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Exclusive: History uncovered along Fort Myers riverfront

Renovation project on the Caloosahatchee unearths artifacts from city's early days.

Jun. 4, 2012
Workers install a retaining wall on the Fort Myers riverfront near where artifacts have been found.
Workers install a retaining wall on the Fort Myers riverfront near where artifacts have been found. / Andrew West/


A $5.3 million construction project on Fort Myers’ historic riverfront should have come to a halt weeks ago, some say.

Confederate and Union troops fought one of the southernmost battles of the Civil War a cannonball shot from where backhoes rumble today, resculpting the shoreline that’s long been key to the city’s economy and identity.

First the site of a sprawling military complex, it later became a commercial nexus. Most major streets had wharves jutting into the river complete with packinghouses, steamer terminals, railways and businesses. So it’s not surprising that although major digging hasn’t yet begun, old objects are already turning up: a Ford Model A engine block, horseshoes, cologne bottles, chunks of historic seawalls, carriage springs and more.

The project’s permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and South Florida Water Management District say such discoveries should halt site work, at least temporarily. Archaeologists then must evaluate the finds and construction must pause until they give their OK.

But until The News-Press called Corps archaeologist David Pugh last month, he’d heard nothing of the discoveries, he said. The finds weren’t on the state’s radar either until archaeologist Annette Snapp emailed the Division of Historic Resources about them.

Neither agency has scolded or cited the city. When Pugh visited the site after learning about it, he declared it “insignificant — just a collection of items that might have been disposed of with no context to it” and said it would be fine to carry on.

Jim Powers, who works at the Southwest Florida Museum of History, sees little value in the objects found so far. “Don’t call them artifacts,” he said. “It’s fill — garbage.”

But garbage is in the eye of the beholder and one person’s trash is another’s time capsule.

“While the artifacts coming from the fill material are not beautiful examples of early 20th-century material culture because they’re rusted and broken, they are examples of the kinds of things people were using and then discarding in Fort Myers in the early 20th century,” says Snapp, Southwest regional director of the Florida Public Archaeology Network. “Even though materials were discarded in the fill, it gives us a window into the past.”

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Click here for an interactive look at the downtown Fort Myers riverfront over the years

What people throw away offers keen insight into day-to-day life, says University of Florida archaeologist William Marquardt, executive director of the Randell Research Center at Pineland, dedicated to studying the region’s mound-building Calusa. Much of what we know about the ancient people who lived in Southwest Florida before Europeans arrived comes from their mounded middens — a fancy term for trash heap. Those piles help scientists understand what they ate, how they made tools and how sea level changed over the years.

What’s more, trash or not, historical resources are protected by Florida law if they’re more than 50 years old. It’s the job of the state historic preservation office to decide what merits study, Snapp says; not city workers.

Work continues

The project will make downtown more attractive while keeping the Caloosahatchee cleaner, officials say. Workers will soon start carving a crescent-shaped slice along Hendry Street south to Bay Street under Edwards Drive, which will become a paved bridge where it crosses the river.

Shortly after workers began digging ditches and piling holes, Wright Construction Group project manager Neal Monkman started finding things in the turned-over earth. The Michigan native always has been interested in history, so he began collecting the pieces, many of them rusted and water-worn, to try to figure out what they were.

Monkman showed his bosses what he was finding, but no one notified either permitting agency and the work continued.

The city hasn’t ignored the objects, but it hasn’t followed the requirements of its permits either. Instead, public works director Saeed Kazemi asked the city-owned Southwest Florida Museum of History to take some of them; the bigger pieces are stored on a piece of black plastic in Wright’s temporary construction office.

“These are important pieces of our past, and we want to preserve them,” Kazemi said. Ultimately, he’d like to see an exhibit near the finished project showcasing the city’s early waterfront. “It could include some of these artifacts, maybe a section of the seawall we’ve encountered.”

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No one has made a comprehensive list of what’s been found, though.

“Someone should be keeping an inventory of what is coming out of the site. That is what a professional archaeologist would do,” Snapp said. “Construction workers are not trained in historic preservation and that can leave some big gaps. ... They may not recognize or feel obligated to report important finds, for example.”

Fort Myers Mayor Randy Henderson doesn’t know why the permits weren’t followed and intends to find out. He has a theory though, based on experience with large-scale projects: “Delays cost money; delays irritate citizens,” he said, “but this is important stuff. It should not be ignored. … Of course the builder is probably going to be the most nervous about this — unless he’s got some protective covenants, he’s maybe going to get dinged.

“(But) this is public property and it’s public information. I’m excited about it and I want to see what’s in there.”

Changing uses

Before seawalls and fill, the construction site was under the Caloosahatchee.

During the Seminole and Civil Wars, it was the site of a U.S. military fort that changed names, shapes and purposes. Much more than an attack-resistant building, in its heyday, Fort Myers could be more accurately described as a military base — a sophisticated 50-acre complex that housed hundreds of people. An 1864 map shows it stretching roughly from the foot of the U.S. 41 bridge to Fowler Street between First and Second streets, with a 1,000-foot pier at the foot of Hendry Street. It boasted a hospital, bowling alley, stables, blacksmith shop and bakery plus housing for officers, company men and laundresses.

Almost as soon as the Civil War ended and the military left, European settlers began arriving. The first was Manuel A. Gonzalez, a Spanish-born sea captain who got to know the town while carrying freight and mail from Key West. He ventured here with his young son and a friend to take up residence in the abandoned officers’ quarters and eventually owned a wide swath of riverfont, including the property Thomas Edison later bought. Gonzalez also opened one of the first trading posts on the river, near the site of the basin project, and did business with Seminole and Miccosukee Indians.

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Gonzalez’s great-great grandson Woody Hanson still lives in Fort Myers and works as a real estate broker and appraiser just blocks from where his ancestors settled. He’s incensed at the way the city’s history is being treated.

“Someone should have been aware of the permit conditions and have managed the project accordingly,” he said. “The rules should apply to each of us equally. (The city) has the staff and contractors who have to have been aware of the permit and have turned a blind eye to it. This is the stuff that shows who we were, how we built this city and how we did business on the river. Actually, the river was our business”

Indeed, the wharves and piers lining the city’s Caloosahatchee riverfront were key to its development. By the 1920s, there were five major piers from about Monroe to Fowler Street, one of which housed the biggest produce packing house in the nation. In addition to being riverboat and freight terminals, the wharves held worker barracks, oil refineries, machine shops, boatworks and commercial centers — the linear malls of their day.

At least twice in the 20th century the riverfront was moved. The shoreline that ran roughly along today’s Bay Street was pushed north with seawalls and fill. Marjorie Kelly Johnson, whose family ran a seafood market, remembers tearing apart cardboard boxes to sled down the mounded-up material when she was a girl in the 1930s.

“We didn’t think anything of it,” she says. “Our sledding hills are probably what they’re digging up now.”

Johnson also remembers seeing Indians camped along the shoreline when they came to town to trade and wonders if any of their beads will turn up.

Some of the riverfront’s fill was hauled in, but much of it came from the wharves themselves as they aged and crumpled into the Caloosahatchee. Also on the river bottom were the remains of several large steamers that burned or sank while tied up at the pier. The “Thomas A. Edison” and the “Planter” both went down in 1914 alone. Much of that river bottom was later covered with fill.

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Over the years, the debris was added to, shuffled and moved around as new piers were constructed and seawalls built or shored up. The city’s Kazemi doesn’t know how deep the fill layer is, and can’t say if the digging will reach it.

Investigation urged

Also troubling Snapp is the just-started construction of the Fort Myers/Lee County Regional Library a few blocks away.

It’s squarely within the borders of the fort, in an area that included company, officers’ and laundresses’ quarters, privies and its weapons storehouse.

Though the fort’s location is well-documented, Snapp was astonished to learn it has never been listed on Florida’s Master Site File, the state’s official inventory of historic places. (She quickly began filing the paperwork).

She also learned the library’s permits required no pre-construction archaeological reconnaissance. City officials told Snapp a map from the 1920s shows apartments on the site, so there’s no reason to look beneath it.

She disagrees. “Archaeological resources could easily be intact below structures,” Snapp said. She’s been urging the city to investigate — at least on the unbuilt part of the project.

Downtown still has undiscovered artifacts beneath its streets, sidewalks and buildings — especially where the fort once stood, Snapp said. “To see evidence in the form of artifacts that date back to those early days found where they were last dropped by a soldier is exhilarating.”

Cape Coral resident and Civil War enthusiast Chuck Hostetler is dismayed by the lack of official attention to the excavations. He’s tried contacting city and county employees — so far, fruitlessly.

“I haven’t received any solid support from any of the officials who should have been interested in protecting Lee County’s irreplaceable historical resources — especially the fort for which this town was named,” he wrote in an email.

Henderson wishes historians and archaeologists had been involved with the projects from the beginning rather than starting now, when work is ongoing. Planning and permitting process for both projects began several years ago, he said.

“This didn’t sneak up on anybody. The experts in this area — where have they been?”

Then he asks, “Better late than never, right?”

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