Our local Marco Island historian, columnist, and attorney Craig R. Woodward of Woodward, Pires & Lombardo, P.A., has an interesting new article in the Coastal History section of Coastal Breeze News. See The Astronomical Station at Cape Romano and the Caximba Route, published on January 5, 2023.
Craig Woodward moved to Marco Island in 1968 and has practiced law in Collier County since 1980. For many years, Craig has led a history tour of the Island for the Chamber of Commerce’s Leadership Marco program. What follows is a reprint of Craig’s latest article in Coastal Breeze:
“Cape Romano, a large point of land, is one of Florida’s earliest recognized geographic features similar to Florida’s other large cape, Cape Canaveral; let’s investigate its early history.
Our story started 500 years ago when, in 1513, Juan Ponce de Leon sailed up the Southwest Coast of Florida on his first discovery trip to Florida. A few years later, in 1521, he returned to our area only to be wounded in a battle with the Calusa Indians and was taken to Havana, where he died due to his injuries. Either because of his discovery of this area or perhaps to acknowledge his death, the Spanish named the large bay stretching from Cape Sable north to Cape Romano as “Juan Ponce de Leon Bay”; it retained that name for centuries. By 1762 the English had invaded and taken control over Spain’s principal colonial city Havana, the hub for its holdings in the Caribbean. They almost immediately traded Havana back to Spain in 1763 in return for what the English would call East Florida (now known as the peninsula) and West Florida (now known as the panhandle). The British sent out surveyors to chart their newly acquired coasts. In 1765, surveyor William G. De Brahm started working his way around the Florida coast, routinely changing Spanish names to proper English ones. The old “Juan Ponce de Leon Bay” became the new large Chatham Bay with Gullivan’s River (now Blackwater River) in the bay’s northeast corner.
The next surveyor appointed by the English, Bernard Romans, who despised De Brahm- probably because Romans was owed money for surveying work he had done when De Brahm was his employer- said this about De Brahm’s work: “I have carefully avoided the change of well-known names of places; but preserved the old ones, except only in two or three places where the name was not well known, or where there was none at all. Nothing can be more absurd or productive of confusion than the assuming new and fantastical names in places of so much danger; yet the author of a certain pamphlet published two years ago has done this at no small rate.”
This statement, however, did not stop Romans in 1771 from seeing an opportunity to change the old Spanish name of “Punta Larga” (Large Point) to a new, and in his mind, more fashionable name of Cape Romans! Shortly after the end of the American Revolution in 1783, Spain once again acquired all of Florida back from the English. Apparently, it was not worth their trouble to re-establish the old Spanish names for rivers, places, and islands, and, for the most part, Spain simply left the English names intact, but in some cases, those names evolved to sound more Spanish – Cape Romans eventually became Cape Romano.
By 1821, the United States obtained Florida from Spain for $5 million (a way to repay debts Spain owed us).
As the U.S. developed nautical charts of the area, they showed the heavy shoaling south of Cape Romano with numerous ever-shifting sandbars, and before long American guidebooks were suggesting that this dangerous area could be avoided by using the “Caximba,” a channel or route that would have taken one up and around the shoals via the current Marco River entering at Coon Key, passing the current Goodland, and exiting out to the north through Marco Pass. By 1837 John Lee Williams, who traveled around the exterior of Florida, wrote, “Punta Longa, or Cape Roman, is situated in latitude 26° and longitude 6° 46’ W. It is the south point of a large island and projects fifteen miles from the mainland, and from a S.W. point, a succession of sandy shoals extend fifteen miles farther in a S. S. W. direction. Vessels drawing six feet of water may avoid this cape by passing through the Caximba and by a passage of nine miles, shun a dangerous voyage of sixty miles.”
Florida evolved from a territory to becoming a U.S. State in 1845, and one of its first obligations was to survey land and divide the state into “government lots” for sale. Cape Romano was surveyed by John Henderson in 1878 and was subdivided into parcels for future government sale. However, again recognizing the historic shoaling to the south of Cape Romano, the official government surveyor noted on the survey that the U.S. Secretary of Treasury had ordered that Cape Romano be set aside for a future lighthouse.
Our story picks up in 1886 when charts of the area show the “Cape Romano Astronomical Station” in the area where the dome house used to be, leading one to wonder what an Astronomical Station is. A 1913 government book, “Triangulation Along the West Coast of Florida,” describes the station: “On Cape Romano 6 meters back of the high-water line and 315 meters north of the most southern point of the cape. The station is marked by a hole in the top of a marble post. A tile is buried 16.04 meters due north of the station and another 15.50 meters east by north. A large buttonwood tree marked with a blazed cross is at the edge of the woods about 125 meters north-northeast from the station and a large red mangrove tree similarly marked is at the edge of the woods about 160 meters east by north.” So what was this station? It was not a building, and no one lived there; it was simply a government marker – a small round brass disk with a hole in the center and a legend that said “U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey Triangulation Station. For information, write to Superintendent, Washington, D.C., $250 fine or imprisonment for disturbing this mark.”
Read this article in Coastal Breeze News.