Present day Chapel by the Sea on Captiva. Chapel by the Sea was heavily damaged by the Tampa Bay Hurricane of 1921. Photo courtesy Chapel by the Sea
Present day Chapel by the Sea on Captiva. Chapel by the Sea was heavily damaged by the Tampa Bay Hurricane of 1921. Photo courtesy Chapel by the Sea

It was during the Roaring Twenties that the islands were affected by two hurricanes: one in 1921, then five years later in 1926. Eleven years had passed since the “Big Storm” of 1910, and residents as well the geography of the islands were still in a period of adjustment.

Tampa Bay Hurricane of 1921

It was known as the Tampa Bay Hurricane of 1921 (also Tarpon Springs Hurricane). In late October, the hurricane formed off the coast of Jamaica, and rounded the Florida Keys as a Category 4 storm. As the eye of the storm was due to hit the Tampa area, the islands suffered heavy rain and high winds from the outer bands of the hurricane.

When the storm reached land, it was downgraded to a Category 3, packing 120-mph landfall winds, 75-mph sustained winds with gusts up to 140 mph. Once the storm subsided, it left in its wake an estimated $10 million in damages, 10 people dead, and seven unaccounted for along the west coast.

The Fort Myers Press quickly ran the headline “Big Storm Hits The Whole West Coast of FLA.” It reported “worst storm to hit this section since the big storm which struck in 1910.”

Closer to home on the islands, it altered Captiva as it split the land at Red Fish Pass. Five years later another hurricane made that land change permanent. It was reported that 14-foot tides hit the islands.

Damage To The Islands

Harvey Knowles came to Captiva in the 1890s. In 1897, his wife and their son, Robert, joined him, and the family farmed for many years. The hurricane destroyed their farm, forcing the family to move to the east coast in 1922.

The Chapel by the Sea, earlier known as the Wayside Chapel, was severely damaged by the storm. Thanks to Hattie Brainerd Gore, who would not allow the structure to fall into disrepair from the elements of time and weather and spearheaded a group to restore the building. In later 1921, it was sold to a Methodist conference. Today is serves as an interfaith Christian ministry and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The damage to the island farms and landowners was severe enough that most sold their property for pennies on the dollar to Clarence B. Chadwick. One resident, Wilson Langley Bryant, known as “Tobe,” sold his farm to Chadwick. Valued at $35,000 prior to the storm, he sold it for $9,000. In a short time, Chadwick had over 330 acres on Captiva and named it South Seas Plantation, which today still holds the name and is a favorite resort for tourists.

Sadly, there was one life lost. In a 1977 interview, Joseph Wightman recalled how “the hurricane knocked the Blind Pass fish house down and drowned Mr. Rhodes.”

Five Years Later

Just as the islands were rebuilding from the devastation of the Tampa Bay Hurricane, along came the 1926 Miami Hurricane (also called The Great Miami Hurricane). On Sept. 18, a Category 4 hurricane made landfall in Miami and made its way across the state. Although the storm lost some of its punch when it hit land, it gained some strength as it went through the Everglades.

This storm made the 1921 Hurricane look like a passing shower according to various reports. Besides heavy damage in Arcadia, Punta Gorda and Fort Myers, it also took the lives of six sailors who drowned. There were two bodies washed up on the shore of Punta Rassa and a family of five went missing from Fish Camp near Captiva. The boat belonging to the sailors later turned up on the shore of Sanibel, and the bodies at Punta Rassa were identified as Mrs. McCool and Miss Bradley. The family at Fish Camp was warned to leave prior to the storm, but refused to do so and was never found.

The Inter-County Telephone and Telegraph Company reported “all of Lee county was completely out of commission. . .It will be at least three weeks before complete local and long distance service will be available.”

A ferry service set up by a private land developer from Pensacola earlier in 1926, running three trips daily, was demolished in the storm. The Kinzie’s steamer freight service and ferry also was wiped out. The Kinzie brothers later purchased the private ferry in 1928 and ran lines until the causeway opened in 1963.

Salted the farmland

The major impact to the islands from this storm was that it washed much of the beach sand inland, ruining the crops and farming businesses. This came to be known as “salted the farm land.” As a result, almost half of the Sanibel residents left the island.

William Reed, who served as postmaster for 44 years, had his house destroyed. Using the debris from his home, he built a small post office, which is now part of the Sanibel Historical Museum and Village.

Sanibel’s most well-known and admired resident Sam Bailey wrote in his book, “A Sanibel Son Looks Back,” about his earliest memory.

It was in the fall of 1926 and a brutal hurricane had just devastated the place. I had just come back from North Carolina where I spent the summer with my family. Although I was just knee high to a duck and not quite three years old, that day sticks in my mind. My daddy [Frank Bailey] drove me in his Studebaker down to the wharf to check on the family store. When we got there, I just stared at all the trees and debris on the ground. It didn’t make any sense. I said, ‘Daddy, where’s the store?’ He just scratched his head. Then I realized that the store was gone. Gone, and nothing left of it. Most of the dock was gone too. I didn’t really understand what I was looking at or what it all meant, but I knew it was bad.”

The family business and store was the Sanibel Packing Company. It served the community as a leading business for many years since its construction by Frank Bailey in 1899. It was rebuilt and later became Bailey’s General Store.

Again the population also took a hit because of the storms. In 1920 the population was at 162. According to the 1930 Census, the population fell to 127, then down to 92 in 1940.

It would be another 18 before the island residents braced for another hurricane.


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.