Yes, there really was a fort!
The area that is Fort Myers today was originally the home of a fort during the American Indian Wars in the 1830’s. It was used as a military base of operations against the Seminole tribe. Later, the fort was used by Confederate blockade runners during the Civil War.
By the late 19th century, the snowbirds were already flying south from the northern cities during the winter! Some looked at development opportunities in the area and even considered dredging and draining the Everglades.
The fledgling town of Fort Myers was incorporated in 1885 when it had only 349 permanent residents. Unbelievably, it was the second largest incorporated area on the Gulf Coast in Florida during that time. In 1904, the railroad was extended from Punta Gorda, making travel to the area much easier.
Royal Palm Hotel and the Building Boom
In 1896, the owner of New York City’s O’Neill’s department store decided to build a luxury resort hotel on the southern bank of the river, right next to the bridge. This brought tourists by the trainloads and a building boom started. By 1925, 3 million building permits were being issued every year and building supplies were being shipped in by barge because railroad bottlenecks were constant. Even though the hotel is gone, the Royal Palm nickname lives on in many buildings, shopping centers, and areas of town.
The Arcade Theatre
The Arcade Theatre was built in downtown Fort Myers in 1908 as a vaudeville house. Soon, movies became popular and Thomas Edison viewed a film at the Arcade for the first time as it transformed into a movie theater. Today, it is a performing arts hall for the Florida Repertory Theatre.
Fort Myers’ Connection to Rubber
During World War I, Thomas Edison worried about shortages of rubber due to the reliance on foreign supplies. So, he partnered with Harvey Firestone and Henry Ford and built the Edison Botanic Research Corporation. This lab created a great source for rubber in the Goldenrod plant after testing 17,000 plants. The entire project was then turned over to the United States Department of Agriculture.
City of Palms
Thomas Edison had hundreds of royal palm trees planted to line Riverside Avenue (today’s McGregor Boulevard) near his home. These trees are what inspired the city to be called the “City of Palms”.
Famous Residents: Edison and Ford
Did you know that Thomas Edison and Henry Ford were good friends? They were! So much so that they built homes next to each other along the Caloosahatchee River.
Inventor Thomas Alva Edison visited Fort Myers, and decided to stick around. He bought 13 acres on the Caloosahatchee River and built his home, Seminole Lodge, for a winter home that included a laboratory so he could work. when he wasn’t fishing.
In 1916, Henry Ford bought the craftsman-style home next to Edison’s house and named it the Mangoes.
Edison, Ford, and Harvey Firestone were part of the Fort Myers Millionaires Club, and their legacy has been memorialized in the city with statues in Centennial Park. Also, the bridge linking North Fort Myers to downtown is named for Edison, and there are restaurants named for both Firestone and Ford in town.
Today, you can still visit Edison and Ford’s homes located along the lush palm-tree lined McGregor Boulevard, and take a walk along brick streets downtown touting restaurants and artist enclaves. There are regular art walks and music walks, and that is a great time to take in all the stunning history of the area as well.
Besides the places mentioned, there are so many examples of early 20th-century architecture everywhere in the downtown river district. Take a walk through Fort Myers history — you won’t be disappointed.