Edi­son Floats into Town

Planes (no), trains (no), au­to­mo­biles (no) and boats (yes!)

Gulf & Main - - History -

When Thomas Edi­son first vis­ited Fort My­ers, he didn’t fly into town. Hardly. When Edi­son made his ini­tial trip to South­west Flor­ida in 1885, there were no air­ports or air­planes here or any­where. It would be an­other 18 years be­fore the Wright Brothers’ first flight in 1903. So, planes were out. When Edi­son, al­ready world-renowned for his in­ven­tions of the light bulb and phono­graph, ar­rived 133 years ago, he cer­tainly didn’t drive here. There were no paved roads, let alone cars. So cars were out. When Edi­son, then 38, first vis­ited what was then a re­mote cow town of 349 hardy res­i­dents nes­tled along the Caloosa­hatchee in a time long be­fore air con­di­tion­ing, he couldn’t take a train—not to such a re­mote outpost far down the Flor­ida penin­sula.

Yes, the Transcon­ti­nen­tal Rail­road had been com­pleted 16 years ear­lier in 1869. It had been pos­si­ble to cross Amer­ica by rail for more than a decade. But it would be an­other 19 years be­fore rail ser­vice was ex­tended down Flor­ida’s west coast, con­nect­ing Fort My­ers to points north in 1904.

No, in 1885, Edi­son first vis­ited Fort My­ers by a means of trans­porta­tion not all that dif­fer­ent from what the an­cient Calusa used in pre-Columbian days or what the Span­ish used to ex­plore Flor­ida in the 16th cen­tury.

Edi­son ar­rived here on a boat. Yes, it was much dif­fer­ent from the ca­noes of the Calusa or the galleons of the Span­ish, but it was still a boat and it floated.

When he ar­rived, there was no place called Lee County. This area was then still part of Mon­roe County. Lee County was carved out of Mon­roe and cre­ated in 1887.

Much of Edi­son’s in­tro­duc­tion to Fort My­ers was ex­plored in Tom Smoot’s 2004 book, The Edis­ons of Fort My­ers. Smoot, a life­long res­i­dent of Fort My­ers, spent six years re­search­ing the book.

Edi­son had pre­vi­ously win­tered in St. Au­gus­tine but found that north Flor­ida city a bit brisk. He heard about a set­tle­ment way down Flor­ida’s west coast that could pro­vide more tem­per­ate win­ter weather.

To get here Edi­son would have to travel across the north­ern neck of the state to Cedar Key on a rick­ety, prim­i­tive rail line. There, on March 15, 1885, he boarded a yacht called the Jean­nette. Its cap­tain was Dan Paul.

Paul skip­pered the yacht south along Flor­ida’s west coast to Punta Rassa, which at the time was, as Smoot wrote, “the largest cat­tle em­barka­tion point in the state.”

Edi­son was in­trigued by re­ports of bam­boo up the river, so it was back to the Jean­nette. On March 20, 1885, Edi­son ar­rived in Fort My­ers.

His visit was noted by the weekly Fort My­ers Press, which was launched the pre­vi­ous Novem­ber and even­tu­ally be­came the News-Press.

Smoot in­cluded the pa­per’s news item about Edi­son in his book: “About noon of Fri­day last week … the el­e­gant yacht Jean­nette of Cedar Key, Capt. Dan Paul, came up the river, passed Fort My­ers a few miles, re­turned and an­chored. Her party con­sisted of Thomas

A. Edi­son, Ph.D., the distin­guished elec­tri­cian, Mr. L. A. Smith, of New York, and Mr. E. T. Gilliland of Bos­ton.”

A year later Edi­son re­turned with his bride, Mina. They were mar­ried Fe­bru­ary 24, 1886, and came to Fort My­ers less than a month later, ar­riv­ing March 15, 1886, aboard the Mana­tee, the city’s first sched­uled steam­boat. They re­turned again in 1887, but then Edi­son didn’t visit the city from 1888 through 1900.

In 1901, 16 years af­ter Edi­son first vis­ited Fort My­ers, the city still didn’t have train ser­vice. This time the Edis­ons ar­rived on an­other steamer, the

H. B. Plant, named, iron­i­cally, af­ter the pi­o­neer­ing Flor­ida busi­ness ty­coon of the same name who built rail­road lines. But he had yet to build one south of Punta Gorda.

In 1902 a steamer named the Thomas A. Edi­son was put into ser­vice haul­ing cargo and fer­ry­ing pas­sen­gers on the Caloosa­hatchee.

By 1907 the in­ven­tor was fi­nally able to travel to Fort My­ers via train, but, as Smoot points out, boats were still part of Edi­son’s Flor­ida life­style. He spent much of the first week of his 1907 visit fish­ing from his elec­tric launch named the Re­liance.

Now, 133 years since his first visit, Edi­son’s home re­mains a vi­brant tourist at­trac­tion and his name is ev­ery­where, at­tached to nu­mer­ous events, schools and busi­nesses.

It all be­gan on a yacht called the Jean­nette.

Glenn Miller is pres­i­dent of the South­west Flor­ida His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety and a fre­quent con­trib­u­tor to TOTI Me­dia.

Thomas Edi­son first vis­ited Fort My­ers in 1885, when he bought prop­erty along the Caloosa­hatchee River to build a win­ter es­tate.

Above, a steam­boat named in honor of the leg­endary in­ven­tor and part-time Fort My­ers res­i­dent (right) was launched in 1902 to ferry pas­sen­gers and cargo on the Caloosa­hatchee. Edi­son first ar­rived in Fort My­ers via boat, years be­fore cars or trains...

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