Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2016-01-07.
Long before the Gasparilla Island Lighthouse was established in 1890 to mark the entrance to Charlotte Harbor, the legendary buccaneer José Gaspar was said to have plied the waters of the eastern Gulf of Mexico looking for ships to plunder.
Legend states that Gaspar, who had the nickname Gasparilla, used Gasparilla Island as his home base, which is how the island received its name. Several of the other nearby islands were also said to have been named by Gaspar or his crew.
Captiva Island is where Gaspar allegedly held kidnapped women, or "captives." These would would serve as concubines, wives of his pirate crew, or were being held for ransom. Sanibel Island is said to be named by Roderigo Lopez, Gaspar's first mate, after his lover whom he left back in Spain.
Although the names of the islands around Charlotte Harbor seem to fit, there is no concrete proof that José Gaspar ever existed, let alone plied and plundered the waters of Florida's Gulf Coast. A search of trial records of the United States Navy shows that there was very little piracy on Florida's west coast because there were very few settlements in the area, thus very few vessels to capture.
That changed in 1885 when phosphate rock was discovered along the banks of the Peace River, north of Charlotte Harbor. Phosphate was a valuable mineral for use in fertilizers and was in high demand worldwide. For years, the phosphate was barged down the river and through Charlotte Harbor to Port Boca Grande on the southern tip of Gasparilla Island.
During the age of industrialization, as rail lines were being run throughout the nation, cities and towns were being connected. In Florida, Charlotte Harbor was to be the southern terminus of the Florida Southern Railroad, specifically the town of Punta Gorda. After construction, the first train rumbled into the station on July 24, 1886.
After rail lines were run to Punta Gorda, there were plans that a fleet of steamships would connect Florida to ports in Cuba and the Caribbean. In preparation for the increase of vessel traffic in the harbor, in October 1888, Congress passed an appropriation of $35,000 for "a light or lights and other aids to guide into Charlotte Harbor, Florida."
In the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for the year 1887, a recommendation was made to establish lights in preparation for the steamers:
Charlotte Harbor - On the south end of Gasparilla Island, entrance to Charlotte Harbor, west coast of Florida - Punta Gorda, a town at the head of Charlotte Harbor, is the southern terminus of the Florida Southern Railroad, and the Board is informed that lines of steamers are to be established to connect with this railroad. A light is needed to mark the entrance to this harbor and to enable vessels to avoid the shoals on both sides of the outer portion of Gasparilla and Lacosta Islands. It is recommended that an appropriation of $35,000 be made for this purpose.
Four lighthouses would be erected. The first lighthouse, to mark Boca Grande Pass (the entrance to Charlotte Harbor), would be called the Gasparilla Island Lighthouse. A second light, called the Gasparilla Island Beacon, was to be erected in the Gulf of Mexico and act as a front range light when paired with the Gasparilla Island Lighthouse.
The third lighthouse, erected in the in the middle of the Charlotte Harbor, would be called the Charlotte Harbor Light, and the final light, called the Mangrove Point beacon, would be at the north end of the harbor, marking the port of Punta Gorda.
The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for the year 1891 had a good description of the Gasparilla Island Lighthouse:
694. Gasparilla Island, near the southern end of Gasparilla Island, and northern side of the Boca Grande entrance to Charlotte Harbor, Gulf of Mexico, Florida - This is a new light, the erection of which was completed in September last. It is a one-story, white, frame dwelling, with green blinds and a shingled roof, surmounted by a black lantern displaying a fixed white light of 3½ order, varied by a red flash every twenty seconds, the focal plane of which is 44 feet above mean low water. The structure is on a brown pile foundation. A similar structure, without the lantern, stands about 70 feet distant. It is a dwelling for the assistant keeper. This light was first displayed December 31, 1890.
As the entry says, the lighthouse and the assistant keeper's quarters were identical, with the exception of the lantern. Large wooden storage tanks would be used as cisterns to hold water for use by the keepers. Francis McNulty was the station's first keeper.
Port Boca Grande Lighthouse (Courtesy Coast Guard)
The Gasparilla Island Beacon was a square, pyramidal structure, surmounted by a black lantern, roughly 735 feet southwest of the Gasparilla Island Lighthouse, in the Gulf of Mexico. This light, when paired with the Gasparilla Island Lighthouse formed a range. When the two lights were lined up, a mariner knew they were on the right path to enter the harbor.
Keeper McNulty was supplied with an 18-foot boat and was responsible for both the Gasparilla Island Lighthouse and the Gasparilla Island Beacon.
By 1892, the Gasparilla Island Beacon was washed out by the shifting of the channel. It was taken down and re-established on shore, 175 feet from the high tide mark, and 475 feet from the Gasparilla Island Lighthouse, in a range with the outer buoys.
From the entry in the Annual Report detailing the Charlotte Harbor Lighthouse, it sounds very similar to the Gasparilla Island Lighthouse with the exception that it was in the middle of the bay, had a fifth-order Fresnel lens, and displayed a fixed red light.
The Mangrove Point Beacon was a square, black pyramidal skeleton structure erected in September of 1890. In the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for 1891, it was noted that it was not yet lit and the following year, a vessel collided with the beacon and nearly capsized. It was finally lit on February 20, 1893.
Although a channel 200 feet wide and 12 feet deep was dredged to the docks at Punta Gorda and it was adequately lit, it wasn't deep enough for ocean going vessels, most of which required water depths of at least 20 feet. In the end, Punta Gorda never really emerged as a port and phosphate continued to be barged to the deep water port at Boca Grande.
Over the years, some work was carried out on the Gasparilla Island Lighthouse. On February 15, 1895, an oil house was completed at that station, and in 1898, a new six-foot-wide by 80 feet long wharf was built in the Gulf of Mexico between the lighthouse and the assistant keeper's dwelling. At its end was a T-head, 15 feet wide by 30 feet long. Wooden plank walks were built from the wharf to each dwelling and the oil house.
The following year, additional work was performed on the wharf. An addition was added to extend it out to deeper water, the boat davits were repaired and a slip was constructed, allowing the keepers to take the boat out of the water.
By the early 1900s, planning was underway to run a rail line to Gasparilla Island as it was deemed more economical to ship the phosphate via rail. Construction of the new rail line began in 1905 and within two years, the railroad terminus and a 1,000-foot-long pier was built at the southern tip of the island near the Gasparilla Island Lighthouse.
Once at the wharf, the phosphate-laden trains were offloaded directly onto ocean-going freighters. This modernized what was a largely manual process, leading to an increase in traffic at the port over the years, which necessitated better lighting.
In 1927, a little more than a mile north of the Gasparilla Island Lighthouse, a new steel, skeletal, lighthouse was erected. Although it wouldn't be lit until 1932, a new range pair called the Boca Grande Range Lights were set up to guide vessels into Boca Grande Pass, the deepest natural port in Florida.
Over time, modernization happened at the lighthouse as well. The station was changed over from an oil-wick lamp to a more efficient incandescent oil vapor lamp in 1915 and the station received a sanitary plumbing system and a new concrete wharf in 1921.
The Gasparilla Island Lighthouse was automated in 1956. It was around this same time that erosion had started attacking the island. By 1960, the wharf erected by the Lighthouse Service was deemed a "hazard" to shipping and torn down.
In 1966, it was determined that the lighthouse was no longer needed and deactivated, leaving the Boca Grande Range Lights to handle safe passage into Charlotte Harbor. The Coast Guard removed the lighting apparatus and turned the station over to the General Services Administration. By 1968, the Coast Guard had essentially abandoned the 1890 lighthouse, leaving it to fall into disrepair.
By the late 1960s, the lighthouse was standing in the Gulf of Mexico. A decade of severe beach erosion had exposed the screw-piles that supported the building and caused the structure to lean seaward.
In 1972, the Coast Guard transferred the lighthouse and the surrounding 13 acres of land to Lee County. That same year, after watching the lighthouse deteriorate for years, local businesses and residents decided to step up and take action.
Initially, two residents convinced the county to sell a small parcel of land and use the resulting proceeds to straighten the lighthouse. Then, to counter the beach erosion, Florida Power and Light, which owned the oil terminal adjacent to the tower, dredged the basin of its dock, placing 35,000 cubic yards of sand around the lighthouse. Additionally, Florida Power and Lighthouse erected two rock jetties to hold the sand in place.
On February 28, 1980, the lighthouse was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Erosion continued to plague the structure, and in 1982, Florida Power and Light stepped up again to construct an additional 300-foot rock jetty and installed Longard tubes, which were designed to trap and hold the sand in place.
After successfully saving the historic structure, several groups that call the island home came together in 1985 to start restoring the dilapidated station. Within a year, the nearly $85,000 restoration was completed.
During the restoration, the tower was outfitted with a 377-mm "barrel" lens and on November 21, 1986, the Coast Guard re-commissioned the lighthouse as an official aid to navigation. When it was placed back into service, a clerical error by a Coast Guard clerk led to the lighthouse being reinstated as the Port Boca Grande Lighthouse instead of its original name, the Gasparilla Island Lighthouse.
In 1988, the lighthouse and surround acreage was transferred from Lee County to the State of Florida and become the Gasparilla Island State Park. A year later, the Barrier Island Parks Society (BIPS) was founded with the goal of turning the 1890 Port Boca Grande (formerly the Gasparilla Island) Lighthouse into a museum displaying the history of Charlotte Harbor. By 1999, the goal had come to fruition.
Today, the Barrier Island Parks Society is currently trying to license the 1927 Gasparilla Island Lighthouse, which is one mile north of the 1890 Port Boca Grande Lighthouse.
The confusion in the names stems from 2003, when the front range light of the Boca Grande range lights was discontinued. The Coast Guard couldn't leave the name of the 1927 skeletal tower as the Boca Grande Rear Range Lighthouse as it would have caused confusion.
As the original 1890 lighthouse was "inadvertently" renamed to the Port Boca Grande Lighthouse in 1986 when it was reinstated as an aid to navigation, the Coast Guard chose to use the Gasparilla Island Lighthouse name for the 1927 Boca Grande Rear Range Lighthouse, which will forever cause confusion when researching the two lighthouses.
To summarize the naming issue, the 1890 lighthouse was originally named the Gasparilla Island Lighthouse from 1890 to 1986. In 1986, it was renamed to the Port Boca Grande Lighthouse, which it is still called today.
The 1927 skeletal tower was originally named the Boca Grande Rear Range Lighthouse since 1932, the date it was activated, until 2003. In 2003, it was renamed as the Gasparilla Island Lighthouse, which it is still called today.
Directions: The lighthouse is in Gasparilla Island State Park, on Gasparilla Island. From I-75, exit at North Toledo Blade Blvd. From there, head south to Route 776. Now follow Route 776 west to where it eventually turns into Route 771 and heads onto Gasparilla Island. Once on the island, the lighthouse stands alongside Gulf Blvd between Wheeler Road and Seabreeze Ct. There was a $6.00 toll to get onto the island, and then a small fee for the lighthouse.
Access: The lighthouse is owned by the State of Florida and managed by the Barrier Island Parks Society. Grounds open. The lighthouse is operated as a museum and open during museum hours.View more Port Boca Grande (Gasparilla Island) Lighthouse pictures