History of Tampa

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It is sometimes the flukes of history that make all the difference - and two of those created what was to become the sunshine capital called Tampa Bay.

In 1527, Spanish explorer Panfilo de Narvaez set off with a fleet of four galleons on an expedition in search of that coveted New World treasure - gold. He intended to find some, conquer whoever had it, colonize the place and recline in splendor for the rest of his days. That was not to be.

First, Florida's best known annual visitor 'the hurricane' changed his plans, blowing de Narvaez's fleet off course to a landing on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico.

When de Narvaez went ashore to trade with the natives, the second fluke occurred. In the village, so the story goes, he spotted a glittering gold ornament and figured he'd found the mother lode of every early explorer's dreams. But, no, that treasure turned out to be Spain's very own doubloons, salvaged by native tribes who'd plucked them from shipwrecks!

As de Narvaez and later explorer Hernando de Soto discovered, gold can occasionally be fool's gold, but centuries later the real gold of this coast was discovered, and it had little to do with metal.

Before that could come true, however, a host of hopefuls sought treasure here. Among the most colorful were pirates Black Caesar, José Gaspar and Jean Lafitte who cut a wide swath through the area, literally and figuratively. That trio and others of similar ilk are remembered fondly (even honored) today at the region's riproarin' annual Gasparilla Festival, a wildly enthusiastic party that comes complete with a pirate invasion in full costume.

Those fiercesome pirates of Tampa's earliest days gave way to proponents of another waterborne career. Fishing fleets arrived to take advantage of the fish-rich waters of Tampa Bay. That catch remains a mainstay of the region's economy and the backbone (or should we say fishbone?) of the region's restaurants which convey the catch to many a platter at hundreds of seafood restaurants.

As life settled into a certain comfortable predictability in the Tampa Bay region, the string of islands that dot the coastline like a phalanx of sentinels felt the need for a little connection with the mainland. That was accomplished with the addition of miles-long causeways and bridges, one of which, the Skyway Bridge, a series of conectors that stretches 14 miles across glittering Tampa Bay - is today a tourist attraction in its own right.

With those sunny islets connected to the rest of the state, Tampa Bay was on the way to its future. About that time, some modern pirates discovered Tampa Bay and environs. Calling themselves 'promoters,' those contemporary buccaneers were every bit as adventurous as their privateer predecessors. They found, and lost, some real gold in the 1920s boom years. Steaming in, armed with millions and a strong desire to compound them, those promoters followed in the tracks of entrepreneur and railroad magnate Henry Plant, literally and figuratively.

Plant, as much an adventurer as a promoter, made it all happen here when he made tracks for the sunshine, bringing a railroad line from cold northern climes to the sunny South and engendering a legendary rivalry with his entrepreneur counterpart, Henry Flagler, who did the same on the Florida peninsula's Atlantic coastline.

Plunking down what was then the staggering sum of $3 million dollars, Plant in 1891 opened the massive Tampa Bay Hotel at the water's edge, topping it with glittering silver minarets and trimming its verandas in Moorish gingerbread woodwork. Sun-seeking throngs he brought here on his railroad steamed right up to the hotel's door on a special spur line.

Visible for miles around, the Tampa Bay Hotel remains the city's love and landmark. A magnificent structure, it boasted corridors so wide the hotel's indolent wealthy could hire a rickshaw to trot them off to their rooms. To get upstairs, they rode a magnificent handcarved- wood elevator powered by hydraulic force, a creation that was the only one of its kind in the world.

Here's an amusing footnote to history and the Plant-Flagler rivalry: so lively was the competition between the two entrepreneurs that when Plant sent Flagler a telegram inviting him to the opening of his showy new hotel in Tampa, Flagler shot back this rejoinder: "Where's Tampa?"

Plant could have held his own with any of today's power-promoters. He brought in the 'names' of that era's world and the somewhat lesser lights followed. Here the famed and the infamous strode the wide verandas - Teddy Roosevelt, Babe Ruth, Clara Barton, William Jennings Bryan. To keep them amused, Plant brought in the biggest names in the entertainment industry of the day - Ignace Paderewski, Anna Pavlova, Sarah Bernhardt.

Meanwhile, down in the basement bar, troops who were to ride with Teddy Roosevelt as he stormed through the Spanish-American War gave birth to the Cuba Libre, that long-lived combination of rum and Coca-Cola that remains today a favored sip around the world.

Plant went on to build another hotel, this one the imposing Belleview Biltmore which is still operating and said to be the world's largest frame structure under one roof.

Soon those two hostelries were joined by the bubble-gum pink Don CeSar Hotel, flagship of the coastal island hotels and possessor of a notable guest list that includes F. Scott Fitzgerald and his Zelda, among a host of the rich, famous and infamous.

As time passed, Scots settlers moved into nearby Dunedin, which, nearly 150 years later, still toasts its Gaelic connections with an annual highland games festival that features such entertaining competitions as the log throw and a performance of the military Tattoo and Retreat ceremony. Wailing bagpipes are still played by a bagpipe and drum corps that performs for crowds of misty-eyed Scots-philes.

Scots were not the only 'foreigners' to find their way to the sunshine of Florida's tranquil Tampa Bay coastline. Generations ago, Greek sponge fishermen settled into Tarpon Springs to scour the ocean floor for those coveted cleaning items whose value was later usurped by the manmade variety. You can still buy a straight-from-the-sea sponge here, and chat with folks whose heritage has long been tied to the glittering waters of Tampa Bay. None of that heritage has been forgotten, either. Bouzoukis still strum at tavernas in Tarpon Springs, and it is said that many a platter is smashed at local pubs when the dancing goes derverish in the wee hours. At Easter, the community celebrates the Ephiphany by tossing a cross into the sea for divers who plunge in after it, the winner guaranteed a year of good fortune.

Meanwhile, serene St. Petersburg was taking its own tack. Here, history was made in the halcyon days at the turn of the century before Prohibition and the bust in the boom. In 1885, an American Medical Assn. report dubbed the city a healthy place and St. Petersburg quickly capitalized on that. Dozens of green benches were scattered about town to provide respite to sun-seeking, elderly tourists and before long that 'green bench' image had become national news. Folks of a certain age, shall we say, flocked here, intent on wintering in the sun that had drawn their predecessors.

If you think this sun thing is getting a little thick, think again'the city's newspaper, the Evening Sun, was once distributed free on any day that the sun did not shine. In 76 years, readers got their paper free just 295 times or an average of four times a year! One more sun stat: the city made the Guiness Book of World Records for the longest consecutive run of sunny days: 768, stretching from the February, 1967 to March, 1969.

To keep 'em coming down, in 1889, the Orange Belt Railway built a railroad pier, the St. Petersburg Municipal Pier, and added an ornate bathing pavilion and a toboggan slide into the sea. A horse-drawn flatcar carried passengers from the docks two miles away and a jitney service shuttled them down the mile-long strip of concrete. Smack dab in the middle of town, that slab of concrete is today called simply The Pier and it's no less unusual than it was in those early days, in the middle of it all is an upside-down pyramid!

In ensuing years, the city has tried hard to dispel its old-folks-at-home image and if you're ensconsced over on St. Petersburg Beach where the discos rock until dawn, you may have difficulty believing it. Despite all the image efforts, however, the city remains popular with an older crowd that has formed a softball team open only to players age 70 and up and formed the largest shuffleboard club in the world. So beloved is shuffleboard here that the city is home to the National Shuffleboard Hall of Fame!

Today's St. Petersburg remains a lovely place, filled with serenly beautiful old homes, manicured lawns, two miles of shoreline, 2,000 acres of recreation area and a bevy of parks so pretty you'll wonder if city gardeners measure the grass blades. Flagship of the city's hotels is the postcard-perfect Renaissance Vinoy Hotel, restored to its flapper-era splendor and, after some dark days, once again one of the most spectacular antique hotels in Florida.

While all that history lives on in Tampa, the historic cigar capital of Ybor City and St. Petersburg and environs, today's Tampa is on the grow. With a regional population now topping 2.5 million, Tampa Bay opened a sleek waterfront Tampa convention center in 1990, the Florida Aquarium in 1995, a 20,000-seat Ice Palace Arena a year later and is hot on the trail of a downtown development that in just a few years will connect downtown Tampa to Ybor City in a grand scheme that will include at a 230,000-square-foot Channelside at Garrison Seaport Center entertainment complex of theaters, restaurants and retail shops. Meanwhile, interest in Tampa's port continues to grow with Holland America Lines and Carnival Cruises sailing on regular ititneraries from the nation's 11th largest docking area.

So, welcome to Tampa Bay, long a welcome sight for mauraders and explorers, promoters and sun-seekers, a water-locked land that has discovered that real gold lies in its sunlight and sand.