In 1891, aspiring railroad magnate Henry Plant opened his Tampa Bay Hotel. Plant had been buying up bankrupt railroad lines along the west coast of Florida in an attempt to mirror the success that Henry Flagler was having along the east coast. He had constructed the ornate hotel as a way to entice travelers to patronize his newly operational railroads and hopefully ignite tourism trade in the area. Plant invited Flagler to attend the grand opening of the Tampa Bay Hotel; on receipt of the invitation, Flagler wittily wired back “Where’s Tampa?”
Despite the competitive sarcasm of Flagler’s response, much of Florida was still in the process of being developed, and the Tampa area was little more than the sandy and swampy home of a tiny military installation. Tampa Bay was solely occupied until the 16th century by the Calusa Native American people, who named the region tanpa, meaning “sticks of fire,” which may have been a reference to the area’s frequent lightning strikes. Spanish expeditions to the area failed to establish permanent colonies, and even when the British acquired Florida after the French and Indian War in 1763, little effort was expended to establish the area beyond renaming the bay after a colonial official, Lord Hillsborough.
Although the bay no longer bears his name, Tampa is in Hillsborough County and has the Hillsborough River running through it. Twenty years later, control of Florida reverted to Spain thanks to post–Revolutionary War deal-making, and in 1821 the United States purchased the territory from Spain. Forty years later Florida would secede, along with the other Confederate states, setting off the Civil War and bringing occasional military activity to the area until the war ended in 1865. Despite four flags having flown over it, little in the Tampa Bay area changed. In 1880 the combined population of Tampa and St. Petersburg was less than 1,000.
Soon, however, a confluence of events would hasten the growth of the area. In the 1880s, phosphate was discovered nearby, resulting in booming mining and shipping businesses, both of which are still big economic factors in the area; the Port of Tampa is one of the busiest in the United States. In 1885, Vicente Martinez Ybor moved his cigar factories from Key West to the area now known as Ybor City, drawn by the transportation facilities available from the Port and Henry Plant’s newly built railway (as well as the city’s gift of a sizable chunk of land). The 1890s saw Plant’s hotel open, and though tourism didn’t blossom as he had envisioned, the railroad lines he built were essential to the area’s growth.
Plant’s aspirations led him across the bay to St. Petersburg, where he bought up a struggling local railroad and connected it to his main lines. Plant bought not only the railroad but also its 3,000-foot-long freight pier, setting off a string of copycat piers being built throughout St. Petersburg. Once the city’s freight operations were moved south of downtown, the site of Plant’s pier became part of the city’s marina, renamed Demens Landing; none of the original piers remain.
Throughout the early part of the 20th century, mining, shipping, and cigars (Hav-A-Tampa, anyone?) defined Tampa, although the city was plagued with corruption and organized crime. In St. Petersburg and Clearwater, the Florida land boom was creating many paper millionaires and sketching the outlines of both cities. In 1914—only 10 years after the Wright brothers’ first flight—Tony Jannus piloted the first scheduled commercial airline flight, taking off from downtown St. Petersburg and landing across the bay in Tampa.
World War II brought McDill Air Field, now McDill Air Force Base, home to CENTCOM, the operational control center for the U.S. armed forces in Central Asia, the Middle East, and East Africa. After the war, the entire region experienced extensive suburban growth, and Busch Gardens opened just outside Tampa.
During this time, though, like many other urban areas, the downtown areas of Tampa, St. Petersburg, and Clearwater all struggled with deteriorating living and working conditions. Things had gotten so bad in downtown Clearwater, for instance, that the Church of Scientology was able to purchase the historic Fort Harrison Hotel in 1975 for only $2.5 million; it’s now the flagship building of the church’s “worldwide spiritual headquarters.” However, expansion and revitalization efforts that began during the 1980s continue to improve these urban cores while maintaining much of their turn-of-the-20th-century architectural character.
© Jason Ferguson from Moon Florida, 1st Edition