by Carlton Ward Jr. | March 12, 2019
Florida Wild: Old Salt
With concrete seawalls and high-rise condos dominating the landscape of my youth, scattered mangrove islands near my home of Clearwater represented a rare wildness where a boy with a boat could still get lost. When my family first visited Charlotte Harbor to fish in Boca Grande Pass, I was immediately drawn to an unbroken ribbon of mangroves standing guard at the water’s edge.
Parts of Charlotte Harbor feel like a journey back in time. Coming through Captiva Pass toward Pine Island, a mirage will take shape on the watery horizon. As you draw nearer, a small cluster of stilt houses will rise above the grass flats and oyster beds and begin to separate from the mangroves beyond. Once I found these historic structures, I returned to photograph them many times. At sunrise, at sunset, during afternoon thunderstorms, the stilt houses take on a different character in different light, always evoking a sense of heritage and mystery. This photograph was captured looking east just after sunset over the Gulf. In the right conditions, the final rays of sunlight scattering through the earth’s atmosphere will cast purples and pinks on the sky.
The stilt houses are markers of Charlotte Harbor’s commercial fishing legacy. Many were built before World War II at a time when a railroad from Punta Gorda connected nearby fisheries to northern markets. Some shacks housed fishermen for weeks, and others were ice houses owned by fish companies. The camps and ice houses became less relevant as boats became faster in the second half of the 20th century and catches could be taken quickly back to port. Some structures were burned down by natural resource officers. In 1991, ten of the buildings were placed on the National Register of Historic Places, and families who own them, on land leased from the state, rebuilt to historical specifications after Hurricane Charley destroyed most of them in 2004. This photograph was made the following year.