December 12, 2018 – The Sanibel Historical Village’s February 19 gala event will highlight the interesting story of the Algiers, the riverboat that almost became Sanibel’s first mansion. The event’s theme is “An Evening on the Old Algiers” takes place at The Community House from 6 to 10 p.m. Tickets are $135 each and can be purchased online at www.sanibelmuseum.org or by calling 472-4648.
It all began in 1925 in a Cincinnati shipyard where a workhorse boat was built to haul automobiles across the Mississippi. Named the Algiers, the boat had been a car ferry for 25 years until a wealthy Boston couple with a fondness for quirky fixer-uppers bought it at an auction in 1958.
Lathrop and Helen Brown brought the 155-foot boat to Sanibel in 1959 to the 25 beach-front acres they had bought after vacationing on the island. They were no ordinary vacationers, though, as Helen was a shipping heiress, and Lathrop was a New York congressman and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s college roommate and best man.
They gave the rather plain boat a glamorous makeover, retrofitting the exterior with antebellum trimmings, a huge paddle wheel, feathered smokestacks, and vintage gingerbread. Inside, they created a palace with Italian terrazzo tiles, French marble countertops, and sinks inlaid with gold seahorses and gold-plated dolphin faucets. There was an elevator and a restaurant-equipped kitchen boasting a fairly new-fangled invention: the microwave.
To get the Algiers to its Sanibel destination, the Browns had it pulled by tugboat. They hired crews to cut a channel through the island’s interior which they filled in behind themselves as they went. The Browns had borrowed the volunteer fire department’s pump truck to help move water in the canal, but someone had parked it in high grass, where it caught fire and burned to a crisp. The Browns bought the department a brand-new one.
There was just one remaining detail before they could move in. They owned a house in Fort Lauderdale and wanted to sell it before moving to Sanibel. Helen sent Lathrop to Fort Lauderdale to sell the house. According to the story, he went to a pizzeria while there, came back with indigestion, and died the next day.
Broken-hearted, Helen returned to Boston, never to return to Sanibel and never to sleep in her “dream boat.” Eventually, she put it up for sale for $550,000 and in 1979, when the newly incorporated city of Sanibel was looking to acquire more beachfront land, it was suggested they consider the Brown property. The deal closed in 1981, but by then, the boat was dangerously dilapidated.
Though there was talk of using it as city hall or leasing it for a restaurant, it was beyond repair. After everything salvageable was stripped and auctioned, the city had the Algiers demolished in 1982. The one building left standing was the servants’ quarters, which were converted into the restrooms at Sanibel’s Gulfside City Park, also known as Algiers Beach.
From the boat itself, just a few things remain: the captain’s wheel, the anchor, and the bell, all of which are on display at the Sanibel Historical Village. If anyone has additional artifacts from the Algiers, the historical village would love to hear about it. Call Executive Director Emilie Alfino at 472-4648.
To learn more about the Algiers, come to “An Evening on the Old Algiers” February 19 at The Community House. For more information, visit www.sanibelmuseum.org.
The Sanibel Historical Museum and Village is open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Full guided tours take place at 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. at no additional charge, depending on docent availability. The Sanibel Historical Village is located at 950 Dunlop Road (next to BIG ARTS) and there is handicap access to the buildings. Admission is $10 for adults over 18. Members and children are free. For more information or to make a donation, visit www.sanibelmuseum.org.