Robert and the Rest of the Johnsons
Tales of Island Life: February 2024
Robert Johnson, the original historian of the Boca Grande Historical Society, died in 2023. He had been an important part of the Historical Society since its beginning, but Robert’s interest in island history goes back even further because his family, like the Gaines, Padilla/Darnas, the Whiddens, the Bells, the Knights, the Colemans, the Coles, the Lowes, the Futchs, the Joiners, the Bylaskas, the Polks, the Fugates and others is a major part of that history.
Captain I.W. (Iredell) Johnson and his brother Captain W.H. Johnson first arrived on Boca Grande in the 1880’s. Early in that decade, the mineral phosphate had been discovered in the Peace River above Punta Gorda. Originally the ore was carried by barges and steam tugs to the lower part of Charlotte Harbor where it could be loaded on ocean going vessels. Safe transport for these large vessels required pilots with the knowledge and skill to navigate safely across the outer bar three miles outside the Pass and up into the Harbor where they met the barges.
The Johnson brothers had gained piloting experience on Pamlico Sound in North Carolina and in Florida. Capt. W. H. was manager of the Blocksom and Lewis Fish Company for whom he sailed fishing vessels from Cedar Key to Punta Gorda. Iredell captained the mail and passenger vessel that ran from Punta Gorda to Ft. Myers before there was a train. In 1888 they formed the Boca Grande Pilots Association and they along with Capt. Peter Nelsen began to pilot the ships coming to Charlotte Harbor to load phosphate.
Since Capt. Nelsen retired in 1906, all of the Boca Grande pilots have been Johnsons. This was not unusual as in many ports, fathers taught sons their knowledge from an early age. Capt. W.H. continued as a pilot until 1926 and Iredell until 1933. They taught their sons, Capt. Kingsmore Johnson and Capt. Clement W. Johnson the trade and they taught their sons, Capt. Carey Johnson and Capt. Kingsmore Johnson Jr. and they taught their sons, Capt. Robert Johnson and Capt. Johnny K. Johnson.
As the port ceased to exist with the demise of phosphate shipping and more recently the removal of the Florida Power and Light fuel storage terminal, so did the need for pilots. Capt. Johnny Johnson was the last of the Johnson family to pilot the great ships into Boca Grande, and he then continued to pilot ships in Key West until his retirement in 2012. He and his wife Shirley continue to live on the island. Captain Robert Johnson left Port Boca Grande Pilot Association in 1984 and piloted for a number of years in Key West although he remained licensed for Boca Grande as well. Robert and his wife Roberta Presley Johnson retired to Boca Grande and lived here until their deaths.
It also seems pertinent to note that the Johnsons have been continually involved with the community beyond the port. Capt. Carey Johnson helped originate the Gasparilla Island Water Association and was its first chairman. He also contributed significantly to documenting the island’s history with his book, Boca Grande: The Early Days – Memoirs of an Island Son. Capt. Kingsmore Johnson served on the Boca Grande Clinic Board, was the first man to bring a car to the island and owned one of three airplanes in Boca Grande. Captain Robert Johnson continued to participate in Historical Society activities and was often seen at the organization’s History Byte presentations. The 2024 History Bytes program is dedicated to the memory of Captain Robert Johnson.