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Restoring history

Two guys who loved the iconic arches as kids are working not only to re-create them but someday drive through them again

March 28, 2016
By John Morton (jmorton@breezenewspapers.com) , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

He's more than 2,000 miles away and the Fort Myers Beach arches are a 37-year memory, but for Steven McDonald they've never been out of sight, out of mind.

"They were torn down when I was 19, during my senior year in high school," said McDonald, a former Fort Myers Beach resident now living in Arizona as a retired Army engineer. "I must have drove through them 1,000 times, and every time it meant I was going home to somewhere special. I've always thought about them, and how sad it is that they're gone."

So when the arches were unceremoniously torn down in 1979 to make room for the Sky Bridge, he was one of many outraged.

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The classic Fort Myers Beach arches were erected in 1924 and bulldozed in 1979.

"They were such a big part of history and so iconic to the area," he said of the structure that sat at the foot of the old swing bridge at the corner of San Carlos Boulevard and Main Street. "Think about it - today they are the backdrop in our Town Council chambers. They should have somehow been preserved."

It's too late for that, but how about re-created?

McDonald has teamed up with Fort Myers resident Paul Sessions as lead organizers of a group called Restore Fort Myers Beach Arches, and their Facebook page of the same name has been joined by 200 people in one month.

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It was through viewing Facebook that McDonald began to foster the idea.

"Over the years I noticed that many people from the area used a picture of the arches as their Facebook page cover photo. Obviously it's something people relate to," he said. "Then, people started asking about whatever happened to the arches and then people started posting how they knew where some of the rocks ended up - often time in people's back yards."

Being nearby, Sessions began the legwork and discovered what he thinks are indeed some of the original rocks, sitting on San Carlos Island in the back yard of the former home of the contractor who knocked them down.

"I'm 99-percent sure they are legitimate," Sessions said. "The contractor is deceased, so I have asked the caretaker of the house to ask his grandson to contact me. I'm hoping he'll donate the rocks for our cause."

Sessions said he's heard rumors that Tom Torgerson, the developer of the proposed Grand Resorts project, has already offered $35,000 for them in an effort to recreate the arches. Torgerson has indeed voiced his desire to represent the arches in a replica form, but said Monday he has not discussed or pursued the original rocks.

It's a cause that will involve a massive amount of effort, therefore causing the organizers to dare not even suggest a possible completion target date. After all, not only does the group hope to rebuild the arches, it wants to literally put them back in place for cars to drive under.

First that means fundraising, with Sessions predicting the project would cost at least $1 million. Next is the recruitment of volunteers for labor, with plans likely seeing construction done mostly off site, including the need to locate a volunteer project manager.

"Hopefully, we can find someone who is retired from that field to step up," McDonald said.

Then there's dealing with the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) regarding setbacks, something Sessions has already began. He points arches standing only 4 feet from the roadway on Del Prado Boulevard in Cape Coral as what he hopes is an example of an exception, setting a precedent to allow the Fort Myers Beach Arches to return to their original site.

"The people I spoke with at FDOT couldn't believe the Del Prado arches are that close, but they are, so we're hoping we should be able to have the same," Sessions said.

McDonald guesses that about 20 percent of the re-creation would consist of original rocks, considering not all of them have been found and the new structure will need to be considerably larger than the original.

"We'll need the one lane going to the island but two lanes coming off - the original arches had just one each way," he said. "And the clearance regulation today is 16.5 feet so we'll target 17 feet. It will have three risers, just like the original, and we're considering removable arch sections so large trucks can get through if need be."

McDonald said he's not certain of the actual size of the original structure, which was built in 1924, but the details in terms of matching its appearance shouldn't be a problem.

"We are blessed by the fact that those were some very photogenic arches," he said. "There are tons of pictures out there."

In fact, he already has prepared conceptual renderings and the engineering process is moving along. His work can be viewed through links on the group's Facebook page.

"There are a ton of variables here, but what I do know is this can be done," McDonald said. "We have the technology."

Sessions, who was 15 when the arches went down, is delighted by the idea that such a concept could actually come to fruition. He pledges to do whatever it takes.

"I'm in, all the way - we're already seeing results and I'm amazed by all the interest out there. It just goes to show what those arches meant to so many. For me, they meant I was almost on the beach, and soon I'd be running through the sand, a fishing pole in my hand.

"You know how Mickey Mouse means so much to Disney? All you have to do is look for the ears, and you know you're there. That's what those arches meant to us on Fort Myers Beach."

 
 

 

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