7 Startling Truths From Sanibel’s Past

Everyone knows Sanibel as the sleepy little barrier island and favorite family vacation destination, where biking is the preferred method of transportation, and the streets are quiet by 9:00pm.

But, it’s what you don’t know about Sanibel that’ll make you appreciate our island even more. That’s what I learned while chatting with Kate Helman, a Realtor here on our team. Kate is the “other fiery redhead” at McCallion & McCallion. You should see her and Susan when they’re in the same room – look out!

We enjoy Kate’s knowledge of our islands. She volunteers as a docent at the Sanibel Historical Museum and Village and has lots of fun facts to share with the team. Here are some startling stats and tidbits that will bring out the history nerd in us all.

Did you know??…

#1. High-Rises Were Planned
Lee County planned to build high-rise buildings along Tarpon Bay to house 93,000 people, and a Super Causeway connecting Sanibel to Charlotte Harbor? It was in defiance of this outrageous plan that the residents of Sanibel incorporated as a city and implemented the “Sanibel Plan” – a restrictive land use policy limiting development density and building height. For perspective, the 2017 population of Miami Beach is 92,000.

#2. Toll Started at $5
Do you think the $6 toll is high? When built in 1963, the original causeway was privately developed and owned by Hugo Lindgren, who charged a $5 toll to cross the Causeway in 1963. That’s over $40 in today’s dollars! Lee County later took over the bridge, charging $3, which slowly made its way to the current $6 toll (which, when adjusted for inflation, is 85% less than the original price).

#3. Population High’s and Low’s
Sanibel Island only had about 250 residents from 1880 to 1926. Then after the hurricane of 1926, the population dropped to only 100 people (representing about 0.2% of Lee County at that time). The population stayed around 100 until the 60’s when Florida started attracting tourists. In 2017, Sanibel’s population reached 7,300 residents, but only 2,500 live on island year round (0.3% of Lee County today).
Eye-opening bonus fact: we see a bloom of 30,000 visitors on island during season!

#4. Women-Owned Property
In the late 1800’s much of Sanibel was owned by women. Was this area a hotspot for the early women’s rights movement? Unlikely. A post Civil War law forbade Confederate soldiers who had “raised arms against the nation” from owning property. To get around this, families placed property in the wives’ names.

#5. Ponce vs. Calusa
Intrepid explorer, Ponce de Leon, visited the Sanibel area in 1513 during his quest for the Fountain of Youth. He and his crew got into a tussle with the war-like Calusa natives and he was shot with an arrow in his thigh. Ponce returned to Cuba, where he died of complications from this wound.
Linguistic bonus fact: Calusa means “fierce people”.

#6. Sanibel’s First Mansion
In the 1950’s, Lathrop and Helen Brown dreamt of a Mega-Mansion on 30-acres of Sanibel’s beachfront. But building such a structure on a then-remote island was problematic. So they came up with a novel solution. The Brown’s purchased a Mississippi riverboat, named “Algiers”, and floated it down to Sanibel. A canal was dredged from the Gulf into their property, the Algiers was brought in, then the canal was filled.

This resulted in a two-floor, six bedroom, five and a half bathroom home with servants quarters, two living rooms, terrazzo floor and a marble fireplace.
Unfortunately, the home was never lived in by the Brown’s. Mr. Brown died before completion and Mrs. Brown never returned. The land was purchased by the City of Sanibel in 1979 and became Algiers Beach (now Gulfside City Park), named after the boat.
Romantic bonus fact: In 1991, I proposed to Susan on Algiers Beach!

#7. The Start of Mosquito Control
Do you feel mosquitos are bad on Sanibel? Well, when a mosquito trap can catch 2,000 mosquitos in a day, it is considered that the mosquitos represent a major nuisance. However, in the early 60’s, a trap on Sanibel Island caught a world record breaking 365,000 mosquitos in one day! It makes me itchy just thinking about it. This is why there is a Lee County Mosquito Control District which performs aerial spraying to control these pests.
Annoying bonus fact: Drinking beer or wearing perfume makes you more attractive to mosquitos while ingesting garlic has no effect. Gross bonus fact: Mosquitos like stinky feet.


Hungry for more island history? I encourage you to visit The Sanibel Historical Museum and Village, open 10am-4pm Tuesday-Saturday through August 6. Located at 950 Dunlop Road, next to BIG ARTS. Docent-guided tours are 10:30am and 1:30pm at no extra charge. For more information, call 472-4648 or visit www.sanibelmuseum.org

Jim McCallion About Jim McCallion

Meet the "Marketing Megaphone" and Webmaster behind McCallion & McCallion. After selling his software company, Jim, Susan and kids moved to Sanibel in 2008. With his tech experience, he and Susan bring a fresh approach to island real estate.