A narrow road called Tamiami Trail runs through Big Cypress National Preserve between Naples, Florida and the Miami suburbs. The 720,000-acre preserve was added to the United States National Park System in October 1972. An abandoned white, clapboard building sits conspicuously at the intersection of Tamiami Trail and Loop Road, beckoning travelers to pull over and contemplate its origin. For many decades, this small building was the only way station on the long journey through the wet cypress forest. Federal regulators forced it to close in the 1980s due to environmental concerns over its old gas pumps, and it has sat abandoned ever since. Now known as Monroe Station, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2000 after being used in films like Gone Fishin’ (1997) staring Danny Glover and Joe Pesci.
This unique building has an interesting history, and is even rumored to have been a stomping ground of infamous gangster Al Capone. The Tamiami Trail was completed across the Everglades in 1928. Shortly thereafter, a man named Barron Collier built six stations along the road for motorists looking for somewhere to fuel up, relax, and get a bite to eat. One of these was Monroe Station. According to local legend, Al Capone owned a speakeasy and gambling den in the nearby community of Pinecrest. He left its management to a relative and occasionally returned to visit. On these trips, locals say, Capone stopped by Monroe Station. However, there is no evidence that the infamous Chicago gangster ever set foot in the area.
Originally, Monroe Station was one room deep, with a flat-roofed canopy extending out from the first floor over the gas pumps (pictured c.1933). It served as a way station for the Southwest Florida Mounted Police, where an officer and his wife lived. While the officer went on patrol on his motorcycle, his wife tended the store and gas station. William Erwin, the first officer to serve at Monroe Station, died in an accident along the road in January 1929. Just a few years later, in 1934, the Great Depression dried up funding for the Mounted Police and all six stations were closed and demolished or sold to private owners.
In 1957, Monroe Station was moved further back from the road when the Tamiami Trail was widened. Between 1957 and 1988, there were several additions to the building that more than doubled its size. According to Peter B. Gallagher, author of “Loop Road: A Last Stand Journey” at Floridapanther.com, a man named Joe Lord and his wife operated the gas station and restaurant in the 1970s and ‘80s, calling it “Lord’s Station.” Lord was displeased when the area became part of Big Cypress National Preserve in 1972. “With his battered cowboy hat and bantam rooster ways, Joe articulated the anger of the swamp pioneers to all who cared to listen,” Gallagher wrote.
Jeff Klinkenberg reminisced about visiting Lord’s Station as a kid in the 1970s in a 2006 article in the Tampa Bay Times. “Big Joe Lord ran the place, helped by his wife, Sweet Sue,” he wrote. “Big Joe was always angry, usually at the government, which was poised at the time to buy the Big Cypress Swamp and possibly put him out of business. He was also angry about Vietnam War protesters, men with long hair, pot smokers, forced busing and maybe the direction of the wind. I kept my long hair and opinions under my hat, sat at the counter and ate Sweet Sue’s ham steak with red-eye gravy.”
Unfortunately, on April 9, 2016, Monroe Station burned to the ground. According to the Naples Daily News:
Efforts by firefighters with the Ochopee Fire Department couldn’t save the building in Big Cypress, which was on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. Firefighters were called out about 11:45 p.m. and found the station engulfed in flames. They were able to control the fire, leaving at 2:20 a.m. — but the building was burned down to its foundation.
Big Cypress National Preserve spokesmen said there was no burn activity going on at the time and humidity levels were high, making it unlikely the fire started accidentally. Photos of the fire’s aftermath can be found at news-press.com. This is reminiscent of a fire that destroyed the LeBeau Plantation in Louisiana in 2013, another abandoned location popular with legend trippers.
While so many similar landmarks are lost to development and natural disasters, it is especially senseless when a landmark such as this is lost to either gross negligence or malicious intent.