On this day in 1902, Hugh O’Neill died in New York at the age of 58. It was O'Neill who tore down the Hendry House and replaced it with the 50-room Royal Palm Hotel, so named because of the royal palms his gardener brought in from Cuba).
Historian Karl Grismer relates that the hotel's opening was the biggest social event in the history of the town. But more, O'Neill advertised the hotel and the town in northern newspapers. "To attract guests to his new establishment, he paid for large ads in leading papers in New York, Boston Philadelphia and Washington extolling the Caloosahatchee area in general and Fort Myers in particular. He even employed a crack publicity man to herald the activities of socialites who stopped at his hotel." Every time one of them caught a fish or shot an alligator on a camping trip up river, photos of their exploits were sent to their home town papers, thus establishing Fort Myers as the place to be and be seen.
The Royal Palm was the first hotel in Fort Myers to be wired for electricity. But it wasn't Thomas Edison who did the honors. Rather, the feat was achieved by one of the town's most enlightened and energetic citizens, a man known to everyone as Bertie Gardner. The lights were turned on at dusk on Saturday, January 1, 1898, but they dimmed and went out a mere 60 minutes later. But Gardner got the "complicated machinery" working again, and the lights came back on, and stayed on until midnight, when they were cut off for the night, except at the Royal Palm, which had all-night service.
It was also O'Neill's idea to plant royal palms at the hotel, which originally opened under the name of the Fort Myers Hotel. But the royal palms grew so rapidly and became so majestic that O'Neill changed the name of the hotel to the Royal Palm.
The hotel was purchased in 1907 by Tootie McGregor Terry and under her stewardship, the Royal Palm Hotel became a leading factor in transforming Fort Myers from a frontier cow town into one of the leading resorts in the entire country. "Scores of celebrities and millionaires had stopped in the rambling wooden structure, with its beautiful surrounding gardens," writes Grismer, "and many remained to build winter homes and make investments in groves and business properties."
For more stories like these, take one of True Tours' downtown Fort Myers historic walking tours. For tour descriptions, days, times and reservations, please call 239-945-0405 or visit www.TrueTours.net.