Video: Untold Stories--Fort Myers Beach
The Town of Fort Myers Beach recently celebrated its sixteenth birthday, but the history of Estero Island spans back over 2,000 years when the Calusa Indians constructed shell mounds along the bayside of our island. As the ruling chiefdom in south Florida, the Calusa resisted Spanish colonization including attempts by the conquistador Ponce de León in 1513 and 1521 (during the latter encounter he was mortally wounded by the Calusa). The Calusa met their demise almost 150 years later due to increasing hostilities, disease, and political and economic upheaval.
From the late seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth century the political landscape of southwest Florida was dynamic as the territory changed hands between British and Spanish control. Between times of turmoil, Cuban fishermen established small seasonal fishing villages known as Ranchos throughout southwest Florida, including Estero Island. By the mid to late 1700s, active trade was established between the Ranchos, Cuba, and Creek Indians who displaced the remaining Calusa. As Florida eventually became the 27th state in 1845, many of these families stayed and blended with the new American population.
The first American settlements emerged on Fort Myers Beach following the Homestead Act of 1862. Robert Gilbert received a homestead grant in 1895 including the Calusa shell mound at the end of Connecticut Street (Mound House), the highest point on Fort Myers Beach. By 1911, William Case resided on this same property and developed the first subdivision and cottage rental industry on the island. By 1914, all the island property was homesteaded with little industry beyond fishing, gardening, a sawmill operated by the Koreshan Unity (a communal society based on the mainland in Estero), and a hotel.
Development on Estero Island, then named Crescent Beach, was slow until the 1920s when Florida gained national attention as a vacation destination. By 1921 a toll bridge was opened connecting the beach to the mainland, followed closely by the construction of two casinos, hotels, a pier and the island’s first canal. A Fort Myers Press headline states “Crescent Beach Center of Most Intense Development in Florida Today” (October 1921). The land boom was short lived as the hurricanes of 1921 and 1926 challenged idyllic notions of southwest Florida’s climate and slowed further development. With a stagnated construction market, Florida fell into a quiet depression although small businesses and restaurants continued to crop up on Crescent Beach as well as new subdivisions and a school.
The 1950s brought modernization and tourist development to Fort Myers Beach with new hotels including the Rancho del Mar with the first swimming pool and the electrification of the swing bridge to facilitate traffic. The discovery of “pink gold” off shore sparked not only the shrimping industry but the ancillary businesses to support it as the population of our island increased by fifty percent from 1940 to 1950. Numerous civic organizations, churches, local newspapers, weather and US Coast Guard stations, the Beach Library and the annual Shrimp Festival were all initiated or expanded during this second land boom.
Present Day Fort Myers Beach
The development of Fort Myers Beach has continued to the present day where year round and seasonal residents coexist with a vibrant business community oriented to the steady stream of island visitors. As early as 1935 the residents of Fort Myers Beach began discussing incorporation. However, Lee County’s approval of high rise development on Estero Island brought incorporation efforts to a successful passage. In 1995 a referendum passed to incorporate Estero Island as a means to engage citizens of the island in the preservation of their own small town character. After legislation was enacted by the State of Florida, on December 31, 1995 the Town of Fort Myers Beach was born.