In researching the Sisal Hemp & Development Company era in Priscilla Brooks' book St. James City-The Early Years, she describes "Captain K. B. Harvey, a man known along our coast as a worker and honest square man". Brooks went on to state that Harvey had been "hired to build a new dock, two large warehouses, marina ways, oil tanks and seawalls" for the Sisal Company.
Further research revealed that after his work on Pine Island Captain Harvey headed up the construction of the western portion of the Tamiami Trail. The year was 1916. The Tamiami Trail derives its name because it was the road built to connect Tampa to Miami. It was also the first road through the Everglades to link Naples with Miami. This road is not to be confused with Alligator Alley, or I-75, which did not open until much later.
Major road building projects today are funded by the state. In the early 1900s the funding for road construction was the responsibility of the cities and counties along the route. For the section of the Trail through Hillsborough and Dade Counties, with large their tax bases, this was no problem. In the sparsely populated area around Naples, with fewer than 1,000 inhabitants for their tax base, funding for the Trail was difficult. By 1918 the money ran out and the work on the Lee County portion of the Trail ended.
Readers may recall from a previous column that Lee County included the land of Collier and Hendry Counties during these years. In 1923 Barron G. Collier backed a $350,000 state bond for the completion of the Trail in exchange that Lee County form a new county on the land he owned in southwest Florida. Thus, Collier County was born. Over the course of the next four years Collier would invest over one million dollars of his money in building the Trail to the east coast.
East of Naples to the Dade County line, the Everglades was sheer wilderness. The road building endeavor was so difficult that workers would average only one completed mile of road per month. It would take them almost 4 years to finish the forty five miles to the eastern edge of Collier County.
One of the most treacherous jobs in building the Trail was the surveying. Imagine struggling to walk all day in swamp water and muck that at times was chest high. Keenly aware that at any moment you might encounter a poisonous snake, or worse, an alligator. Surveyors were accompanied by a sharps shooter to dispatch any wild creatures. But occasionally the surveyor and his protector would become separated and one will build a smoky fire to alert the other of their location.
Another dangerous job was working with the dynamite. Bore holes were drilled into the limestone rock by a machine called a drill car. The dynamite would be dropped down these holes. The dynamite was then detonated electronically and huge boulders would fly fifty feet or more into the air. Smaller rock shrapnel could travel a half mile or further, and not necessarily straight up. Almost 3,000,000 sticks of dynamite were used in Collier County alone. Miraculously, no one was killed building the Tamiami Trail in our area.
Following the drill car would be a dredge that scooped up the rock fill and deposited in a narrow continuous mound for the road base. A machine called a skimmer would distribute sand and rock on top of the fill. A grader would smooth the road surface.
The Tamiami Trail was finally completed in 1928 with a total length 264 miles.
The next time you take a drive to the east coast, consider the Tamiami Trail instead of I-75. The speed limit is just right to allow you to enjoy the beautiful scenic landscape of the subtropical wilderness. But watch for the Panther crossing signs.
For more history of Pine Island, visit the Museum of the Islands, Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., and Sunday, 1-4 p.m.
The museum is conveniently located next to the Pine Island Library at 5728 Sesame Drive off Stringfellow Road. Call 239-283-1525.
Tim Knox is museum historian at the Museum of the Islands.