For hundreds of years, the only inhabitants to enjoy Naples’ many miles of white, sandy beaches were the Caloosa Indians.
The area’s first settlers – Roger Gordon and Joe Wiggins – arrived in Naples in the late 1860s, where a river and two inlets still bear their names.
During the next 20 years, magazine and newspaper articles describing the area’s easygoing climate and outstanding fishing and hunting equated it to sun-drenched Naples, Italy, and the name caught on. The Florida land boom of the late 1880s was well underway when a group of Tallahassee businessmen established the Naples Town Improvement Company. The potential town site was surveyed in 1886 and offered to customers straight away at the bargain price of $10 a lot.
In 1887, the Naples Town Improvement Company was restructured as the Naples Company under a group of well-known Kentucky business leaders led by Civil War general, U.S. Senator John S. Williams, and newspaper publisher 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 that stretched 600 feet into the Gulf of Mexico. The atypical “T” shape permitted big ships to dock without difficulty. Despite being destroyed and rebuilt three times, the pier’s original 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 rapidly becoming known as a winter destination. Naples’ early social scene revolved around the Naples Hotel, which hosted famous personalities of the day including Rose Cleveland, Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone, Greta Garbo, Hedy Lamarr, and Gary Cooper. By this time, the cost of a beachfront lot had risen to $125.
In 1911, Barron Gift Collier, who had made his wealth 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 created a road and railway system.
Based on Collier’s promise to help build the Tamiami Trail, in 1923, the state legislature formed Collier County, of which Naples is the county seat. Collier spent more than $1 million of his own capital to build the Tamiami Trail, which opened in 1926 as the lone paved highway linking the state’s two main cities – Tampa and Miami.
Meanwhile, the Seaboard Air Line Railway’s depot at 10th Street and 5th 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 now entirely 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 given back to the city and county after the war and was dedicated as the Naples America Airport in 1953.
Much of the groundwork for Naples’ remarkable 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 its first hospital in 1956.
Since the 1960s, Naples has been the fastest developing part of Collier County. Tourism and its economic benefits have grown with renewed vigor, while construction, real estate and banking have become premier industries.