Gasparilla – The Historic Fishing Village
Tales of Island Life: November 2023
One hundred years ago, the island where we now live had three distinct areas. At the southern end was Port Boca Grande or South Dock where the lighthouse and state park exist today; at the center of the island the town of Boca Grande; and at the northern end of the island the Peacon fish camp and the village of Gasparilla at what is today Peacon’s Cove street and Uncle Henry’s Marina/Boca Grande Club Marina Village.
There were no roads as we know them now between these areas. Transportation would have been by boat or foot and later by train as the Charlotte Harbor and Northern Railroad which carried phosphate to the Port and passengers to the town also carried local residents from one area to another.
Both the Port area and the town of Boca Grande still exist in their present day configurations, but the northern villages have disappeared. What were they like?
As early as 1879 George Goode, an employee of the U.S. Commission of Fish and Fisheries reports in his survey the existence of a Gasparilla Island fishery under the supervision of Captain “Beacon” (a misprint of Peacon) which produced 500,000 pounds of salted mullet and 44,000 pounds of dried mullet roe. Salting was the preservation method of the time. Peacon’s fish ranch was described as having “buildings of a permanent character.” The Peacon ranch was managed by Captain Peacon and his brothers and employed 30 fishermen known as Conchs because they came from Key West.
In the late nineteenth century, the nature of the fishing business changed when an ice factory was built at Punta Gorda and the Florida Southern Railway, part of the Plant rail system, was extended to the Punta Gorda dock area. Ice houses with adjoining bunkhouses for fisherman were built on stilts throughout Charlotte Harbor and were serviced by “run boats” from Punta Gorda. The result was the demise of the salted fish camps and the closing of the Peacon fish camp in about 1916.
As the Peacon fish camp was losing it previous prominence, some of its fishermen moved to a small harbor just north of the camp, joining the cluster of camps and dwellings that were already there. In 1907 the CH&N had completed the railroad line between Port Boca Grande and Arcadia. In 1908 Gus Cole, a commercial fisherman, his wife and daughter built a home on Cole Island where Boca Grande North now stands. The Jones Fishery moved from Placida to the small village of Gasparilla and in 1910 a post office was established. The train now stopped at the north end of the island to service the village of Gasparilla. The CH&N picked up iced fish for distribution to mainland locations and the village of Gasparilla became another potential customer for the goods it transported to the island. In 1914, the railroad built two ice houses just north of the post office. In 1916, it added 16 homes to be rented to fishing families.
In 1919, the Cole family moved to Gasparilla from Cole Island, purchasing the IGA general store from the estate of its previous proprietor, O.J. Vickers. Cole became the post master of the Gasparilla Post Office in 1920 and continued in that capacity for 25 years.
The Gasparilla village flourished with an eventual population of 60 inhabitants. In addition to the ice houses, there were many docks, racks for drying nets and a great variety of boats. There was a two-room schoolhouse which doubled as a church, the general store/post office, a railway stop and a cemetery located south of the village.
Until 1945, in the words of Anthony Arnold, a Vice President of the American Agriculture Chemical Company, “The first view of Gasparilla Island for those going down by train as they crossed the long trestle, was the fishing boats in the little harbor of Gasparilla and the nets drying on frames, stretched over the shallow water along the shore, with pelicans soaring above, a picturesque sight.”
At the end of 1945, the Seaboard Airline Railroad (successor to the CH&N) sold its Gasparilla Village houses and land to Sunset Realty ending the fishing life in this village. However, many of the families who lived there continue to live on the island or in nearby off-island locales.