Punta Gorda (English: Fat Point) is a city in Charlotte County, Florida, United States. As of the 2010 census the city had a population of 16,641. It is the county seat of Charlotte County and the only incorporated municipality in the county. Punta Gorda is the principal city of the Punta Gorda, Florida Metropolitan Statistical Area and is also in the Sarasota-Bradenton-Punta Gorda Combined Statistical Area.
Punta Gorda was the scene of massive destruction after Charley, a Category 4 hurricane, came through the city on August 13, 2004. In the immediate years following the storm, buildings were restored or built to hurricane-resistant building codes. The new buildings, restorations and amenities concurrently preserved the city’s past while showcasing newer facilities. During this time, Laishley Park Municipal Marina was built and the Harborwalk, Linear Park and various trails were created throughout the city for bicycle and pedestrian traffic.
The name Punta Gorda has been on maps at least since 1851, referring to a point of land that juts into Charlotte Harbor, an estuary off the Gulf of Mexico. It was in the late 1800s that early settlers began to arrive in what is the present-day Punta Gorda area.
Frederick and Jarvis Howard, Union Army veterans, homesteaded an area south of the Peace River near present-day Punta Gorda about a decade after the close of the Civil War. In 1876, James and Josephine Lockhart bought land and built a house on property which is now at the center of the city. Approximately two years later Lockhart sold his claim to James Madison Lanier, a hunter and trapper, who lived there two years.
In 1879, a charter for a railroad with termini at Charlotte Harbor and Lake City, Florida was established under the name Gainesville, Ocala, and Charlotte Harbor Railroad. It was taken over by the Florida Southern Railroad, which reaffirmed Charlotte Harbor as a terminus in its own charter. Then in 1883, Lanier sold his land to Isaac Trabue, who purchased additional property along the harbor and directed the platting of a town (by Kelly B. Harvey) named “Trabue”. Harvey recorded the plat on February 24, 1885. At the time, Isaac was in Kentucky, and his cousin, John Trabue, was in charge of selling lots. To insure success of his development, Trabue convinced the Florida Southern Railway to bring their road to his town on the south side of Charlotte Harbor.
The Railroad rolled into the town of Trabue in August 1886, and with it came the first land developers and Southwest Florida’s first batch of tourists. Punta Gorda became the southernmost stop on the Florida Southern Railroad, until an extension was built to Fort Myers in 1904, attracting the industries that propelled its initial growth.
In 1887, dissatisfied with Trabue’s lack of infrastructure development for the town, 34 townspeople met at Hector’s Billiard Parlor to discuss incorporation. The group voted to incorporate and rename the town after the Spanish name for the point on which it was located “Punta Gorda” on December 3, 1887. Once Punta Gorda was officially incorporated on December 7, 1887, mayoral elections took place and a council was formed. The first mayor, W. H. Simmons, was elected.
Phosphate was discovered on the banks of the Peace River just above Punta Gorda in 1888. Phosphate mined in the Peace River Valley was barged down the Peace River to Punta Gorda and Port Boca Grande, where it was loaded onto vessels for worldwide shipment. In 1896, the Florida Times-Union reported that phosphate mining was Punta Gorda’s chief industry and that Punta Gorda was the greatest phosphate shipping point in the world. By 1907, a railroad was built direct to Port Boca Grande, ending the brief phosphate shipping boom from Punta Gorda.
In 1890, the first postmaster, Robert Meacham, an African American, was appointed by Isaac Trabue as a deliberate affront to Kelly B. Harvey and those who had voted to change the name of the town from Trabue to Punta Gorda.
The Punta Gorda Herald was founded by Robert Kirby Seward in 1893 and published weekly during its early years. The newspaper covered such events as rum running, other smuggling activities, and lawlessness in general. It underwent many changes in both ownership and name over time, and today is known as The Charlotte Sun Herald.
Early Punta Gorda greatly resembled the modern social climate of various classes living together and working together. While the regal Punta Gorda Hotel, at one point partly owned by Cornelius Vanderbilt, reflected the upper class, Punta Gorda was a pretty rough town, as most frontier towns were.
In 1925, a bungalow was built by Joseph Blanchard, an African American sea captain and fisherman. The Blanchard House Museum still stands as a museum, providing education for the history of middle-class African American life in the area.
Punta Gorda in the 20th century still maintained steady growth. Charlotte County was formed in 1921 after DeSoto County was split. Also in 1921, the first bridge was constructed connecting Punta Gorda and Charlotte Harbor along the brand-new Tamiami Trail. This small bridge was replaced by the original Barron Collier Bridge in 1931, and then by the current Barron Collier Bridge and Gilchrist Bridge crossing the Peace River.
During World War II, a U.S. Army airfield was built in Punta Gorda to train combat air pilots. After the war, the airfield was turned over to Charlotte County. Today the old airfield is the Punta Gorda Airport, providing both commercial and general aviation.
Punta Gorda’s next intense growth phase started in 1959 with the creation of a neighborhood of canal-front home sites, Punta Gorda Isles, by a trio of entrepreneurs, Al Johns, Bud Cole and Sam Burchers. They laid out 55 miles of canals 100 feet wide and 17 feet deep using dredged sand to raise the level of the canal front land. This provided dry home sites with access to the Charlotte Harbor and the Gulf of Mexico. Johns went on to develop several other communities in Punta Gorda, among which were Burnt Store Isles, another waterfront community with golf course, and Seminole Lakes, a golf course community. These communities provided waterfront or golf course homes for retirees with access to a downtown with shopping, restaurants, and parks.
In the early 1980s at the site of the old Maud Street Fishing Docks, a new shopping, restaurant and marina complex, Fishermen’s Village, was constructed that continues to be one of Southwest Florida’s primary attractions.
In 2004, a major hurricane, Hurricane Charley, moved through Punta Gorda, damaging many buildings, but also creating an opportunity for revitalization of both the historic downtown and the waterfront. During the first part of the twenty-first century, Punta Gorda has continued to grow and improve, adding a new Harborwalk which continues to expand, a linear park which winds through the city, many new restaurants, and neighborhoods.
A replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was dedicated on November 5, 2016. The city also features the Whispering Giant statue, a public art sculpture of the face of a Native American man and a Native American woman.
There are many historic places in Punta Gorda, including ten places on the National Register of Historic Places:
- A. C. Freeman House
- Charlotte High School
- Clarence L. Babcock House
- H. W. Smith Building
- Old First National Bank of Punta Gorda (also known as Old Merchants Bank of Punta Gorda)
- Punta Gorda Atlantic Coast Line Depot
- Punta Gorda Ice Plant
- Punta Gorda Residential District
- Punta Gorda Woman’s Club
- Villa Bianca
Punta Gorda lies on the south bank of the tidal Peace River and the eastern shore of Charlotte Harbor, an arm of the Gulf of Mexico. Unincorporated communities bordering Punta Gorda include Charlotte Park (nearly surrounded by the city), Solana to the east, and Charlotte Harbor to the north, across the Peace River. Port Charlotte is to the west of Punta Gorda’s incorporated residential neighborhoods Deep Creek and Suncoast Lakes, north of the Peace River. Harbour Heights lies to the east of Punta Gorda’s Deep Creek residential neighborhood.
According to the United States Census Bureau, the city has a total area of 21.0 square miles (54.4 km2), of which 15.0 square miles (38.9 km2) is land and 6.0 square miles (15.5 km2) (28.52%) is water.
|U.S. Decennial Census|
In the city, the population was spread out with 8.2% under the age of 18, 2.1% from 18 to 24, 9.9% from 25 to 44, 33.4% from 45 to 64, and 46.4% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 64 years. For every 100 females, there were 89.9 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 88.9 males.
Punta Gorda is home to five public schools operated by Charlotte County Public Schools: Charlotte High School, Punta Gorda Middle School, Sallie Jones Elementary School, East Elementary School, and the Baker Pre-K Center. Good Shepherd Day School is the only private grade school in Punta Gorda. Florida SouthWestern Collegiate High School, located in Punta Gorda, is the county school district’s only charter school.
Florida SouthWestern State College‘s Charlotte Campus is Punta Gorda’s institution of higher learning.