Vintage Sarasota: The Origins of City Island

Early in Sarasota municipal history, several city councils wanted a channel dredged from the Gulf of Mexico to Sarasota Bay.

By Larry Kelleher June 16, 2014

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Courtesy of Sarasota County Historical Resources[/caption]

Early in Sarasota municipal history, several city councils wanted a channel dredged from the Gulf of Mexico to Sarasota Bay. In early 1914 an eight-foot channel was dug but it did not please the city. It had wanted a deeper channel to become a port. It was not until 1926 that this dream came true. After the sale of the city’s power plant to Florida Power and Light for $1 million, the City of Sarasota spent nearly $800,000 to dredge a channel from New Pass to the bay front and Payne Terminal (10th Street and U.S. 41 today). In the process, a 58-acre island was created at the east end of New Pass and bulkheads were constructed. The bulkheads to hold back the dredged fill consisted of 2-inch steel pilings 22 ½ feet into the channel bottom.

However, the dream of a busy port never materialized. The island was created as a base on which to build warehouses, which were never built, and docks were completed to await the flow of ocean-going traffic. According to the late Sarasota pioneer John B. Browning, only three or four vessels ever docked at the port and one of these was a U.S. Navy destroyer. Brown said most of the docks were finally destroyed by fire, with the rest giving away to nature’s destructive forces. Lack of maintenance allowed the channel to revert to its former state.

FPL owned half the island as part of the purchase price for buying the city power plant in 1926, and was going to build its next generating plant there, but never did. Between 1926 and 1939, the island had a small landing strip, and National Airlines made a few mail flights into it. In 1939, the city acquired part of the island and dedicated it as a park. The remainder of the island was acquired by from FLP in 1944. FPL decided that id did not want to build its new power plant on the island and offered to swap the City Island for property at Payne Terminal. FPL added $30,000 to the deal and the city acquired the entire island, except for one acre, in 1944.

One acre was given to radio station WSPB in August 1939 with the understanding that if the station closed in less than 15 years, the property would revert back to the city. WSPB went on the air on December 7, 1939, and until the late 1950s, was the only tenant on the island. John Browning, former owner of the station, recalled in an interview with the Sarasota Journal in 1973, that, “even after the station was built, planes continued to use the airstrip, flying over the radio station, which was built at the end of the original airstrip.” The county’s mosquito control planes used the airstrip to spray Lido and Longboat Key. The island was a perfect place for a dirt racetrack which was used for weekend jalopy races. On the west end of the island some of the land was used as a landfill for a short time.

In 1958, the Sarasota Sailing Squadron approached the city about leasing a portion of the island as its headquarters. The city agreed and rededicated the island for pubic use. From 1958 to 1967, the only island inhabitants were the Sailing Squadron and WSPB radio station. The city began leasing additional parcels to a variety of groups in the late 1960s and most of the waterside property was taken. In a series of articles in the Sarasota Journal in 1973, City Island was called the city’s “Forgotten Jewel.”

Although there was a time when the Sarasota City Commission wanted to keep City Island in a natural state, today City Island is the home of Mote Marine Laboratories, the Pelican Man Sanctuary, and other commercial and non-commercial ventures.

Article written by Mark Smith, former county archivist. Posting courtesy of  Sarasota History Alive! Visit us at

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