As with most of the Islands that boarder along the Gulf of Mexico in Florida there is an air of mystery, a dash of outlaws and a few ghost stories woven in to send a chill down your spine. Chokoloskee Island that is part of the 10,000 islands in the Everglades National Park is certainly no exception.
Chokoloskee is one of the smallest Islands, at a mere 0.23 square miles (0.6 km2), that we have ventured onto with our motorcycles. As we rode the causeway that connects Chokoloskee Island to the mainland via Everglade City I realized just how close it was to sea level when the Mangroves periodically parted like curtains creating an imaginary window frame that allowed me to catch a glimpse of Chokoloskee Bay lapping at the land. Elevation at its highest point is 10 ft. / 3 m, although I never came across a spot that was even close to that high while we were there.
Suffice to say, the Island caters to Canoe or Kayak enthusiasts and of course, fishermen. It boasts an RV park, marina and a motel along with guided tours of the Everglades. It is also home to about 300 residents.
Smallwood Store & Museum
The oldest and I suppose the most famous attraction (only attraction) to see on the tiny Island besides nature is the Smallwood Store & Museum. It was established in 1904 by Ted Smallwood and was the only source for goods and mail for the isolated homesteaders. Because of the remote location, the store became a popular hub of socialization for the families who had settled in the area to eke out their meager living by farming, fishing and trapping.
For over 70 years it remained an active trading post / store and in 1974 it was put on the National Register of Historic Places, only to close eight years later in 1982. A lot of the original goods were left behind, many of which dated back to the early 1900’s when Ted was the first “white man” in the area to trade with the Seminole Indians. The store was re-opened by Lynn Smallwood McMillin, Ted’s granddaughter, in 1990 as a way to preserve and showcase Florida’s pioneer history. Among the many hidden gems to be found in the museum are spittoons and pelts from the fur trading days. To round out the collection of some of the turn of the century’s curiosities; "Matanzas Sugar Estates” burlap bags from when Ted traded with Cuba and Nehi Soda bottles (A flavored soft drink that originated in the United States and was introduced by Chero-Cola/Union Bottle Works in 1924.).
Who Was Edgar J. Watson?
Like most of the areas towns folk, he frequented the Smallwood Store for supplies but always kept to himself. Watson became an accepted member of the community or maybe he was just politely tolerated until his murderous deeds started to actually affect them. It was well known that he was an outlaw and it was believed that he had an affiliation to the Jesse James gang in Arkansas, where he was also suspected of killing the “Bandit Queen”, Belle Starr. When he fled from prosecution to Florida, his murderous ways followed.
Quinn Bass from Arcadia was allegedly stabbed to death by Edgar but was never proven. He even managed to get acquitted from Sam Toland’s murder while visiting relatives in Lake City. He then was suspected of killing a man named Tucker along with his nephew who was squatting on his land. There were even rumors that he would kill the workers on his plantation rather than pay them.
Over the years the body count piled up around Edgar yet strangely there never seemed to be enough evidence to convict him with a crime, let alone murder. The closest he ever came to being punished for a crime was when he tried to cut the throat of Adolphus Santini of Key West while attending an auction. Watson had gotten into an argument with the man and if not for bystanders pulling him off, Santini would have been another horrific addition to this serial killer’s reign. Consequently, he managed to elude the attempted murder charge by paying Santini a small fortune at the time of $900.
It wasn’t until a young boy who witnessed the murder of Hannah Smith at the hands of Edgar Watson that the towns people took it upon themselves to confront the prolific killer. Edgar finally met his own gruesome demise in 1910 at none other than the Smallwood Store. A dozen or so of the towns people ambushed him and proceeded to blast him with 33 bullets. It is said that the wife of Ted Smallwood sold Watson ammunition that was tampered with and when he stepped off his boat and tried to get a shot off at the mob that was waiting for him, his gun misfired and it was game over for the notorious outlaw. After a hurricane unearthed 50 skeletons that had been buried on Edgar Watson's property his guilt had finally been confirmed and all the suspicion that surrounded Florida’s mass killer was laid to rest.
There is supposedly a blood stain on the wall of the Smallwood Store where Watson was gunned down and to this day whispers of his ghost circulate telling tales that he continues to haunt the store along with his victims.
After leaving Chokoloskee Island and its torrid past we stopped at Ernest Hamilton Observation Tower in Everglade City to lighten the mood.
We took a walk down the boardwalk to a canal that filters out to Chokoloskee Bay.
|Observation Tower location|
|Ride em Gator...|
Motorcycle Route: Chokoloskee Island
Naples Daily News
Bloody Edgar Watson
Find A Grave
Everglades National Park 10,000 Islands