Around Florida – The History of Tampa

Tampa, third city of Florida in population but second only to Jacksonville in commercial and industrial importance, presents many varied and colorful aspects to the visitor. It is at once a seaport of real importance, its water-borne commerce rivalling in volume and occasionally exceeding that of Jacksonville; a tourist and winter residential resort with attractions all its own; a growing manufacturing center; an important railroad center; the chief commercial distributing center for a trade area embracing most of the Gulf Coast of the Florida peninsula and a large part of the inland country of the rich citrus belt; and the city with the largest proportion of foreignborn inhabitants of any Florida community.

Entering Tampa from the East one motors through a section in which, it seems, half of the signs over the shops of the busy business street are in Spanish, half of the voices one hears are speaking Spanish. This is Ybor City, the Spanish quarter of Tampa, in which are located the great cigar factories which constitute Tampa’s most widely-known industry and its largest. Tampa is the chief center in the United States, if not in the world, for the manufacture of fine hand-made cigars from Cuban-grown tobacco. Tampa cigars are sold and smoked all over the world.

When the Cuban cigar manufacturers moved many of their factories to Key West to escape the burden of the United States import duties, they brought their Cuban and Spanish workmen with them. Various factors combined to remove the cigar industry from Key West to Tampa, beginning in the 1890’s, until now it is entirely centered in Tampa and the fabrication of cigars continues to be done by Spanish and Cuban workers. They have a community life all their own, with a population of approximately 20,000, a third of whom are natives of either Spain or Cuba, who have brought up their children born in Tampa to speak and read the Spanish language as fluently as they do English. The output of “Clear Havana” cigars from Tampa’s factories is far greater than that of Havana itself. The annual production exceeds 350,000,000 cigars, bringing in a revenue of more than $25,000,000 to the 156 factories, which, in number of factories and employees, capital invested, value of product and of the allied industry of cigar box manufacture, from cedar logs imported from Cuba and Mexico, makes this in every respect Tampa’s leading industry.

The presence of such a large and distinctively foreign colony envelops all Tampa in an exotic aura, so that the old Spanish tradition of Florida is kept alive here as nowhere else in the state. The most popular eating places in Tampa are the restaurants in the Spanish Quarter of Ybor City, where the food and service are in the Cuban or Spanish style. The social centers of the Spanish quarter are the half dozen clubs or “eentros,” many of whose parties and balls are open to the public. There is also a sufficiently large Italian population in Ybor City to maintain an Italian club of similar type.

Tampa’s history may fairly be said to have begun in 1885 when the late Henry B. Plant, seeking a terminal on the Gulf of Mexico for his South Florida Railroad, now part of the At lantic Coast Line, selected the fine natural harbor of Tampa Bay as the likeliest port for development. Henry M. Flagler was pushing his Florida East Coast Railroad southward, had established its headquarters at St. Augustine and was beginning the development of that city as a winter resort by the construction of the magnificent Ponce de Leon Hotel. Plant had the vision of rivalling Flagler’s enterprise on the West Coast. A classic anecdote is that of the telegrams exchanged between Plant and Flagler when the rails of the new line reached tide-water.

“My railroad has reached Tampa,” wired Plant. “Where is Tampa?” was Flagler’s laconic reply. “Just follow the crowds,” retorted Plant.

He might well ask the question; for Tampa, until the rails reached it, was an obscure fishing village of 700 inhabitants. The United States census of 1880 was able to count only 720 people living in the city which now has well over 100,000. Counting the inhabitants of the close-in territory adjacent to but not included in the city limits, Tampa’s population is locally estimated at above 130,000.

Tampa did not exist, so far as census records show, before 1870, when its population was recorded as 796 as against Jacksonville’s 6,912 and Pensacola’s 3,347. Those three were the only communities in all Florida, less than 70 years ago, having established identities to warrant their populations being separately recorded in the census records. Ten years later, in 1880, when the cigar industry had made Key West the largest city in Florida, with almost 10,000 inhabitants, Tampa’s count had fallen off to 720. But by 1890, after the railroad came, it had grown to 5,500, and before the war with Spain, in 1898, Tampa had more than 15,000 population. The selection of Tampa Bay as the rendezvous of the American fleet and the point of embarkation for American troops en route to Cuba in 1898 first impressed the name of Tampa upon the American public. The name of Tampa was the date-line of the dispatches of hundreds of newspaper correspondents throughout that short-lived war in Cuba. Thereafter no American could echo Henry M. Flagler’s classic query. Everybody has known where Tampa is since 1898.

Perhaps spurred by Flagler’s jibe, Henry Plant decided to build a hotel in his newly-discovered Tampa which would rival Flagler’s St. Augustine caravansery in size and magnifi cence. The outstanding landmark of Tampa today is Mr. Plant’s monument, the enormous structure topped by an amazing array of Moorish turrets, which stands in the center of the municipal park and now houses Tampa’s municipal University. Rival Flagler’s Ponce de Leon in St. Augustine its builder certainly did, in cost and expansiveness and without too much sacrifice of architectural purity and good taste. Some critics hold that it is a truer approach to the Moorish style of old Spain than anything else ever built in America. Nothing more spacious in the way of a hotel probably has ever been built anywhere in the world at any time. Its hundreds of enormous rooms, approached through literally miles of broad corridors, were furnished in the most sumptuous fashion of the 1880’s. The public rooms, lobbies, parlors, lounges and dining rooms were furnished and decorated with the same disregard of expense. The woodwork of its massive doors, panelled walls and carved cornices, was of the finest material and workmanship and of the most massive construction. The furniture, bric-a-brac and works of art with which Mr. Plant embellished his hotel are almost museum pieces today; indeed, much of the contents of the building form the nucleus of the city art museum, still housed in a wing of the thousand-foot structure which, with its contents and grounds, became the property of the city of Tampa on Mr. Plant’s death.

After futile attempts to operate it as a hotel without loss, the city maintained it for several years as a municipal park and show place. More than once the perennial problem of what to do with the white elephant that had been wished on them started the city fathers to consider seriously tearing the structure down. The solution finally arrived at was to turn the old Tampa Bay Hotel over, in 1933, to the newly-organized University of Tampa. The University pays no rent under its ten-year lease, but relieves the city of the cost of maintaining the building and grounds. From the point of view of educators, the University is fortunate in being able to surround its students with such a beautiful and impressive environment as the ivy-covered old hotel provides. Under the presidency of Dr. John H. Sherman, the University of Tampa has a faculty of 38 and a student enrollment of more than 700. It offers courses leading to baccalaureate degrees in Science, Arts, Education and Business Administration, besides a two-year normal course for teachers.

The sea-borne traffic in and out of Tampa harbor comprises the largest tonnage of water-borne cargoes of any Florida port, though second in point of value. Tampa’s foreign trade has some curious and interesting features. Since 1930 a considerable trade has been developed between Tampa and the smaller ports of the Caribbean and of South America whose harbors are too shallow for large steamers. The “banana fleet,” in which this type of commerce is conducted, consists of small vessels, frequently fishing schooners which have been dismasted and repowered with Diesel motors. These little craft, few of them more than 100 feet long, scurry between Tampa and outof-the way ports from Yucatan to the Panama Canal, and eastward as far as the Antilles. One vessel of this banana fleet as a former United States Navy destroyer, whose bulky steamboilers and engines have been ripped out and replaced by compact Diesel motors, to provide cargo room.

Most of these little craft are independently owned, frequently the owner being his own master. They began bringing bananas and other fruit shipped by independent planters to be sold to independent buyers in Tampa. Much of this trade formerly went to New Orleans, but when a market for the cargoes began to develop in Tampa practically all the shipments of this nature began to come in to this port. Being a day nearer than New Orleans, and the little craft having no refrigeration equipment, they are able to deliver banana cargoes at Tampa with less risk of spoiling than if they took them farther north. Quite naturally a business in return cargoes out of Tampa has developed, so that, from a source previously overlooked, Tampa merchants are now receiving income from sales which run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars annually. Most of these little vessels of the banana fleet carry passengers, from one or two to a dozen, and with rather cramped accommodations, between Tampa and many little out-of-the-way spots in Latin America.

This mosquito fleet, however, although accounting for an eighth of Tampa’s foreign imports, is a somewhat picturesque minor item in the sea-going traffic in and out of Tampa Harbor, which includes Port Tampa, a separate municipality with highly developed dock and railway terminal facilities, and manufacturing industries. The nearly 3,000 craft a year which enter Tampa Harbor include more than a thousand deep-water ships, three or four hundred of them freighters and passenger craft of 10,000 tons or more. Tampa’s largest single item of foreign import is fertilizer ingredients, with Chile nitrates and German potash predominating, while the largest single item of export is phosphates from the nearby Polk County mines, which account for about four-fifths of Tampa’s outgoing foreign commerce. One of the largest fertilizer factories in America is at Tampa, where the Florida phosphate is combined with German potash and Chile nitrate in varying combinations of these three essential elements of plant food.

Seventeen steamship lines operating freighters to every part of the world make regular scheduled voyages to Tampa with and for cargo. These include the Hamburg-American and other North European lines, several freight lines to African, Mediterranean and Oriental ports as well as lines running to South and Central America and the Islands of the Caribbean; while six different lines of freight ships and the tankers of ten of the large oil companies run in regular service between Tampa and ports of the Gulf and the Atlantic coast. Tampa has six passenger steamship lines giving regular service to New Orleans, Philadelphia, Havana, Honduras, Puerto Rico and the Windward Islands, and occasional trans-Atlantic passenger service to British, German and Netherlands ports.

The main ship channel into Tampa Harbor runs alongside of one of the most remarkable of Florida’s boom-time real estate developments, Davis Islands. Born in the imagination of D. P. Davis, a native Tampan who began life as a newsboy and accumulated a small fortune in real estate operations in Miami at the beginning of the boom, the Davis Islands development was perhaps the most audacious, as it was one of the most successful of all the audacious ventures of that era of wild speculation in Florida land. It was successful because its psychological timing was precisely right.

The Florida boom was at fever peak when D. P. Davis, with a record of successful development behind him, announced to the public that he intended to dredge enough sand from the bottom of Tampa Bay to create an island covering several thousand acres, and that he was prepared to sell lots on this future island, which still existed only on blue-prints, showing boulevards, parks and numbered building lots, which he displayed in the windows of the big store which he had taken over for operating headquarters in downtown Tampa. The audacity of the project caught the fancy of the speculation-mad public, Floridians and visitors alike, when he made his first offering in November, 1924. Dredges were already at work in the Bay; anyone could look out and see them. Thousands looked, and believed D. P. Davis’s dream. Hundreds stood in line overnight waiting until the opening hour set for the sale of lots on the non-existent islands. Before all the land had risen above the water every lot had been sold, most of them resold and resold again with a profit on every resale. Davis, the daring dreamer, reaped a harvest of millions in less than two years, before the real estate boom collapsed. But he was not content with that achievement, gigantic and spectacular as it was. He sunk his profits and became hopelessly involved in debt in the effort to repeat his success at Anastasia Island, in front of St. Augustine. Like many others who could not read the signs of the times, Davis did not realize that the speculative fever had run its course and the patient was cured even before he had begun his operations on the East Coast. Unable to stand up against adversity, D. P. Davis sailed for Europe with such small amounts of cash as he had been able to salvage from the wreckage of his fortune, and in midocean, giving way to his depression, he leaped overboard. His estate was hopelessly bankrupt, but the development which he had brought to practical completion in Tampa Bay was taken over by strong, well-financed and competent interests and is now the beauty spot of Tampa’s front yard.

Beautiful wide boulevards lead from the city to Davis Islands over a handsome, broad concrete causeway, through a section which is occupied by Tampa’s new municipal hospital and public recreation grounds. Curving tree-lined drives lead past beautiful modern homes, each in its own garden of greenery. Here on the island is the municipal auditorium; here is a country club complete with 18-hole golf course; here is a yacht harbor and here is Tampa’s latest object of municipal pride, the Peter O. Knight seaplane base, named for Tampa’s most outstanding citizen.

It is Tampa’s dream, if not to rival Miami as an international port of entry and departure for ships of the air, at least to develop from this new port an air commerce which will cover the Gulf with a network of flying routes, from Pensacola all the way around to Yucatan, and to build up a prosperous air traffic in passengers, mail and express service with all of Mexico and Central America., down to the Canal Zone and perhaps beyond. Tampa believes firmly in the strategic value of its location as the logical center to which all the commerce of the states and nations of the Gulf and the Caribbean must eventually converge. And Tampa is looking ahead, preparing itself against the day when everyone else will recognize its commanding position.

As a railroad center Tampa is second in Florida only to Jacksonville. The main lines of the Atlantic Coast Line and the Seaboard Air Line converge here, and each sends off branches from Tampa radiating in several directions, tapping the east and west coasts of the lower peninsula, running northward to connect with the main east-and-west trunk lines of the South. As was said of ancient Rome, “All Roads Lead to Tampa.” A new direct highway between Tampa and Jacksonville cuts the motoring distance between these two metropolitan centers of Florida down to only a little more than 200 miles. Besides the rails and the motor highways, Tampa is served by the busses of the Tamiami Trail route and of the Florida Motor Lines, whose service covers all Florida like a network, with modern, commodious highspeed motor-coaches. Tampa’s municipal airport is the western terminal of the Eastern Airlines, operating a regular mail and passenger service.

Industrially, Tampa’s activities are wide and varied. The state’s largest cement manufacturing plant is located here. At Port Tampa are the repair shops of the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad. An important new industry arising from the development of citrus canning is the manufacture of tin cans for the fruit and vegetable canneries of Florida. The two largest manufacturers of these containers, the American Can Company and the Continental Can Company, have established factories in Tampa, one of them adjacent to the largest cannery in the state, which is thus enabled to receive delivery of the containers for its output by gravity; the cans roll down an inclined plane from the factory into the canning works. In this cannery, besides Florida citrus products, several kinds of Florida vegetables are canned under contract for concerns in the North and West. Floridians smile when they see carloads of Tampapacked canned goods going out to market in receptacles bearing the nationally advertised brand of California’s largest producer.

Under a provision of the Florida constitution exempting from taxation until 1949 industrial plants established subsequent to 1929, engaged primarily in the manufacture of steel vessels, automobile tires, fabrics and textiles, wood pulp, paper, paper bags, fiber board, automobiles, automobile parts, aircraft, aircraft parts, glass and crockery manufacture and the refining of oils and sugar, these tin can manufacturers have obtained tax exemption on the ground that their product is, technically, steel vessels. They are vessels by the dictionary definition meaning containers of liquids, and they are made of rolled steel sheets coated with tin. Curiously enough, however, the Florida courts, while admitting that exemption, have refused to exempt the Tampa Dry-dock Company, which is actually engaged in the construction and repair of steel seagoing ships! This is one of the new industries in which Tampa takes pardonable pride. It gives to the port better dry-dock facilities, with a capacity for larger vessels, than any other port of Florida has.

The early history of Tampa is largely shrouded in the mists of tradition, with very little documentary evidence, if any, to back up the assertion that the “DeSoto Oak,” a stately tree standing in Plant Park, is the identical oak tree under which Hernando DeSoto met in council with the lawmakers of the Indians before he started on his ill-fated trek to the Mississippi. There is more sound historical basis for the tradition that Pamfilo de Narvaez, lieutenant and successor of Cortez, the conqueror of Mexico, sailed into Tampa Bay in April, 1528, the first European to land upon the Gulf shores of Florida. There is doubtless foundation for the tradition that for the next three centuries Tampa was a rendezvous for pirates, though the glamorous myths surrounding the figure of Jose Gasparilla and the brilliant semi-regal court which this pirate king maintained at Tampa, may be put in the believe-it-or-not class. At any rate, they furnish the excuse and the background for Tampa’s great mid-winter festival, the Gasparilla Carnival, organized and conducted by the young men of Tampa and which for gayety and social brilliance rivals the Mardi Gras revels of New Orleans.

The first recorded settlement of Tampa was in 1823, when the United States troops sailed into Tampa Bay from Pensacola and built a log fort as a headquarters in the current war with the Seminoles. The spot where they landed is still called Gadsden Point, from Captain James Gadsden, later famous as Minister to Mexico, who commanded the military expedition, and the section of Tampa where the fort stood is known locally as “The Garrison.” It is now a valuable manufacturing and waterfront property. The little settlement that grew up in those early days of the 19th century was known as Fort Brooke, the Indian name of Tampa being adopted later, long after the soldiers had departed and left the place to the fisherfolk and, perhaps, to 19th century pirates.