An Overview of Greater Tampa Bay, Its History and Heritage Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

An Overview of Greater Tampa Bay, Its History and Heritage

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Tampa Bay is a large bay, about halfway down the west coast of the state of Florida. Most of the bay is surrounded by a very dense urban population; however the south-eastern corner is still almost untouched by the hand of man. The casual visitor will find many activities and attractions designed for the tourist. However, few people realise this area has a long history.

The Greater Tampa Bay area can today be considered to include six counties. Three of these (Hillsborough, Pinellas and Manatee) actually share a portion of the bay's coastline. The other three (Pasco, Polk and Sarasota) are connected by Interstate highways (motorways) and are within an hours drive of the bay itself. Pinellas, Manatee and Sarasota counties are also bordered by the Gulf of Mexico, and have a series of barrier islands that are densely populated by hotels, condominiums, apartments and private residences. Although Pasco county also borders the Gulf, it has no inhabited barrier island.

Before European Contact

The first residents of the Tampa Bay area were Paleo Indians (the indigenous population are known by many names - Columbus thought he was in the East Indies and incorrectly named the inhabitants) who hunted species such as mastodons and sabre-toothed cats as early as 12,000 BC. When these large animals became extinct they began to hunt smaller animals for their food. Long before the arrival of Europeans, the native culture thrived and developed a complex civilisation. Among the remaining traces of these early residents are their mounds and middens. The mounds are small hills, most commonly built of oyster shells or sand, which were used for the chief's home, burial and ceremonial places. The middens are only the early form of a garbage dump, usually located next to their cooking area.

By the time of the Spanish arrival in Florida, there were six major groups of native people. The Timucua lived in an area from Tampa Bay to present day Jacksonville. The Calusa lived along the west coast south of Tampa Bay, and the Apalachee inhabited the panhandle area around present day Tallahassee. The east coast was populated by the Tequesta to the south, Jenga a bit farther north and the Ais, between the Jenga and the north-eastern lands of the Timuca.

The Spanish

It is possible that Ponce de Leon visited Tampa Bay in 1512. This is not certain but the following conquistadors certainly used its deep sheltered waters. Panfio de Narvaez arrived in Tampa Bay on 4 April, 1527. Although he originally intended to start a colony, Narvaez would soon be overcome by the promise of gold possessed by the Apalachee to the north. Bad luck - and a hurricane that prevented a planned meeting with his ships - resulted in the loss of almost his entire party. The most famous of the Spanish to land at Tampa Bay, Hernando DeSoto, arrived on 30 May, 1539. Again, tales of gold led him far to the north and west; like Narvaez, his adventure cost him his life. A Dominican Priest, Father Luis Cancer de Barbastro, felt that the hostility shown by the Tequesta was due to the presence of armed Spanish soldiers. When he discovered that some of his men had been killed or enslaved by the natives he went ashore to confront their leaders. Before he could even reach shore he was slain by club-wielding inhabitants on 26 June, 1549.

The United States

By the time Florida was ceded to the United States in 1821, the Tampa Bay area contained only a few farms and citrus groves, as well as a few scattered fishing rancheros1. Goods were traded with Key West, Havana, Pensacola and New Orleans. The original native population had almost all died or been converted by the Spanish, and left the peninsula when the Spanish abandoned their colony. They were replaced by a tribe called the Seminoles who had formed themselves from small groups from other tribes that had lived in Georgia.

The US Army built a fort where the Hillsborough River flowed into Tampa Bay, called Fort Brooke. This would become the heart of the city of Tampa. From 1836 until 1842 a major war was fought in Florida in an effort to force the Seminoles to relocate to the western plains of Oklahoma. By the end of the war, the few Seminoles who had avoided death or capture retreated far into the Everglades swamp, leaving Tampa Bay to the white men.

By the time of the American Civil War (1861 - 1865) Tampa had become an important port and would supply food for the Confederate armies fighting in Tennessee and Virginia. A small island named Egmont Key is situated at the mouth of the bay. This key remained in Union hands throughout the war and served as a base for warships that prevented ships from entering or leaving the bay. Due to this blockade most of the supplies were shipped overland. The city itself was shelled by ships on at least one occasion and a small group of Union Sailors and Marines landed when the Confederate guard were away and burned two ships that were going to try to run the blockade. When the war ended in 1865 Tampa returned to the union along with the rest of the South.

In 1884 Henry B Flagler's railroad, which had been established along Florida's east coast, reached Tampa where he started a regular steamboat service to Havana, Cuba. A Cuban immigrant named Don Vicente Ybor came to Tampa a year later and started a cigar factory. Cigar making would become a major industry and to this day the old cigar district is known as Ybor2 City. Rail service was extended to the western side of the bay in 1888 by Peter Demens. The city that began to grow around the terminus of this line would be named after Demens home town, Saint Petersburg, Russia. Tampa and Saint Petersburg became popular winter resorts for the rich and famous. The US invasion of Cuba was launched from Tampa in 1898. Henry Plant's luxury hotel, with its distinctive onion shaped minarets, became temporary headquarters for Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders3. The Rough Riders earned fame and glory in the 'Charge up San Juan Hill' near Santiago, Cuba.

The first ever regularly scheduled commercial airplane service was established in 1914, carrying cargo and passengers (one or two at a time) between Tampa and Saint Petersburg. The Florida land boom of the 1920s brought speculators hoping to get rich overnight and scam artists ready to feed their dreams by the hundreds. The stock market crash in 1929 severely crippled the area's economy. It was not until the Second World War that growth resumed. The Tampa bay area became home and training ground for hundreds of troops before they were sent overseas. After the war many of these people would return to settle in the area.

In 1954 a bridge was built spanning the mouth of Tampa Bay to connect Pinellas and Manatee counties. The centre span of this bridge is actually a part of Hillsborough county, even though county police and maintenance workers must drive through many miles of the adjacent counties to reach it. The entire ship channel was retained by Hillsborough county for administrative purposes. By 1971 a second bridge was built next to the existing structure, to allow two lanes of traffic to travel in each direction. This bridge would play a pivotal place in two disasters during the first half of 1980. On the night of 28 January, 1980 the United States Coast Guard cutter Blackthorn was headed into the Gulf of Mexico. The Blackthorn was a buoy tender that had just been overhauled and was returning to her home base in Galveston, Texas. While passing beneath the bridge the tanker Capricorn was headed into port. The two ships collided and the Blackthorn capsized and sank in the channel. The loss of 23 Coast Guard sailors on that night shocked the nation.

On the morning of 9 May, 1980 the phosphate carrier Summit Venture was entering Tampa Bay, scheduled to fill her empty holds. It was a wet rainy morning and just as the ship was making her final approach to the bridge she was hit by a sudden squall. The ship slammed into the first column south of the main support tower, causing its collapse. Within moments, the southbound lanes crashed onto the Summit Venture's deck and into the bay. 35 people met their fate while crossing the bridge, several of them on a commercial bus that was headed for Miami. One man was fortunate enough to be on the section of roadway that landed on the ship - he was the only person to survive the plunge. A new bridge was designed and completed in 1987. At the time it was the largest cable-stayed bridge4 ever built. The centre spans of the old bridges were demolished and the old approaches form two huge fishing piers, one from the north and the other from the south.

Greater Tampa Bay Today

The history of Tampa Bay is celebrated during many events each year that demonstrate the unique history and culture of the individual cities and towns. Although nowhere near a complete list these include:

  • Epiphany Cross Retrieval

    To commemorate the sponge-fishing heritage of Tarpon Springs, on 6 January every year the teenage boys of the Greek Orthodox Cathedral form a procession and travel the nearby Spring Bayou, where the Bishop blesses a small cross and throws it into the water. The boys, who are gathered in a string of small boats, then dive into the water and attempt to retrieve the cross. The young man who surfaces with the cross in his hand receives a blessing with his family for good fortune in the following year.

  • Strawberry Festival

    Early each year the farming community near Plant City (just east of Tampa) celebrates their harvest with a large festival. Local lore says that the strawberries are sweetest after a small frost has hit the growing berries - however, a severe frost will destroy a large part of the crop.

  • Gasparilla

    In early February the city of Tampa holds a week long celebration that begins with the invasion of the mythical pirate Jose Gaspar. Although there is no evidence of such a person having existed, it is an opportunity for the community's business and political leaders to dress in costume and sail up the bay in a barge that has been disguised as a pirate ship, complete with cannon. Parades and parties follow. These events are often compared to Mardi Gras and Carnival.

  • Festival of States

    The City of Saint Petersburg was considered for many years the retirement capital of the US, if not the world. Each year high school marching bands are invited to travel to the city for a series of competitions and parades. The people gather along the streets to cheer on the band representing their home state.

  • Highland Games

    The City of Dunedin celebrates its Scottish heritage with traditional Highland Games such as the caber toss. Dunedin High School's own drum and bagpipe corps entertain the crowds with their music and choreography while wearing kilted uniforms.

  • Gauvaween

    In what is a fairly recent addition to the myriad of events witness in the area each year, the weekend before Halloween is celebrated in Ybor City by a huge block party. A queen of the event, known as Mama Guava, is elected and leads the celebrators in a parade called the Guava Stumble. The Latin influence of this community is obvious in the character of the festivities.

  • Victorian Christmases

    Although the old Plant Hotel still stands on the banks of the Hillsborough River, it is now the campus of the University of Tampa. One entry wing is however still open to the public as a museum. Each December, community groups volunteer to decorate one of the rooms in Christmas theme, in the style of the time the hotel was built. Docents5 in period costume lead visitors from room to room.

1Small camps built by fishermen, primarily from Cuba, used while catching fish in the area.2Pronounced 'e-boar'.3A cavalry unit established by the future US president from western cowboys and New York City's elite sons.4A type of suspension bridge where the supporting cables are located in the centre of the roadway instead of the traditional outboard suspension cables.5Trained guides.

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