homepage logo

Museum of the Islands: Runboats: workhorses for the islands

By Staff | Dec 7, 2016

Runboats like this one brought food and goods to the island and were the only source of transportation to the mainland from the 1890s until the Matlacha Bridge was built. PHOTO PROVIDED

Runboats were used from around the 1890s through the 1950s throughout Charlotte Harbor and Pine Island Sound. They were mainly used for hauling ice blocks used to keep fish fresh, as well as to transfer large catches of fish from fishermen’s boats and ice shacks to the processing houses.

Runboats were fairly narrow, about 8 to 12 feet, and 50 to 60-feet long. They usually had a small, simple forward cabin, and a large area from mid-point to stern for stowing. Runboats had a shallow draft, which was perfect for crossing Pine Island Sound’s shoals and sand bars. Many were equipped with a swinging derrick mast, to hoist and load heavy items such as 300-pound blocks of ice, pumps, motors and construction equipment.

The runabouts used around Pine Island Sound were usually powered with a simple, small, one or two-cylinder diesel engine. They were relatively easy to maintain, and reliable. The boats needed to be very reliable, as the entire Pine Island community counted on the runabouts for transportation, supplies, communications,and trade. They were a critical part of Pine Island life.

Until the late 1920s, there was no bridge from the mainland to Pine Island. All supplies had to managed by boat. Oranges were a big crop on Pine Island in those days, and runboats were used to transport the citrus to Fort Myers for packing and shipping.

Many island people relied on the runabouts for transportation. A monthly trip to Fort Myers was often planned to get supplies, food goods and have a night on the town. Before the Matlacha Bridge was completed in 1928, most Island people counted on the runabouts to get to the mainland. This was no small task. First the slow moving runabouts would pick them up based on a weekly schedule. The runabout would bring the people to Punta Gorda, where they would then catch a train to Fort Myers. This was an all day event! They would then shop, have dinner, and spend the night either at a hotel or with friends in Fort Myers. They would then take the train back to Punta Gorda, then board the runboat for the trip back home.

Because the runabouts were mainly used for transporting fish, they had a “rough odor” of stale fish mixed with diesel fuel and mold. It was not a pleasant trip, according to most accounts. Rough seas at times added to the mix, as well as hot humid air during the summer. But the runabouts were reliable, and unless you had your own boat, the runboats were the main source of transport to the mainland.

The typical southbound Runboat schedule: Monday and Wednesday: Punta Gorda, Turtle Bay, Bulls Bay, Boca Grande, Punta Blanca, Safety Harbor, Blind Pass and Tarpon Bay. The northbound return (in reverse) would be on Tuesday and Thursday.

From the 1890s to the 1950s the runabouts were a critical life line for the island community. They live on in the old-timers’ memories, and photos. Life and commerce on the islands would have been much more difficult without the runabouts. By the 1980s the end of commercial fishing in Florida had forced the closure of the big fish houses, like Punta Gorda Fish Company. Refrigeration ended the need for the ice houses. The building of roads and more bridges brought the final end for the runabouts.

From the 1890s to the 1960s, Runboats were an important part of the history, development, and day to day life of Pine Island Sound.

Please feel free to visit the Museum and learn more about the fabulous continuing history f the Pine Island Sound Community. Visit our website for hours and news: www.museumoftheislands.com

Dennis LeTendre is the Historian for MOTI, Museum of the Islands