For centuries, the only people to enjoy Naples’ many miles of white, sandy beaches, were the Caloosa Indians. The first settlers, Roger Gordon and Joe Wiggins, arrived in Naples in the late 1860s, and a river and two inlets still bear their names.
Throughout the next two decades, magazine and newspaper stories describing the area’s mild climate and outstanding fishing and hunting likened it to sunny Naples, Italy, and the name Naples caught on. The Florida land boom of the late 1880s was well underway when a group of Tallahassee businessmen founded the Naples Town Improvement Company. The future town site was surveyed in 1886 and immediately offered to customers at the bargain price of $10 a lot.
In 1887, the Naples Town Improvement Company was reorganized as the Naples Company under a group of prominent Kentucky business leaders led by Civil War general, U.S. Senator John S. Williams, and newspaperman Walter N. Haldeman. They launched an ambitious town-building program based on tourism and future rail and sea commerce. One of the first improvements the Naples Company made was to build a pier 600 feet into the Gulf of Mexico. The unusual “T” shape allowed large ships to dock easily. Despite being destroyed and rebuilt three times, the pier’s “T” shape remains.
By the summer of 1888, the new town of Naples consisted of the pier, a general store, post office, hotel, and a seasonal population of about 80 people.
Naples was quickly becoming known as a winter resort. Social life revolved around the Naples Hotel, which hosted celebrities such as Rose Cleveland, Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone, Greta Garbo, Hedy Lamarr, and Gary Cooper. By this time, the cost of a beachfront lot had reached $125.
In 1911, Barron Gift Collier, who had made his fortune in streetcar advertising, visited nearby Useppa Island. He was so taken with the area that he bought over a million acres of untouched swampland—including most of Naples. Collier believed that Florida’s west coast could enjoy the same prosperity that the east coast was experiencing, if he brought in roads and railroads.
Based on Collier’s promise to help build the Tamiami Trail, in 1923, the state legislature created Collier County, of which Naples is the county seat. Collier spent more than $1 million of his own money to construct the Tamiami Trail, which opened in 1926 as the only paved highway linking the state’s two largest cities, Tampa and Miami.
The Seaboard Air Line Railway’s depot at Tenth Street and Fifth Avenue South was still only partially complete when the first passenger train, the Orange Blossom Special, pulled into Naples on January 7, 1927. Operation ceased in 1971, but completely renovated to its original glory, The Depot still stands.
World War II introduced hundreds of servicemen to Naples when the U.S. Army Air Field was activated in December 1943 to train pilots for combat flying. The airport was returned to the city and county after the war and was dedicated as the Naples America Airport in 1953.
Much of the groundwork for Naples’ impressive growth and development was laid after World War II. From a total of 390 people in 1930, within twenty years the city’s year-round population more than tripled. Naples opened its first bank in 1950, on 5th Avenue South, and a hospital in 1956.
Since the 1960s, Naples has been the fastest developing part of Collier County. Tourism and its economic benefits have surged have surged ahead with renewed vigor, while construction, real estate and banking industries have blossomed.