Longstreet Highroad Guide to the Florida Keys & Everglades
By Rick Ferren
[Fig. 15, Fig. 16, Fig. 17] With a population of a little more than 500, Everglades City would hardly seem to earn the title "city." Except in the winter, when Everglades City swells with thousands of visitors who come to connect somehow with the Ten Thousand Islands.
The first settlers arrived in the wilderness that would someday become Everglades City just before the Civil War. By the turn of the century, they had carved out a small fishing and farming community on the banks of what today is known as the Barron River. William Smith Allen was the first to pioneer and develop the land in 1870. He built a home on the site of the present day Rod and Gun Club.
Early pioneers earned a living farming and commercial fishing. The fertile soil and year-round growing season made it possible to grow vegetables for home use and for the winter markets up north. Tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplants, peppers, cabbages, pineapple, avocados, bananas, and sugar cane grew well in the warm climate. Early commercial fishing operations caught mostly mullet, which was salted and packed into barrels for shipment to Key West and other markets.
In 1892 George W. Storter Jr. opened the first general store and trading post and operated it for 30 years. Commerce increased as boats ran from Tampa to Key West and all stops in between. Indians traded and sold furs, beeswax, craft items, and alligator hides; in return they bought coffee, hand-cranked sewing machines, cloth, colored beads, and ammunition.
In 1922, the Storter holdings were sold to Barron G. Collier, a wealthy businessman who made his money in the advertising trade in New York City. Collier eventually purchased more than a million acres in southwestern Florida which he hoped to drain and develop.
In 1923, Collier's promise to the Florida legislature to complete the Tamiami Trail was accepted in return for the creation of Collier County in which Barron Collier owned 90 percent of the land. At the time there wasn't a single mile of paved road in the county.
The Tamiami Trail had been completed to the eastern edge of the Big Cypress Swamp years earlier, but the western half had been abandoned. Collier started the job as promised, but progress was slow. Drilling and blasting the hard limestone into road-building rubble proved to be difficult and time-consuming. The workers were only able to complete about 80 feet of road per day.
When Collier's operation lost momentum, the state took over and finished the job. The last 35 miles came in at a cost of $25,000 per mile.
Completion of the Tamiami Trail improved transportation between Tampa and Miami and helped develop cattle ranching and farming in Collier County. Although the trail passed 4 miles to the north, Everglades City remained a small town at the end of the highway.
In the early 1900s, the first sportsmen began coming to the area for the bountiful fishing and hunting. As the number of sportsmen continued to grow over the decades, others began coming for different interestsbird-watching, boating, and camping.
Today Everglades City is a center for eco-tourism businesses aimed mostly at getting the visitor onto the water. Boat tours, airboat rides, canoe outfitters, and fishing guides abound. You can also choose to look a little deeper and add a dab of history to your outdoor adventures.
[Fig. 17(1)] The Museum of the Everglades is located in a commercial laundry building that was originally opened for business in 1927 as part of Barron Collier's planned community and company town.
The museum, which opened in the spring of 1998, displays artifacts and photographs in a historical context that details 2,000 years of human habitation in southwestern Florida. Volunteer members of the historical society are on hand to provide assistance and answer questions. Even a short visit will provide a historical overview of the town and surrounding area. The museum also holds lectures and tours. Plus, you can pick up a self-guided walking tour guide of Everglades City that leads you to 10 historical sites and buildings.
Fishing guides are plentiful in Everglades City. Most specialize in live bait and plug casting for snook, tarpon, redfish, cobia, and seatrout in shallow water. While most specialize in conventional tackle, others can cater to fly-fishermen.
For more information: For a list of fishing guides contact the Everglades Area Chamber of Commerce, PO Box 130, Everglades, FL 34139. Phone (941) 695-3941. Web site [email protected]. The Coastal Conservation Association Florida maintains a list of guides on its web site. Click on Southwest Region Guides. It can be contacted at CCA Florida, 904 East Park Avenue, Tallahassee, FL 32301. Phone (850) 224-3474. Web site www.cca-florida.com.
Most of the boat tours offer standard or tailored cruises of various lengths through the Ten Thousand Islands. The Gulf Coast Visitor Center of Everglades National Park also offers boat tours. Airboat rides generally explore the narrow, winding mangrove creeks of the Everglades backcountry.
Canoe and kayak outfitters rent equipment and lead multiday trips into the backcountry. Discount coupons for many of the attractions in Everglades City can be picked up at the Everglades Area Chamber of Commerce at the corner of SR 29 and US 41.
This is one of the most famous operations in the Everglades. The airboat rides cross a sawgrass prairie as well as explore the mangrove backcountry. Swamp buggy tours explore cypress swamps. There are also wildlife shows and exhibits featuring alligators, panthers, deer, bobcats, and otters.
This is the largest and oldest airboat touring operation in Everglades City. Tours survey the mangrove forest backcountry and include a brief visit to a sawgrass wetland. Included is an alligator show and a visit to an Indian village. Especially enjoyable are small airboat rides for less than six people. Although more expensive, they offer a more intimate experience in an authentic Everglades airboat. Open seven days a week.
Captain Sophia Stiffler pilots a 22-foot deck (pontoon) boat and operates tours of the Ten Thousand Islands toward the Gulf of Mexico. The boat holds up to six people and is a good choice for families wanting to design their own trip. Trips can include shelling, fishing, exploring, and bird-watching. The deck boat is also a good photography platform.
For those wishing to strike out on their own, this outfit rents all the equipment you'll need. It also leads multiday paddle trips into the Everglades backcountry or the Gulf of Mexico side of the Ten Thousand Islands. Half-day and full-day trips also available.
A two-hour boat tour operates daily out of the Gulf Coast Visitor Center [Fig. 17(2)]. The cruise follows a loop route through the heart of the Ten Thousand Islands. A naturalist relates the natural history of the area and helps identify wildlife. Manatees are spotted 80 percent of the time. Bottle-nosed dolphin, osprey, and bald eagles are commonly seen. Open year-round including holidays.
Dining can be a real treat in Everglades City, with a different place to try every day. There are no fast food chains or all-night breakfast grills. Many restaurants occupy historic old buildings. In general, the restaurants serve a wide selection of local seafood and traditional favorites. Many restaurants will also be happy to prepare your catch in any way you choose.
PO Box 367, Everglades City, FL 34139. The Oyster House on the causeway between Everglades City and Chokoloskee is a restaurant that could only be found in a land where the swamp meets the Gulf of Mexico. The museum-like setting features a huge stuffed black bear, models of sailing vessels, trophy mounts of largemouth bass, swordfish, and sawfish, carved wooden alligators, murals of coastal life, totem poles, and a stuffed opossum. Maybe the best hybrid of the two worlds is a cypress clock adorned with oyster shells.
Food also comes both from the swamp and the gulf. You can have gator tail or grouper, frog legs or lobster, bay scallops, catfish, or shrimp any way you want it. The most fun is to mix a fried or broiled platter of delicacies from both worlds, but whatever you choose, don't pass up at least a sampling of the gator tail, lightly fried southern style in bite-sized pieces. A 75-foot tower on the property offers a terrific panoramic view of the mangrove forest and the nearby small towns. And the walk up is a good way to work off a little of your meal. Casual dining. Inexpensive. Phone (941) 695-2073.
Oar House Restaurant
305 North Collier Avenue, Everglades City, FL 34139. The Oar House Restaurant is located on SR 29, just as it enters Everglades City. In a coastal setting the restaurant serves local favorites such as turtle cooter (fried freshwater turtle), gator tail, frog legs, and the usual steak and hamburger fare. With a full-service breakfast served everyday, it's a favorite for local fishing guides and their clients. Full cocktail lounge. Dress is casual. Inexpensive. Phone (941) 695-3535.
Susie's Station Restaurant
Susie's Station Restaurant is located next to the Museum of the Everglades on the city circle. Even if you're not hungry, stop in for a quick look around at this converted 1920s gas station and general store. There's a 1920 Oldsmobile sitting inside and an interesting collection of turn-of-the-century store items from a time when chain was 2 cents a foot, and dry goods were 15 cents a yard. Food is basic lunchtime sandwich fare. Try the Key lime pie. Inexpensive. Phone (941) 695-2002.
Everglades Seafood Depot Restaurant
102 Collier Avenue, Everglades City, FL 34139. Located in the original Everglades Train Depot, which first opened in 1928. This restaurant gives diners a pleasant view of mangrove-shrouded Lake Placid. Don't be surprised to see an alligator cruise by during dinner. There is a nice covered dining area next to the water for times when the weather cooperates.
It serves a full seafood fare of local favorites in a casual atmosphere. Stone crabs are hugely popular when in season from October 15 to May 15. It also specializes in large deep-water lobster. Most meals are inexpensively priced; lobster and stone crabs are slightly more expensive than other meals. Inexpensive. Phone (941) 695-0075.
Blue Crab Café
PO Box 383, Everglades City, FL 34139. Located on the Tamiami Trail (US 41), just east of SR 29, the Blue Crab Café brings a little Maryland crab cuisine to the Everglades. Owned and operated by Tony Hickman and Joan Griffin, it specializes in a variety of blue crab dishes made fresh every day. Tony even steams the crabs right on the front porch. The Maryland crab cake on a Kiser bun is a local favorite.
Other choices include oysters, shrimp, stone crabs, conch fritters, frog legs, gator nuggets, and Indian fry bread. The surf and turf and snow crab are reasonably priced with large helpings. Casual dining. Inexpensive. Phone (941) 695-2682.
Everglades City has a limited variety of accommodations, including about a half dozen motels, lodges, resorts, and inns, and about as many RV parks. Other accommodations are available on Marco Island 26 miles north on US 41. A full list of lodging options can be obtained by contacting the Everglades Area Chamber of Commerce, Inc., PO Box 130, Everglades City, FL 34139. Phone (941) 695-3941.
The Rod And Gun Club
200 Broadway, Everglades City, FL 34139. Located on the banks of the Barron River just off the city circle, this is the most famous lodging in Everglades City. Built in 1850, on the site of the first homestead in Everglades City, it's a beautiful southern mansion turned into a lodge. A magnificent, all wood, heavily varnished lobby harks back to an earlier time when sportsmen gathered in the evening to discuss the day's hunting or fishing trip. Over the years it's been visited by a long list of presidents and movie stars. It also includes a waterfront restaurant, dock space, and fishing guides. Checks or cash only. Moderate to expensive. Phone (941) 695-2101.
On The Banks Of The Everglades Bed & Breakfast Inn
201 West Broadway, Everglades City, FL 34139. Located right next door to the Rod and Gun Club, On the Banks of the Everglades is a bed and breakfast established in the Bank of the Everglades, the first bank to serve Collier County in the 1920s. The refurbished building has 12 rooms but has retained some of its banking character, including bags of "money" laying around in the lobby and hallways. Breakfast is served in the Walk-in Vault. Moderate to expensive. Phone (888) 431-1977. Web site www.banksoftheeverglades.com.
The Ivey House Bed And Breakfast
107 Camellia Street, Everglades City, FL 34139. This historic building was first built as a recreation hall for workers on the Tamiami Trail. In 1925 it was moved to its present site, and in 1928 it was converted into a boarding house. It offers an Everglades library, complimentary bicycles, canoe and kayak rentals, and deck boat adventures. The Ivey House is affiliated with a canoe and kayak outfitter that can customize any Everglades adventure you might have in mind. Moderate. Phone (941) 695-3299.
Barron River Resort, Motel And Rv Park
PO Box 116, Everglades City, FL 34139. Located directly on the Barron River at the Everglades City bridge, this motel and RV park offers easy access to the Ten Thousand Islands and the Gulf of Mexico. The resort includes waterfront efficiencies, one- and two-bedroom apartments, and an RV park with full hook-ups, cable TV, and telephone. Some sites are waterfront. It also has a full-service marina, bait and tackle store, and boat rentals. Moderate. Phone (941) 695-3591.