Did you know paddlewheel riverboats were instrumental in Punta Gorda’s early growth? Although typically associated with the Mississippi River system, steam-powered, side and stern wheelers were common anywhere water provided a major avenue for transportation.
With the railroad’s July 1886 arrival in Trabue (Punta Gorda), making it the nation’s southernmost terminal, several were placed in service moving freight, passengers, and mail to points further south. The trip to Fort Myers covered 76 miles and took eight hours with stops at Saint James City on Pine Island, Bailey’s Dock at Sanibel, and Punta Rassa.
The “Queen” of the Punta Gorda to Fort Myers route was the Saint Lucie, a stern wheeler built for the Mississippi. One-hundred-sixty-feet long with a 25-foot beam and two boilers, she drew only 3 feet of water. Her 24 staterooms were comfortable and the dining room spacious.
A 1902 race between the “Queen” and her challenger the Edison. Its purpose was to determined who would be awarded the mail contract. Lined up off the Railroad Dock at the foot of King Street (U.S. 41 north), a cannon boom at 7 a.m. began the race. With coal-fired double boilers, the much larger Saint Lucie could produce more pounds of steam and took an early lead. However, as the race proceeded through the shoals of Pine Island Sound, the smaller, wood-fired Edison pulled abreast and narrowly beat the larger vessel to Fort Myers.
Although the need for riverboats diminished greatly after the railroad’s extension to Fort Myers in 1904, they were so important to Punta Gorda’s early development that the city’s official seal, adopted on Nov. 5, 1924, prominently features a “side wheeler” steamship. The seal also contains the words “Prosperitas in Sanitat,” meaning “Success in the Health,” likely recognition of all the folks who first came to Trabue (Punta Gorda) seeking relief in the balmy climate.