Around Florida – St. Petersburg, Clearwater, and Tarpon Springs

Until the opening of the six-mile Gandy Bridge across Old Tampa Bay in 1924 travelers to St. Petersburg from Tampa had to make a forty-mile circuit to get from the main land to the peninsula of Pinellas County, at the southerly end of which this greatest and most famous tourist resort of Florida’s West Coast is located. Railroad travelers still have to enter St. Petersburg from the North, but sixty-seven percent of the 63,000 winter visitors who registered with the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce in the season of 193637 arrived by motor, practically all of them over the Gandy Bridge.

The Florida traveler who has followed the trail which we have pursued on paper thus far will have been unobservant indeed if he has not, by this time, made the acquaintance of the bird which, to newcomers to Florida, most sharply reminds them that they are in a new land amid unfamiliar surroundings. Nothing like the pelican, the top-heavy, fish-catching bird of the Florida coasts, with its storage pouch for fish hung from its beak, flies over the regions from which St. Petersburg’s visitors come. In the air the pelican makes a rather graceful picture. Flying frequently in flocks in Vshaped formation like geese, or in evenly-spaced single file, with their long bills and huge heads stretched out before them, they make a pleasing silhouette against the brilliant sunset sky. But ashore or perched on a pile above the water they seem like grotesque caricatures rather than actual forms of animal life. Crossing the Gandy Bridge the tourist is likely to get his first close-up view of pelicans. They are, indeed, one of the real attractions of St. Petersburg. Sitting in the sunshine and watching pelicans dive for fish and cormorants trying to take the fish away from the pelicans, may be classed as one of St. Petersburg’s major winter amusements.

On that key, at least, is pitched the tone of St. Petersburg as a winter resort. Its popularity derives from its restfulness. For those whose ideas of recreation call for physical activity and outdoor sports St. Petersburg provides facilities as good and as varied as does any other Florida community; but it was here in St. Petersburg that the old-fashioned American sport of horse-shoe pitching was revived and made popular in the 1920’s, here that croquet, in its stream-lined version called “roque” was revivified, here that shuffle-board was brought ashore and converted from a sea-going pastime into an outdoor sport for landlubbers. Most of the people who go to St. Petersburg go there because they want to rest.

The whole city’s 40,000 population is geared to that keynote, restfulness. St. Petersburg has a smaller proportion of Negro inhabitants than most other Florida communities have and more than two-thirds of its 32,000 resident white folks are natives of the northern and western states, more than half of these from New York and New England. They have made their homes in St. Petersburg because of the restfulness of its winter warmth and quiet atmosphere. They stay in St. Petersburg the year around because, situated as it is between Bay and Gulf, there is never a day, and seldom an hour in any day, when it is not swept by breezes which temper the heat and dispel the humidity.

In an occasional outburst of local pride, St. Petersburg citizens sometimes resent the city’s jocular appellation, “The City of the Unburied Dead.” But it is true that St. Petersburg has peculiar attractions for the elderly. The average age of its inhabitants, permanent and transient, is probably higher than in any other community in the world. It is the only city in the world in which the curbstones at street corners are notched to form ramps for the accommodation of wheel chairs. Men and women of advancing years flock to St. Petersburg to lengthen their lives and because here they can find, as nowhere else, the society of people of their own age and kind, seeking like themselves peaceful relaxation and mild recreation.

St. Petersburg is famous the world over for its green benches, thousands of benches in the city parks and lining the broad sidewalks of the city’s main thoroughfare, Central Ave nue. Literally tens of thousands of winter visitors spend practically all of their waking hours on the green benches, getting most of their exercise by occasionally moving from a sunny spot to a shady one. There are more checker players than golfers, more ladies whose chief outdoor sport is knitting than there are tennis players.

Yet for the younger and the more active of the middle-aged there are, within the city limits of St. Petersburg, several golf courses as fine as any in Florida, great batteries of tennis courts pretty constantly in use, hand-ball courts, skeet-shooting parks, facilities for every sport. St. Petersburg is not precisely a lonesome place for youth, in spite of the predominance of elderly people. In recent years the proportion of the younger element in the annual influx of tourists is noticeably increasing, largely through the efforts of the Junior Chamber of Commerce, which charges itself with responsibility for the entertainment of visitors between the ages of 18 and 35. Both the community as such and the numerous splendid tourist hotels pride themselves upon the quality of their dance music and the smoothness of the floors of their ballrooms.

St. Petersburg’s new municipal pier, extending half a mile into Old Tampa Bay is, for those who do not prefer sitting on the green benches in the Green Park to any other form of amusement, the resort’s most popular social center. Fishing from the municipal pier is the mildest and least strenuous form of this popular sport. There is no better fishing anywhere than in the waters of the Gulf and Bay off St. Petersburg. And, of course, St. Petersburg has its bathing beaches. These are on the long keys which lie between the peninsula and the Gulf. The southerly key is connected with the city by a modern concrete causeway and is the site of several attractive residential developments, one of which, Pass-a-Grille, has become an important center of social life.

St. Petersburg proudly calls itself “The Sunshine City,” and justifiably so. For years the St. Petersburg Independent, its enterprising evening newspaper, has dramatized the city’s climate by announcing that the paper will be given away free every day on which the sun does not shine. Not more than five times a year has it been called upon to make good on this pledge. The healthfulness of the climate of the Pinellas peninsula induced the United States Veterans Bureau to build here, just north of the city, the largest hospital for veterans of America’s wars anywhere in the South. The group of beautiful buildings standing in their extensive and beautifully landscaped park is one of the show places of St. Petersburg.

One of the most ambitious and beautiful of all of the boom-time real estate developments centered around the Hotel Rolyat, a few miles north of the center of St. Petersburg on the shore of the sound between the mainland and the keys. Both architecturally and in its furnishings and decorations the Rolyat rivalled the most attractive and luxurious resort hotels of America. But the property met the fate which befell many other pretentious developments and finally the city took title to it for unpaid taxes. It solved the problem of what to do with it by turning it over to the Florida Military Academy, a highlyregarded preparatory school for boys which had outgrown its quarters in Jacksonville. Over a week-end the entire personnel and equipment of the Academy was moved from Jacksonville to St. Petersburg and housed in the almost palatial quarters of the Rolyat. Its student enrollment from all parts of the United States has been materially increased since its removal.

St. Petersburg was the first of Florida’s tourist resorts to establish and popularize the system of tourist registration at Chamber of Commerce headquarters. Every Florida city today maintains a tourist bureau of information and registration, frequently in connection with a community center or auditorium, often with reading rooms and facilities for social gatherings. This system not only enables the community to maintain a record of its winter visitors and their back home addresses for promotional follow-up purposes, but in St. Petersburg it has been developed into a system whereby visitors are enabled to make contacts with other tourists from their home states or towns or those who are or have been engaged in similar lines of activity. Thus in St. Petersburg there have been formed a large number of societies and associations of people having a mutual interest and background. State Societies, such as The Indiana Society, The New England Association, etc., hold meetings, conventions and reunions which are among the most interesting features of winter life. If the visitor to St. Petersburg has been a fireman, a minister, a schoolteacher or engaged in any other occupation back home, he or she is pretty sure to be waited upon by a representative of the St. Petersburg society of that organization and invited to drop in at their meetings for a social afternoon or evening. Typical of these social units is the association of retired police officers, headed by a former Inspector of the New York Police Department, who prevents time from hanging heavy on his hands by active service with the Chamber of Commerce in the promotion of social contacts.

Whenever a community on either of the Florida coasts feels the need of more shore frontage it proceeds to create more land by dredging sand up from the bottom of Ocean or Gulf. A peculiar virtue of Florida sand is that when so pumped up and restrained from side-slipping by a sea-wall it packs up tightly, into such a substantial piece of terra firma, that tall buildings clan be built upon it with little or no other underpinning. Thus, in 1925, St. Petersburg’s largest and most elaborate hotel, the Vinoy, was built upon land which was entirely under water when the hotel was projected.

The highway northward along the Pinellas peninsula from St. Petersburg runs through wide areas of citrus groves. Pinellas County has long been one of the highly productive orange and grapefruit sections of the state. The county seat, Clearwater, is the home of numbers of Northern families who have retired from active business to live calmly and peacefully on the income from their citrus groves and other agricultural sources of wealth.

Near Clearwater is one of Florida’s unique institutions, developed, as so many things in Florida have been developed, out of the hobby of a retired business man who wanted some thing to occupy his time. In this case the hobby was peacocks. It has developed into a peacock farm in which every known variety of these gorgeous birds is bred, and a nation-wide business has been built up in supplying peacocks for ornamental purposes to country estates, public gardens and parks, and in the sale of the semi-annual crop of peacock tail feathers, which the birds shed twice a year, to interior decorators.

Another show place of Clearwater, a real beauty spot, was founded by a retired business man who had been impressed with the beautiful landscape effects he had seen in the gardens of Japan. Out of his hobby grew the Japanese Garden in which the buildings, planting and landscaping so faithfully follow the Japanese form and manner that it seems like a spot transplanted bodily from old Nippon. In a real Japanese tea house real Japanese girls serve real Japanese tea. There are few more charming spots in which to spend a restful Winter afternoon. Close by Clearwater is the Ulmerton Hog Ranch, of 385 acres, established in 1924, which has become the largest producing unit in the Southeast of prize porkers.

Clearwater is the trading center of a wide area, and a tourist resort which offers so many natural attractions that its winter population nearly doubles its normal 10,000 year-’round residents. With seventeen hotels and more than 1,000 cottages and apartments available for seasonal rentals, Clearwater attracts especially visitors who enjoy water sports. Clearwater Beach, the outlying key connected with the city by the Memorial Causeway, is increasingly popular as a summer resort as well as with winter tourists, and is built up with many homes and beach cottages. It has also two large yacht clubs. Within the widespreading, tree-planted area of the city itself are beautiful estates occupied by wealthy families who selected Clearwater for their Florida homes because of the unusual combination of natural elements which it offers.

Although situated directly on the coast and between two bodies of water, Old Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, Clearwater is built on high ground, averaging 100 feet or more above sea-level. A committee of the American Medical Association is on record as having declared that Clearwater is the healthiest spot in the whole United States. It is a friendly community, which does not hesitate to extol its own merits as “The Springtime City Where it’s Springtime All the Time,” over its high-power radio station WFLA.

Clearwater’s industrial life centers around the citrus industry, for which it is an important shipping point. There are eleven citrus packing houses for the fresh fruit and two canneries of citrus products. Clearwater has a direct highway connection with Tampa by way of the Davis Causeway, a nineand-one-half mile privately capitalized toll-bridge across Old Tampa Bay, which shortens the distance between the two cities to a fraction more than twenty miles.

A dozen miles north of Clearwater is one of the most picturesque of all Florida communities, Tarpon Springs. What makes Tarpon Springs unique is the fact that it is the head quarters of the Gulf sponge fisheries, and the world’s largest sponge market. More than a quarter of the little city’s 4,000 inhabitants are the Greek sponge fishermen and their families, the majority of the adults being natives of Greece, brought up in the sponge fisheries of the Aegean Sea.

The first commercialization of the Gulf of Mexico’s sponges began at Key West, where it had developed into a flourishing industry by the middle of the 1890’s. In 1898, when the United States was at war with Spain, the Key West sponge fishermen brought their boats into the harbor of Tarpon Springs because they were afraid of Spanish war-ships. The headquarters of the industry were removed to this spot by John K. Cheyney, who had been the first to commercialize the Gulf sponges. Here was established the Tarpon Springs Sponge Exchange, to which buyers come from all the world to bid at the sponge auctions.

Until 1905 sponge fishing in the Gulf was confined to the shallow waters near shore, the sponges being lifted from the rocks to which they are attached by means of hooks. In 1905, Mr. Cheyney and his associates brought over from Greece and the islands of the Aegean the first sponge divers, at the instance of John Cocoris, a Greek sponge expert employed in the Cheyney warehouse. These divers brought with them their own equipment, their diving suits, and plans of the type of sponge boats used in the Mediterranean. From then on the Tarpon Springs sponge fishery began to grow into the million-dollar annual industry which it has now become. Many of the sponges are still taken by hookers, but these can work only in depths under thirty feet, while the sponge beds of Florida reach a depth of 130 feet in some parts of the 9,300 square miles of sponge-bearing area lying between Key West and St. Marks light, near Apalachicola.

Sponge hookers work from small boats which are towed out to the sponge beds by a “mother” ship. The hooker, in calm weather, is able to see the sponges on the bottom; if the surface is ruffled by wind he uses a water-glass, a glass-bottomed bucket through which he can see the bottom. His hook is a sharp-pronged, three-toothed rake on the end of a long, light pole, with which he wrenches the jelly-like sponge from its rocky adhesion.

Diving for sponges in the Gulf Fisheries is done entirely in diving suits; “skin” or naked diving, with its hazard of sharks, is still practised only in the Mediterranean. The only hazard is sponge diving as conducted off Tarpon Springs is the risk of a mechanical failure of the air-pump on the deck of the boat, or a kink in the hose through which air is pumped into the brass helmet, screwed fast to the thick rubber suit with its lead-soled feet in which the diver is encased, a hundred or more feet below the surface of the water.

The sponge-diving boat is a completely-equipped small cruiser, provisioned for a voyage from a few weeks to several months at sea; for the sponge fishers do not return to port until they have got a full cargo. The divers go down with rope bags slung from their shoulders which they fill with sponges before they signal, by a pull on the lifeline, to be hauled up. In the shallower waters a diver stays down without exhaustion for two or three hours, in deeper water he may remain submerged for only half or three-quarters of an hour. After ten years or so of deep-water diving the sponge fishers sometimes become subject to a form of paralysis called the “bends” induced by long exposure to the high air-pressure inside the diving suit. It is the same ailment which often attacks workers under compressed air in tunnel and caisson construction.

The sponge, when taken from the water, is a jelly-like creature covered with a tenacious black skin, its cells filled with gelatinous gray matter which is removed by letting it decay on the deck of the sponge boat and then squeezing it out by pressure. What is left is the skeleton of this half plant, half animal.