunting and fishing people who perfected the art of maritime living in harmony with the environment. Since the Calusa had no written language, the only record we have of their lifestyle comes from the oral history of the Seminoles, written accounts of Spanish explorers, and from the archaeological record.
Just like the natives, the early settlers came to Gasparilla Island to fish. The fishermen of the late 1800s, many of them Spanish or Cuban, caught huge catches of mullet and other fish and salted them down for shipment to Havana and other markets. As time wore on, and Boca Grande became known as the Mecca of sport fishing, particularly Tarpon fishing, many of these same fisherman turned to guiding charters as a secondary, and later, as a primary income. Turn-of-the-century anglers enjoyed the finest Tarpon angling in the world and that continues to this day.
Tarpon tournaments were popular then and continue to be an interesting feature of each season.
In 1885 phosphate rock was discovered on the banks of the Peace River just above Punta Gorda, 20 miles to the east of Gasparilla Island just across Charlotte Harbor. It was this discovery that would turn the south end of Gasparilla Island into a major deepwater port (Boca Grande is one of Florida’s deepest natural inlets) and become responsible for the development of the town of Boca Grande.
At about the time of the introduction of the railroad, wealthy American and British sportsmen began discovering the Charlotte Harbor area for it’s fantastic Tarpon fishing. It was these two discoveries, phosphate rock and tarpon fishing, that would put Boca Grande on the map.
The Charlotte Harbor and Northern Railroad was completed in 1907. In 1929, an automatic transloader was built at Port Boca Grande, the first of it’s kind for phosphate in the United States. For the next 50 years, phosphate would be shipped out of this port without disruption. (By the 1970s phosphate traffic began to dwindle and by 1979, the rail line was abandoned and the phosphate industry came to an end).
In 1987, the railroad donated the unused track to the community and it was converted into an island long bike path and jogging path.
Another key growth development happened along with the railroad. Around 1907, the American Agricultural and Chemical company built a power house at the south end of the island to power Port Boca Grande. It would also provide power to the town of Boca Grande and was a welcome addition to island life that had been very rugged up to that point.
An island institution, The Gasparilla Inn, was completed in time for the 1913 Tarpon season. A few years later, a casino was built near the hotel, and a boathouse was built on Grande Bayou.
Today the Inn, with it’s 18-hole Pete Dye designed golf course and beautiful beach club on the Gulf of Mexico, is an elegant hub of seasonal social activity. It’s reputation for impeccable service is legendary and it is one of the largest employers on the island.
The railroad continued to bring visitors from up and down the eastern seaboard until the Boca Grande causeway opened in 1958. Until that time, people would simply hitch up their Pullman cars in Boston or New York and arrive in style at the Gasparilla Inn, where most of the town would turn out to see who the latest arrivals were.
The community of Boca Grande has grown to be a very special place, and a hidden gem as Florida’s coastline became developed. Local residents are active in conservation issues and work hard to keep the island the small peaceful community that it has always been.
While the area has a thriving sport fishing industry, very little of the commercial fishing that supported the town for so long exists today. Boca Grande has become a very upscale second home and quiet resort community.
The town center has grown, but still reflects a small town community of yesterday. A single grocery store, a post office, gift shops, retail shops and boutiques along with several great restaurants make up the majority of businesses today. The pace of island life is friendly and relaxed. Most people walk, bike or tour the island on golf carts and consider Boca Grande more of a village than a town.
Today on the streets of Boca Grande you could pass a waiter, a fishing guide, corporate CEO, movie star or even the President of the U.S. on any given day.
Boca Grande continues to be the sort of community that delights in the casual elegance of the surroundings, and the relaxation and privacy that people seek.