The city of Fort Myers, Florida is considered the gateway to the Southwestern Florida coast and is a world-class vacation destination in addition to being home to nearly 100, 000 year-round residents. However, it wasn’t always so. Named for the fort that was built there as the base of operations for the American Indian War against the native Seminole tribe in the 1830’s, and later, for the American Civil War too, it was ideally located with strategic access to the Atlantic waterways. Captain Gonzalez, who fought and served during both wars, later returned to the area with his family to settle it and formed its first trading post. The town began to grow as the 19th century progressed, drawing in winter residents from the northern territories, and finally earned its official incorporation in 1885. It was the second largest city on the Gulf Coast at the time.
One of those northerners who came to Florida for the winter was Thomas Edison, who chose Fort Myers as his primary winter retreat and built the famous Seminole Lodge, complete with a private laboratory. His participation in the town’s development is well documented and even drew other major names to the area – such as Henry Ford, and Harvey Firestone.
In 1904, Fort Myers became infinitely more accessible with the opening of the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad, which allowed both passengers and freight to come and go from the town. The Arcade Theater was built in 1908 and became the center of culture in downtown Fort Myers as residents fell in love with film. It still operates today as a performing arts hall and hosts the Florida Repertory Theater.
During the first World War, Edison and his friends Ford and Firestone banded together to find a solution to the foreign imported rubber necessary for building tires. They sought to identify a tree or plant that would grow quickly on American soil and contain enough latex for their research, thus forming the Edison Botanic Research Corporation and laboratory. Edison conducted the majority of his research in Fort Myers, planting numerous trees and plants and sending samples to his other laboratories around the country.
It was through this research that the royal palms along riverside drive were imported and planted, giving the town its nickname as the City of Palms. Construction on the Edison Bridge began 1924 in his honor and was completed in 1931 on his 84th birthday. Edison was the first to drive across it at its dedication.
Several years after his death, his wife Mina Edison deeded their Seminole Lodge home to the public in 1947. The neighboring Henry Ford Estate was purchased by the city in 1988 and the two properties were combined into a museum known as the Edison and Ford Winter Estates that remains popular to this day.
May people visit Fort Myers every year, but few bother to learn about the rich history that formed this jewel of the south. From the Seminole tribes that evaded evacuation and maintain a strong presence there, to the famous names and places that influenced its development – there is so much more to this ever-growing city than simply palm trees and beaches.
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