Gasparilla Island is close to 3500 years old. The Calusa tribes, the natives of the island, began using the island’s resources about 2000 years ago. These Native Americans hunted, fished, collected shells and cared for the land.
When the Spanish explorers came to Florida in the 1500s, the Calusa people began to vanish from the land.
When the Spanish fisherman came to Gasparilla in the 1600s, they discovered the real treasure of Charlotte Harbor, the rich fishing grounds. Cuban/Indian “fish ranches” were set up by the Spanish to harvest fish to sell to markets in Cuba.
In the 1870s a permanent fish camp called Peacon’s Fish Ranch was set up at the north end of the island. This was the first pioneer settlement on the island.
The Red Gill Fish House was was built in 1909 and in 1926 became Whidden’s Seafood and Market. Whidden’s is still in business and one of the island’s most historic monuments.
Sport fishing has been a part of Gasparilla Island since the 1880s. Today many local fishing guides can trace their ancestry to the commercial pioneer fishing families in the area.
The Boca Grande Pass is still world renowned for its Tarpon Fishing.
The phosphate business began in Gasparilla Island in the 1800s. In 1890 the Boca Grande Lighthouse was constructed to be a valuable aid for the ships entering Charlotte Harbor.
The naturally deep water in the Boca Grande Pass made it easy to ship heavy commodities in large vessels. It was the deepest harbor in Florida.
In 1905 an AACCo company official and a workforce of laborers landed on the island and began the construction of the railroad which enabled the transport of phosphate.
From 1905-1912 railroad tycoons began to build passenger trains to bring more people to Gasparilla Island. Grand hotels and town designs were erected. Peter Bradley brought both the railroad and the Gasparilla Inn to the island.
Louis du Pont Crowninshield, an important philanthropist for Boca Grande helped establish the community with the opening of the island’s Mediterranean style school and the Boca Grande Health Clinic in 1949.
In 1958 a bridge to connect Gasparilla Island to the mainland was built. For the first time, residents were able to drive off the island. Late in 1979 the railroad discontinued transporting phosphate to Port Boca Grande.
The tide began to change in 1979 and growth accelerated. Density and heigh restrictions on development were put into place by Lee County, then by an act of the State Legislature in a bill called The Gasparilla Island Act. This was necessitated because the island is divided into two counties, Lee and Charlotte. These protections were promoted by a very proactive civic association and supported by the island.
People from different parts of the country, including Florida began to build second homes. The school was restored through islanders and Lee County. It was turned into the Community Center and a charter school providing education for kindergarten through the fifth grade. The lighthouse was also restored through local effort and a bike path was made for islanders to enjoy.