Phosphate and Boca Grande’s History
Tales of Island Life: February 2023
What is phosphate? Phosphate is a product of fossilized animal bones predominately from the accumulation, over millions of years, of the disintegrated remains of animal organisms that lived in the sea that once covered much of Florida. In the mid-1800’s, it was proven that phosphate greatly enhanced the productivity of farmland so its discovery in 1881 in the lower Peace River led to competition to form companies to own the area and mine the phosphate. By 1902, the American Agricultural Chemical Company (AACCo), a conglomerate of the country’s leading fertilizer companies, completed the buyout of the Peace River Phosphate Mining Company and became the leading producer in the region.
The phosphate was mined out of the river bed, initially with picks and shovels then later with suction dredges. The phosphate was then dried and loaded on barges which were transported down the Peace River to Charlotte Harbor. There laborers transferred the phosphate by hand from the barges to ocean going ships anchored in the deep water just inside Boca Grande Pass. The process worked but was slow and labor intensive.
Because of the risk of contagious diseases like Yellow Fever that might be carried on ships, the state appointed a doctor to man the quarantine station just north of the Boca Grande lighthouse which had marked the entrance to the Pass since 1890. The building was subsequently moved and exists today as a private residence. About the same time, a pilot station was built to house the harbor pilots. The pilots traveled about 5 miles into the Gulf, met the incoming ships and guided them safely to their anchorages. Once loaded the heavy ships moved back through the Pass – the deepest natural harbor in Florida – and into the Gulf.
The AACCo began pursuing a plan to build a railroad from the central Florida phosphate mine the Boca Grande Pass. In 1905, a company official, an engineer from the U.S. Engineering Company and a work force of laborers arrived on the Island. Starting at the south end of the Island, the railroad would run 95 miles to the Polk County mines. Its construction would include the trestle across Charlotte Harbor to the mainland. It would also foster the building of Port Boca Grande, the town of Boca Grande and Gasparilla Village at the north end of the Island.
Like Henry Flagler on the east coast of Florida and Henry Plant in Tampa, Peter Bradley of the AACCo built a grand hotel, the Gasparilla Inn, as a destination for the visitors the trains could now bring. At the port, the company built an electric power station and one of the most modern loading elevators in the country to transfer phosphate from railroad cars to the ships. By 1910 a post office had been established at the little village of Gasparilla at the north end of the island. Later the railroad built two ice houses and 16 homes to be rented to fishing families.
In 1907, Bradley and James M Gifford, a lawyer with the AACCo’s firm, reviewed a Boca Grande town plat that had been filed by Alfred M Gilchrist in 1897. The streets marked on the plat had not been laid out. No lots had been sold. No houses had been built. Gifford and Bradley became the first directors of the Boca Grande Land Company. They purchased all of the land north of First Street from Gilchrist and his partner, John P Wall, a Tampa lawyer, for $100,000. They filed a new plat showing a wide street called Gulf Boulevard directly on the Gulf and to the west of the platted beachfront lots. And so the real estate business was established on the Island.
One can speculate what the history of the Island might have been but it is doubtful that it would have been the same without phosphate.