A Very Brief History of Naples

From Pre-History to Today

Flying pelican

Humans have populated the Naples area for thousands of years. But, until very recently, those residents were Colusa Indians who wandered freely all over Southwest Florida. By the mid-1800s, humans had vanished and only a rich variety of wildlife remained. Alligators, crocodiles, pelicans, panthers, osprey, and otters oh my!

Naples Florida is Invented in the Late 1800s

Until 1885, Naples was still full of plant and animal life but devoid of human beings until a schooner arrived off the coast of what is now the city of Naples.

One of the founders of Naples, Walter N. Haldeman, from Louisville, Kentucky arrived by sailboat that year and picked the spot that was to become Naples.

According to his granddaughter, Florence Haldeman Price, Naples was never a fishing village, but always intended to be a warm, healthy winter getaway:

Grandfather definitely saw a healthy winter home for his family: sunshine, warmth and outdoor living. He wanted it on the mainland, washed by waters of the Gulf. He did not want an island. And that mainland is what he found.(Source: When Peacocks were Roasted and Mullet was Fried)

The name ‘Naples’ was given to the infant town to suggest that this wonderful wilderness would one day become just as beautiful, sophisticated and desirable as Naples Italy. In 1888, that was still a dream and our Naples had just 80 residents.

Naples Beach Hotel Early 1900s

Naples Beach Hotel Early 1900s

In 1889, the first 16-room Naples hotel and the municipal pier were built. They were connected by a rustic wooden walkway to carry people, luggage, and supplies.

Arriving always by boat, intrepid winter visitors filled the hotel, which became the center of the tiny town’s social life for decades to come.  Today’s Naples Beach Hotel is a direct descendent of that rustic resort.

Collier County Roots Planted in 1911

While the growth of the city of Naples proceeded at a glacial pace into the early 20th century, Baron Gift Collier, a wealthy advertising tycoon from New York City discovered what was to become Collier County in 1911. He soon fell in love:

“Frankly, I was fascinated with Florida and swept off my feet by what I saw and felt,” he once explained. “It was a wonder land with a magic climate, set in a frame of golden sunshine.”

That love of Florida combined with a sense of limitless possibility inspired him to purchase more than 1,000,000 acres of wilderness. Much of that wilderness became Collier County, stretching from the Gulf of Mexico into the Everglades. Barron Collier ultimately drove the creation of the Tamiami Trail from Fort Myers to Miami.

1928 Opening Celebration of Tamiami Trail: Naples to Miami

1928 Opening Celebration of Tamiami Trail: Naples to Miami

It was not until the 1920s that Naples and Collier County began developing the infrastructure to support future growth. In fact, until 1923 there were no paved roads. Until 1926 there was no electricity.

Until 1928, with the completion of the Tamiami Trail, there was no easy way to get from Naples to Miami–a mere 120 miles across the state.

The 1920s brought plenty of modernization, but by 1930, just 390 residents called Naples home.

Real Growth Comes After World War II

The most significant growth came after World War II, beginning in the 1950s.

In 1950 Naples got its first bank. Before then a drive to Fort Myers was necessary. And, it was only in 1955 that Naples first hospital was built.

Ironically, hurricane Donna in 1960, spurred an amazing building boom thanks to $25 million worth of insurance paid to owners of destroyed property. Construction boomed as homes, offices, and hotels were rebuilt.

Naples Beach Hotel Circa mid-1950s

Naples Beach Hotel Circa mid-1950s

Typical of Neapolitans’’ resilience was Naples Beach Hotel owner, Henry Watkins Sr., who said, “We’ll just build it back better.” In fact, the hotel reopened just a month after the hurricane.  And, as Naples grew, so did the Naples Beach Hotel. As the city moved into the 21st century the Watkins family continued to invest in the hotel with the addition of gracious rooms, extensive meeting space, and sophisticated tennis facilities.

Explosive Growth Begins in the 1980s

Naples population growth 1950-2010Many more hotels arose along the Gulf, but the growth accelerator was almost certainly the opening of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in 1985. Naples now began to lure 1000s of corporate CEOs and wealthy entrepreneurs to newly built luxury golf front condominiums and palatial homes and villas in planned communities that stretched from the golf to many miles inland.

The word was out. By the 1990s, new residents from all income levels flocked to the now booming greater Naples community. Collier County had grown from 85,971 residents in 1980 to 251,377 residents in 2000—and to 322,739 by 2010.  That’s almost as large as the city of Cleveland, Ohio, from which many Naples residents migrated.

Naples is no longer a sleepy little paradise known to just a fortunate few. Today, it has become a sophisticated small city that offers a warm climate and a warm welcome to brand-new residents.

But, sometimes the simple pleasures are still the best.

father and son paddle board--W-A

A dad and his son at the beach just as it might have been in 1885.

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