It is an exciting morning Nov. 7 for 120 Sarasota history buffs, as they shuffle onto the Le Barge for the Historical Society’s 18th annual Cruise and Tour of Sarasota Bay.
Today, passengers will reflect on the history of the area, when most transportation was done by water.
Special emphasis will be placed on Sarasota developers and visionaries Owen Burns and Bertha Palmer — in honor of the centennial year of their arrival in Sarasota. Seated beneath the sunshine on the upper deck is Burns’ daughter, Harriet Stieff. She’s focused on John McCarthy, an expert on Sarasota history and lore, who narrates the cruise.
The ship heads west, toward the Gulf of Mexico and Big Sarasota Pass, the oldest landmark in Sarasota.
McCarthy notes that Sarasota’s most prominent landmark remains Point of Rocks, on Siesta Key, which used to be called Rock Point. Bird Key, he says, was called Bird Island and consisted largely of small grassflats, with mangroves in between.
“It was the heart of the fishery here,” McCarthy says. “The bay was completely filled with fish — so many, you could walk across the bay into the fish.”
McCarthy points out various landmarks, such as the original location of Siesta Key’s first hotel, the Bay Island Hotel, and the Humpback Bridge, which splits Bay Island from Siesta Key. As the ship passes by a sandbar, he tells passengers that when Stieff’s sister and Burns’ other daughter, Lillian, attended Out-of-Door Academy, that very sandbar was part of her education and, also, a celebratory place to go swimming.
At one point, McCarthy tells the tale about one of Lillian Burns’ dates driving her father’s car into the Robert’s Casino swimming pool.
“It’s one thing to bring your daughter home late — another to have her date drive your car into a swimming pool!” McCarthy says.
As the Le Barge ship begins making its way back to Marina Jack, passengers swap stories about their favorite part of the historic tour.
“I just love the way John (McCarthy) captures everything,” Stieff says. “I think it’s important to know that he (my father) would be most embarrassed by all of this. He was a man of few words and lots of action, and he never liked any notoriety. He was the opposite of John Ringling and his Greatest Show on Earth.”
Contact Loren Mayo at [email protected].