A Trip through Arches in Time

September 27, 2023 Services

Enjoy Reading The History Of The Fort Myers Beach Arches

June Naas Photo (1978), she tried to have them added to the National Historic Registry to save them

Our Fort Myers Beach Arches (1924-1979) were a great icon recognized as home to residents of Estero Island (Crescent Beach in the 1920s).  It was a symbol Fort Myers Beach to our visitors.  Towering 27’ in the middle, 17’ at the apex of the arches (The height of a modern Interstate bridge), 104’ wide, and 10’ deep and with pedestrian walk; they were stunning.  It was impressive as it came into view from Buttonwood Drive, but for a communication lapse between Tallahassee FDOT and Matanzas Pass bridge subcontractors, it would still exist in a County Park, not just on pictures of vintage post cards and in the photos of the most photographed area object of the era.  For those of us from that era, when we slowed or stopped for the smell of the salt air, heard the swing bridge, and saw the Arches as we traversed the swing bridge, it is etched in our memories. For many, including my mother and father, it was their introduction to Fort Myers Beach and the reason they moved here.

The original Wooden Bridge built over Matanzas Pass in 1921

In 1921 when the wood bridge was built there were just 9 property owners and 4 houses on Fort Myers Beach (then Crescent Beach), one Ambrose McGregor was among them.  People in a slower world would slow down; take in the sights, sounds, and smells, from that toll bridge, changing 50 cents a carload.

Tomas Henley Phillips was from the NW. He had his first job at the age of 13 in a machine shop and moved to New York City at the age of 15 where he was making things.  He was granted his 1st patent at the age of 21.   Quite successful as an inventor, he opened his own company in Chicago in 1909. He created a radio controlled pilotless airplane for the Sperry Gyroscope Company in WWI.  He moved with his family to Fort Myers in 1918.  He used the money he had made selling his patent of the 1st Modern Washing Machine to General Electric to become a land developer.  He started his “San Carlos on the Gulf” development in 1920.  In 1921, when the 1st pilling for the bridge had not even been driven, Tom Phillips started building the Crescent Beach Casino at the location that was “Shucker’s at  the Gulf shore and Cottage Bar” (until destroyed by Ian).  In 1924, he built the Arches facing his sales pavilion for this “San Carlos on the Gulf” land development.

1920s ad for San Carlos on the Gulf

The original road to Matanzas Pass was John Morris Road down to Bunche Beach along a strip of land.  “San Carlos on the Gulf” was on the mainland.  Tom built many coquina shell stone structures as part of the development.  Tom’s Arches became the star of the show and were photographed extensively.  Tom Phillips added the annex which included 1st and Crescent Street. He sold lots for small cottages to mainly fishermen back then. Some lots for an eye popping $1000.  He dug the 1st canals on the island behind those streets.  All was going incredibly well for the area until 1926.  The great Miami hurricane decimated the area.  Only two stone structures survived.  The Arches would survive 4 more hurricanes; one stone Monument on the west end of Main Street still exists.

The 1926 hurricane was so strong the surge created San Carlos Island, Hurricane Bay, and Hurricane Pass.  The area was cut off from street traffic.  In 1928 planners of the era decided to purchase the swing bridge. Tom pleaded with them to align the bridge to the Arches and gave right-of-way to his property for the new road. In 1928, the beach cut-off (San Carlos Blvd was created) the old end of John Morris was dubbed San Carlos Dr.

San Carlos Island (Circa 1928) San Carlos Blvd and San Carlos Dr. pictured.

The swing bridge was in place, the land/real estate boom was over, and the Great Depression ruined any chance of a comeback.  The Arches were the town entrance for over half a century.

In 1978, 54 years after the arches were built, the swing bridge started to become prone to breakdown.  It would create traffic jams and long waits.  The bridge needed to be replaced.   Information became publically know just months prior to the contract being awarded that the planners had decided to destroy the Arches to install the new Matanzas Pass Bridge.  The Fort Myers Beach Jaycees and citizens started a movement to try to save the Arches.

In 1978, our Vice President Darcy Bowman’s mother June Naas started an effort to save the Arches by getting them added to the National Historic Registry.  The effort failed because in 1978 the Arches were not old enough.  Citizens began conversations with local planners.  FDOT, Lee County Commissioners, and the bridge contractor agreed to relocate the Arches to a county park instead of destroying them.  Our Arches had been saved.  Phone calls were made to FDOT in Tallahassee by our commissioners to stand down on the destruction of the Arches.   Unfortunately, nobody told the bridges wrecking ball and bull dozer subcontractor.

As the Arches laid in ruin on the ground by mistake, many citizens felt like they lost their town’s identity.  It was like losing the Sanibel Lighthouse on Sanibel, or Cinderella’s Castle at Disney.  The structure that most people identified with Fort Myers Beach was gone. My Mother (who didn’t curse) cursed the local Government for not finding a way to save them, she cried.  Darcy’s mother cried, our 1st Vice President Jane Luchi cried in disbelief when she asked, “Where are the Arches?” and got the unbelievable answer.  People deeply affected stopped to pick up pieces of the Arches to take home as the Arches lay in rubble on the roadside.  Many still felt the loss every time they drove onto the beach where the Arches once were. It was part of the original town comp plan when Fort Myers Beach was incorporated to rebuild the Arches on School Street.  It never happened.  The Mayor of Fort Myer Beach commissioned a full mural behind Town Council Chambers of the Arches; the Jan Ellen Atkielski mural was destroyed by Ian.

Robbie Williams as a kid with his Grandpa Frank Hemelgarn on the Arch Remains on Rebecca Circle.

Our group was formed in 2016 by Paul Sessions after a Facebook conversation about the Arches remains. The Grandson of Frank and Rebecca Hemelgarn (who named Time Square) piped in.  Robbie Williams indicated he played on the remains of the Arches as a kid. Paul formed Restore Fort Myers Beach Arches the next day. We gained permission to reuse the remains.  Restore Fort Myers Beach Arches, Inc. is made up of now nearly 3300 members that discovered the remains of the iconic structure still exist and should be saved.   Paul added me to his Restore Fort Myers Beach Arches group on the 1st day.

We tried to have the original Arches scaled up, and replaced at the base of the bridge with no FDOT or Commissioners support, our effort failed.  Many ideas went back and forth.  After 5 years, we came up with a place acceptable to the Town of Fort Myers Beach and Lee County. We compromised on a 20ft Commemorative Arch at Bowditch Point Regional Park.

Our group paid to remove the stones from 40 years of overburden, and have them 3-D Imaged by Archeologist at USF IDEx.  Our group paid for the engineering drawings package for a new Arch, we transported 17 stones, 60Klbs of material to Buckingham for storage.  We also paid to have the surfaces cut to enable reuse (they were hit with a wrecking ball).  We now have 23 pallets of original stone slabs.  We have paid for 70+ percent of the etched brick to build the King’s Commemorative Arch Walk.  We will pay for signage and for the construction of the project. We are now told by Lee County the original $90K quote verbally given to us in July of 2022, may now be as much as $150K.

Much of Fort Myers Beach history has been plowed under for the newest structures; much more of the town’s history was washed away by Hurricane Ian.  We started this project before Ian and we intend to see it through to the end.  The 4th Annual Rock the Arches Music Festival April 6th and 7th, 2024 at Alliance for the Arts in Fort Myers, we hope will be the means for us to end this project https://www.facebook.com/events/222865257101136.  Buy tickets and enjoy the show at  https://ticketstripe.com/4throckthearches.   We are a one and done non-profit.  This is our mission.  We want to finish, and hand over the project to Lee County with no taxpayer burden.  These Arches are still etched in our memories and heart.  Help us bring back some history to our beach.   2024 would have been the hundredth year of the Arches. Donate now at https://mickyds2002.wixsite.com/restorethearches.