When my family moved from Massachusetts to Charlotte County in 1961, Punta Gorda was a small fishing port town which was also the county seat. The Vanderbilt property was turning into the giant retirement town of Port Charlotte. It was assumed by some that south of the Peace River would be all the old-timers and north of the river would be all the Northerners and most new businesses. They were wrong.
Punta Gorda was a small cattle port until 1885 when Unionist Kentucky lawyer Isaac Trabue purchased hundreds of waterfront acres to promote the coming of the Florida Southern Railway. Trabue lost his riparian rights to his land and the townsfolk didn’t cater to his choice of “Trabue” for town name. One of the town’s young leaders Albert Walter Gilchrist rose to General of the Florida militia, leader of the Southland Development’s resort hotel, and eventually Governor of Florida. Despite the lost of the town’s one landmark – the waterfront resort built for Henry Plant’s railway – the town slowly grew.
Punta Gorda of Old: the Big Victorian Railroad Resort
In 2004 a huge hurricane came into Charlotte Harbor and ripped into Punta Gorda. The historic Victorian homes on the waterfront with their great wooden structures survived as they have for one hundred years. The newer houses, built in the booming 1960’s, lost their roofs. The downtown hotels were ravaged, torn down, and actually replaced by larger more resort-like hotels. New restaurants popped up and downtown Punta Gorda has suddenly developed a nice compact night entertainment and tourist walking district.
WHERE TO START: Begin in the front of the CHARLOTTE COUNTY CONVENTION CENTER, 75 Taylor Street, site of the 1887 Punta Gorda Hotel which brought investors like William Vanderbilt and Andrew Mellon to the area. To the northwest is the COLLIER BRIDGE which replaced the original 1921 bridge. The towering 1975 GILCHRIST BRIDGE chops up downtown. Drive west on RETTA ESPLANADE (1885), once directly on the Peace River before the dredging of the nice riverfront park. At 260 Retta Esplanade is the PUNTA GORDA MUSEUM, once the town library.
Old Charlotte County Courthouse At Night
At 401 Retta Esplanade is the JAMES SANDLIN HOUSE (1893), a Victorian Gothic with a steep gable roof and a widow’s walk. Sandlin was the only native Floridian on the first City Council. In the next block is a nice 1914 two story frame vernacular at 551 RETTA ESPLANADE, but more interesting is the GEORGE McLANE HOUSE (1887), 565 RettaEsplanade, is a Queen Anne with a wraparound porch. McLane, a Confederate vet from Alabama, was Justice of the Peace during the town’s often violent early years.
Turn left on MacGregor. Cross Marion, the main commercial street, and turn left on Olympia and then left again on Gill.
On your right at 507 West Marion is the FIRST METHODIST CHURCH (1914), a fine brick edition in a Latin cross. The city’s oldest congregation, they are proud of their lancet windows. Cross Marion past a nice 1900 Victorian house at 108 Gill Street. Turn right on Retta Esplanade, then right on Cross to pass the MAXWELL BUTLER HOUSE(1893), a small frame cottage with a shotgun plan and broad and batten siding.
Turn left on Olympia and left on Sullivan. On your right is the PUNTA GORDA WOMEN’S CLUB (1927), 118 Sullivan Street, built on land donated by Judge William Cooper of Chicago for a library, one of the many uses for this structure. My mother ran dancing classes in that building.
Turn right on Retta Esplanade and right on Taylor. On the right was the SITE OF THE TOM HECTOR HOUSE (1895), where in 1887, 34 men (four African-Americans) voted over the objections of town father Trubue to incorporate. On your left is the old CHARLOTTE COUNTY COURTHOUSE (1928), 227 Taylor, a Neo-Classical structure with the required side doors for officials to slip out.
Home of the Founder of Punta Gorda
You will have to get directions for our next building for it has been moved to a small park away from downtown. That structure is the transplanted ISAAC TRABUE COTTAGE (1886), a shed like cottage of Punta Gorda’s founder. Still on Marion east of Cross, on the left, is the SMITH ARCADE (1926), once the original post office.
At 133 Marion is the MERCANTILE BANK BUILDING (1912), a Classical Revival edifice that housed the FIrst National Bank until the Stock Market Crash. Down at 316 Marion is PUNTA GORDA CITY HALL (1927), a cute Neo Classical temple with a plaque dedicated to Gilchrist, a bachelor who left money for holiday treats for local kids.
Fishermens Village: Waterfront Rooms, Shops, Restaurants
One other beautiful historic house is east on Olympia, the A.C. FREEMAN HOUSE, a masterpiece of restoration. For lunch you might want to drive west along Marion and turn on the signs to FISHERMEN’S VILLAGE, a complex of shops, restaurants and fishing facilities built on the City Pier. It is an appropriate tribute to the town where fishing was once a key business. There are boat rides up the scenic Peace River and into massive Charlotte Harbor where there are resorts on two of the islands.
A mile west on Marion, through Punta Gorda Isles, is PONCE DE LEON HISTORIC PARK, a picnic site on grounds where some believe the Spanish explorer landed in 1513. It is highly debatable if that is the case, but it is a good spot to view vast Charlotte Harbor.