News Column

In The 239: Railroad depot unlocks Southwest Florida history

June 12, 2014

By Katie Egan, Naples Daily News, Fla.



June 12--Old railroad depot helps unlock Southwest Florida history

Secrets await at the Southwest Florida Museum of History in Fort Myers.

A tour, which lasts one to 1 1/2 hours, is perfect for all ages and can be done at any pace with the help of the audio tour guide and tour wand (included in the admission price).

The museum, at 2031 Jackson St. in downtown Fort Myers, was formerly the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad Depot. In 1971, the depot discontinued its service and the old passenger station began to disintegrate and fall by the wayside.

In 1982, the dilapidated building was saved and converted into the museum to tell the story of Fort Myers -- from the early days of the Paleo-Indians to Southwest Florida during World War II.

The museum also houses artifacts from Southwest Florida cattlemen of the 1800s and turn-of-the-century wonders and secrets from the boating and fishing industries of the 1900s.

An authentic replica of a one-room pioneer "cracker" house and a 1929 private Pullman rail car sit outside the museum as the perfect ode to Old Florida history.

At first glance, the museum looked small. When I walked in, I paid a friendly woman at the cash register. I chose an audio tour guide, which consisted of a device that looked like a television remote.

After a quick demonstration from one of the museum's employees, I walked up a sloping wooden mini-boardwalk to learn about the land of giants. The audio tour sign told me to press "No. 2" on my remote-control-looking device. After holding it up to my ear like a cellphone, a male's monotone voice told me about the giant sharks that ruled the depths of the Gulf of Mexico 12,000 years ago.

After walking by the giant shark's skeletal teeth, I entered the room of the Paleo-Indians.

The dimly lit room featured large skeletal remains of land giants from the Pleistocene era, 10,000-12,000 years ago -- mammoths, saber-tooth tigers and bison -- lying in soft Florida sand.

Jamie Joseph and Ashlynn Koston, who just moved to Naples two-three months ago from Cleveland, enjoyed seeing the saber-tooth tigers the most.

"I like how the museum shows the past and what went on," Koston said.

Seven thousand years ago, the first Floridians lived close to water where fish and marine life were abundant. They relied on the water so much; they were laid to rest in it as well.

A couple of days after death, the body of the deceased were covered in animal skins and sent to rest in shallow pond graves where their bodies would stay perfectly preserved for thousands of years by thick, gooey muck.

One thousands years later, the Florida coast would become a popular destination among Paleo-Indian folk, who mostly ate fish and shellfish. We know this because their garbage piles survived on Mound Key in Estero.

Next up was the Seminole Indians, for whom Florida State University's sports teams are named. "Seminole" is the Creek word for "runaway" or "free." In the 18th century, Creek Indians from South Carolina and Georgia crossed into Florida to escape the hostility of the British colonial settlers. In 1817 the First Seminole War broke out. It would end 40 years later, in 1857.

To defend against the Indians, a series of forts were constructed along the coastline. In 1850, Gen. Emanuel Twiggs called for Fort Myers to be built. The fort was abandoned four months later and then burned down, only to be reconstructed again years later.

The museum has a replica of the original fort (pre-burning) on display in a glass case.

Fort Myers became popular during the booming cattle industry in the 1800s. A life-size Florida scrub cattle pays homage to this time period. Cattle herders were called crackers for the loud crack their bullwhip made to keep cattle in line under the warm Florida sun.

The 1910-30 room had a shoeshine station, old switchboard, radio and cash register. Thomas Edison came to Fort Myers during this time. The audio tour guide said this was a better boost to the economy than tourism.

This room led to another with a more nautical theme. But before museum-goers got to learn about Sanibel's boating and scallop industry, they had the opportunity to check out breathtaking black-and-white photographs of Old Florida in the Enchantments room.

Early 20th century photographs of Southwest Florida by Julian Dimock were paired with select works of renowned modern photographer Clyde Butcher in the exhibit that runs through Sept. 6. Butcher is scheduled to give a presentation at the museum at 6 p.m.Aug. 27.

Kristin Sheyne, who was visiting from Tennessee, said she came to the museum to see the Butcher photographs.

Bruce Longhlin from Oviedo also came to see the photographer's work, but said the Pullman car was his favorite exhibit.

"It's something we don't have anymore," Longhlin said. "I like seeing how people lived back then."

The Pullman car cost $80,000 a year to operate. It was basically a fancy hotel on wheels, but a very cool piece of history to experience.

The Pullman car had a musty smell to it and the floor sloped slightly, but I will always remember how it felt to stand in a piece of preserved history.

___

(c)2014 the Naples Daily News (Naples, Fla.)

Visit the Naples Daily News (Naples, Fla.) at www.naplesnews.com

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Source: Naples Daily News (FL)


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