EDITOR'S NOTE: As part of the Santiva Chronicle's coverage of the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Charley on Aug. 13, 2004, Timothy M. Jacobs, one of Southwest Florida's leading writers and historians, looks back at notable storms before Charley. This Part I of III.

Since the days of the Calusa Indians, the islands of Sanibel and Captiva have weathered more than their fair share of hurricanes, including a few where they took the brunt of the impact, not only causing damage, but altering the geography of the islands. Most recently, Hurricane Charley in 2004 hit the tip of Captiva, causing the storm to change course and head straight into Port Charlotte.

With no accurate early warning or tracking system in place, hurricanes barreled through, unannounced and unplanned for. Captiva resident Joseph Wightman summed it up best in a 1977 interview from “Voices from the past. . . True Tales of Old Captiva.” Recalling the earlier hurricanes he said, “Each man had to be his own weather bureau. We had our barometer and humidity gauges and thermometers, and you take a look at the sky and figure out which way the wind was blowing, and make your own guess on it.”

Early Hurricanes

It was not until 1947 that the World Meteorological Organization began to name these weather phenomenon; therefore a hurricane prior to that year could have a few names. Usually they were named for where the eye of the storm hit land or simply the year it caused destruction.

A few of the earliest recorded hurricanes that barreled over the islands were the hurricanes of July 1839 and October 1841. With barely any structures or residents on the islands, most damage was fallen trees, high tides, and saturated soil mixed with sand.

Karl Grismer, in his book “The Story Of Fort Myers,” mentions the 1841 hurricane “was one of the worst which ever hit the West Coast.” In nearby Punta Rassa, Fort Dulany, according to Grismer, “was wiped out almost completely. . . All the buildings were demolished by the raging wind and the water swept over the entire point, covering it many feet deep.”

The islands would not weather another hurricane for 32 years until the Hurricane of 1873 came through. Grismer noted “heavy rains began the day before and continued all through the night. Early Monday morning the wind reached gale velocity from the southwest and increased in intensity all day long. . . Trees crashed to the ground.”

On Sanibel Island, a record five feet of water covered much of the land, and one family had to brave the storm. According to Elinore M. Dormer’s “Sea Shell Islands: A History of Sanibel and Captiva,” 47-year-old William S. Allen, an assistant Marshal and farmer, and his 16-year-old son, George, a farm laborer, “were the only residents of Sanibel.” The 1870 Census lists Allen as the census taker that year for Sanibel, Key West, and other neighboring islands, and the Allen family are the only inhabitants listed for Sanibel.

After the Hurricane of 1873 ruined his crops as well as the farming land, Allen took his son to Key West, while he made his home at Chokoloskee Bay. He later moved to Key West, where he died in 1891.

The islands spent nearly four decades hurricane free until the “big storm” hit.

The “Big Storm” of 1910

The Storm Came, But We Are Here,” ran the headline after the Oct. 17 hurricane barreled through Southwest Florida. The Category 2 storm packing powerful winds left in its wake mass flooding and debris from almost every structure it touched. It was recorded as the most “violent storm” and quickly adapted the name “Big Storm.”

It is needless to say,” reported the paper, “that every home on the island has a lot of water in it. All the crops that were started are utterly ruined.”

Dormer noted “By 3:00 P. M. the wind was howling through the coconut palms, whipping the fronds to shreds, the rain had begun to fall and the sky took an eerie, yellow look.” About a dozen residents took refuge at Capt. William H. Reed’s house when the storm reached its peak. “Winds that exceeded one hundred ten miles per hour,” wrote Dormer, “bore down on the cluster of buildings, moaning and shrieking like some wild beast.” When Reed’s place gave in to the elements, everybody crawled to his son’s house, then from there to a small wash house. Finally, the house collapsed onto the wash house. Luckily unhurt, the people now sought shelter under the trees. “As they huddled there,” according to Dormer, “Will’s house collapsed into a pile of rubble and one corner of Lucy [Daniels] Sanibel House was knocked off its foundations.” From there the group moved inland.

The Reed family was also concerned about their son, William, and neighbors Sam and Harrison Woodring. Shortly before the storm, they took a boat, with a fourth person to head out to La Costa. Not too long after the storm, they learned that the boys had holed up on Pine Island, waited out the storm and were safe.

There was another report of a man, although “cut and bleeding” climbed up a palmetto tree and hung on for his life through the night.

The mail goes through

The mail boats tied up in Wulfert broke loose during the storm and sank, scattering the mailbags along the shore. The boatmen were able to retrieve all the bags, and delivered the mail, although not in the best condition, the following day. Also in Wulfert, the paper stated “truckers were stuck hard” and “crops are damaged considerably.”

The widespread devastation hit nearly every family. It was documented through the newspaper that “Dr. Dickey’s house is badly damaged. The house was blown from the blocks and both porches were blown down. . .Dr. Turner’s house was blown from its blocks and badly damaged. . .The Munson house was unroofed.”

In the late 1970s, early 1980s, Belton Johnson recalled the Big Storm in an interview. “He [Belton’s father] lost 125 acres. He’d been very prosperous before that, but after that he never did get back on his feet.” During the thick of the storm Belton said, “It got so bad, I can remember going across [the yard], I could hardly stay on the ground, it was blowing so hard, and I think that was the worst hurricane ever to hit these islands. We lost our hay barn, but the other houses all stood.”

As the island residents began to rebuild what the Big Storm destroyed, they were thankful no lives were lost. The storm did, however, cause a change in the population. Sanibel was near 100 permanent residents in 1900 and by 1905 this figure was 151. It dropped slightly after the 1910 storm.

In September 1919, the outer bands of the Florida Keys Hurricane or Atlantic Gulf Hurricane swept over the islands. It was reported to be “not nearly as vicious a hurricane” as people feared; but it ruined the grapefruit groves and “salted the ground.”

It would be the 1921 and 1926 hurricanes that would forever alter the landscape of the islands.

About the author

T.M. Jacobs, authorT.M. Jacobs is a member of the Board of Directors of the Southwest Florida Historical Society, member of the Corporate Board of the Gulf CoastWriters Assoc. and president owner of Jacobs Writing Consultants in Fort Myers. A student of the American Revolution, he is the author of several historical works, including the recently published Almost Home: The 1864 Diary of Sergeant Samuel E. Grosvenor. The book is available at amazon.com and has been featured in both the Santiva Chronicle and on CSPAN2's Book TV.