A Period of Decline 1958-1979
Historical Overview of Boca Grande
In 1958 a bridge to connect Gasparilla Island to the mainland was built. For the first time, residents were able to drive off island to buy groceries and other necessities. A community that had previously been self-sufficient, now became dependent on the mainland. The economy as well as the population declined. The car ferry went out of business and the passenger train was discontinued. In 1963 the Lee County School Board decided it was more economically feasible to bus the students to the mainland. The Island School which had been the heart of the community was closed.
The African American community was moved out of their homes in the center of the island to make way for development. The same fate caused the extinction of the fishing village located at the north end. The Boca Grande Hotel was purchased by the owner of the Gasparilla Inn and razed, a difficult process for a 200-room brick structure. The train station, which was no longer in operation, was partially destroyed by fire. The lighthouse was decommissioned and abandoned.
In 1958 Florida Power & Light built a berth for ships at the port and a storage facility for incoming oil. The oil was then barged to the power plant in Fort Myers. However, this had little effect on the economic plight of the island. The reason for Boca Grande’s existence, the export of phosphate, continued and even increased in the sixties and early seventies, during this period of time millions of tons of phosphate were shipped worldwide. Late in 1979 the railroad discontinued transporting phosphate to Port Boca Grande because larger amounts of phosphate could be handled more efficiently at modern ports in Tampa and Manatee County. In the late seventies, the Seaboard Coastline Railroad, which became CSX Corporation in 1980, filed a petition with the Interstate Commerce Commission to abandon the rail line and it was granted. Sixty- eight years after the first shipment in 1911, the last ship loaded with phosphate sailed from Port Boca Grande.
The “Beachfronters” continued to arrive in the fall and winter months. The tarpon returned in late spring and summer, but Boca Grande was never to be the same. The diversity and self-sufficiency that made the island unique, and one of the most socially and economically mixed communities of its size in the country, was gone.
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