Good day to all. Although we got an early start once again with Ana, which seems to be around seven years in a row now, hurricane season didn’t actually begin until June 1. Since it is now upon us, this and the next are my annual hurricane columns.
Did you know that since 1830, Florida has experienced more than 200 tropical storms with over 100 classified as hurricanes? However, until 1953, when the United States began using female names, they were generally unnamed.
It seems an “average” season the past 30 years is 14 named storms, seven of which become hurricanes, with three of them major, i.e., at least Category 3 with winds 111 mph or higher. The 2021 predictions I’ve seen — National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association’s, Colorado State University’s (who’d have thought a university in Colorado would be a leader in predicting tropical storms) and The Weather Company’s — indicate above-average activity is expected again.
The medians of all three predictions are 17 named storms, with eight hurricanes, four of them major. Very similar to last year’s, which unfortunately was a bit off. Hopefully, it will not be like the record year experienced in 2020 with 30 named storms.
The earliest documented hurricane directly affecting this area occurred in September 1848, with landfall at Tampa. No deaths were reported, but Tampa lay in ruins and flooding occurred south to Charlotte Harbor. That same storm severally damaged Thomas P. Kennedy’s store on the harbor’s southeastern shore, eventually leading to the area’s “Burnt Store” designation.
The October 1876 hurricane’s effects were more severe and felt for several days. A resident of the area that would become Solana, just up the river from present day Punta Gorda, observing that all water was blown out of the harbor after days of high winds and heavy rain, commented that when the blow was over, there’d be plenty of mullet. This is also the storm that led three hunters with 13 alligators bagged at the “point” to seek shelter with the Lockharts — first permanent settlers of what became Punta Gorda.
The historical marker near the large banyan tree on today’s West Retta Esplanade notes the approximate location of their cabin. The banyan tree was planted much later by Marian McAdow.
Around 1903, a 60-foot tower was constructed on the bayfront at the foot of Sullivan Street to display storm signals. Still in use when I was a youngster, I remember a green flag flying during calm weather, a single red triangular flag indicating small craft warnings, two triangular red flags signifying gale warnings, a single square red flag with a smaller black square for full gales, or tropical storms, and two of the red and black flags for hurricanes.
The tower also displayed lighted signals at night. Small craft warnings were red over white; gale, white over red; full gale, or tropical storm, red over red, and hurricane, red over white over red.
A storm in 1910 was noted in the memoirs of The Rev. George Gatewood, a circuit-riding preacher who arrived in the late 1880s. Initially based in Alva, just up the Caloosahatchee River from Fort Myers, he first moved to Punta Gorda in 1902. However, in 1907 he was bitten by the “homesteader bug” and for the next 10 years lived near the intersection of today’s Bermont Road (County Road 74) and State Road 31 in the community of Bermont.
That storm was so severe, most of the large pine trees on high ground were toppled and the family sought shelter for the night in a strongly built feed storage shed near the barn when their house began to quiver. In the morning, fish were seen in the garden, swimming between rows of potato plants.
Photographs showing the effects of several area hurricanes and the signal tower can be viewed by visiting Charlotte County online library resources. Select “Library Catalog,” click on “Physical Items,” then “Archive Search.” Enter the subject of your search on the “Search” line. Visit the same site and select “History Exhibits” to find out what history related programs are offered. Photos are also available on the Punta Gorda History Center’s website.
Also, check out History Services’ yearlong project, “Telling Your Stories: History in the Parks,” that began in January with placement of the first interpretive sign “Charlotte Harbor Spa” at South County Regional Park. The second, featuring portions of a General Development Corporation brochure promoting Port Charlotte is at Port Charlotte Beach.
The third is at Englewood Beach, featuring the Chadwick Beach pavilion. The fourth is at Tringali Park, featuring Buchan’s Landing in Englewood. The fifth is at Carmalita Park’s playground, featuring the Punta Gorda Baseball Field, circa 1933, then on West Virginia Avenue between Gill and McGregor streets, where the First Baptist Church campus is located today.
All dedicated signs can be viewed at online library resources. Select “Programs and Services,” then “History Services” and “Virtual Programs.”