Edison Floats into Town
Planes (no), trains (no), automobiles (no) and boats (yes!)
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...