Although only one remains today, there was a time when three lighthouses guided ships through Charlotte Harbor.
Small, shallow draft boats employed in the Spanish fishing industry supplying Cuba had plied local waters for centuries, but the railroad’s 1886 arrival in Punta Gorda and a flourishing industry mining phosphate from the lower Peace River by 1888, necessitated more permanent navigation aids for larger ocean-going ships.
MANGROVE POINT LIGHT
It’s likely the Mangrove Point Light was constructed first, marking the railroad’s Long Dock. The dock, located near today’s West Marion Avenue and Jamaica Way intersection, extended 4,200 feet to relatively deep water, servicing Morgan Steamship Line vessels running between New Orleans and Havana, and ships taking on phosphate rock barged downriver from Liverpool and Hull.
It was a red house on stilts with a fixed, not flashing, red light, marking the 12-foot channel’s northernmost point. Mangrove Point Light’s approximate location is marked today by the No. 2 navigation aid, flashing red every four seconds. One of the “keepers” was Hiram Curry. His granddaughter’s Charlotte Harbor home still stands today.
CHARLOTTE HARBOR LIGHT
Next down the harbor was the Charlotte Harbor Light, marking Cape Haze Shoal, still a hazard to knowledgeable boaters today. Its kerosene light, visible for 11 miles, was on a tower 36 feet high and flashed white every second.
The “keeper’s” house, below the light, was white with a “wraparound” porch. One of the earliest “keepers” was Francis Larrison, who had come to Charlotte Harbor, on the river’s north bank, from Indiana in 1893.
Likely built around 1890, it eventually guided ships to Punta Gorda’s 1,200-foot Railroad Dock at the foot of King Street (U. S. 41 north), built by Henry Plant after he had track to the Long Dock removed in late 1896.
However, when the Peace River Phosphate Company completed extension of the Charlotte Harbor and Northern Railroad from Liverpool and Hull to the deep-water port at the south end of Gasparilla Island in 1907, water depth available to shipping doubled, significantly decreasing the importance of Punta Gorda’s dock.
Robert Fine served as the last “keeper” from 1899 to 1913, when lighthouse operations were automated. Slowly deteriorating, it ceased operating in 1943. The tower was dismantled and the house, purchased by the Punta Gorda Fish Company, was barged to Tarpon Inlet for employee housing.
Remaining iron pilings were removed in 1975. The lighthouse’s approximate location is marked today by the flashing red No. 6 navigation structure off Cape Haze.
BOCA GRANDE LIGHT
As many likely know, the one Charlotte Harbor lighthouse still standing, and operating, is Boca Grande’s. Completed in 1890, its white kerosene light, interrupted every 20 seconds by a red flash, is 44 feet high and visible for 12 miles. A similarly designed assistant keeper’s house, without the light, was built nearby.
First lit on Dec. 31, 1890, by “keeper” Frances McNulty (1890-94), it operated continuously until 1966. The primary duty was keeping the lamp fueled and trimmed, while resetting the counterweight rotating the lens, every two hours. The light was automated in 1956.
Decommissioned by the Coast Guard in 1966, by 1970 it was in danger of falling prey to the elements. However, the pass’ dredging provided sand to reinforce the site. In 1980, the lighthouse was placed on the National Registry of Historic Places and in 1986, with restoration completed by a consortium of various groups, Port Boca Grande Lighthouse was reactivated as a navigation aid and re-lit. It is now, appropriately, the focal point of Gasparilla Island State Park.