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Our Beginnings (A story about Tampa's history)

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TAMPA - It's simple enough, what led us here.

The wonderful weather. And that iron horse galloping through the swamp, the locomotive.

Of course, air conditioning and mosquito control made it easier to stay.

People, too, made their mark - people who thrust their way through the muck, fighting to make a place for themselves in an environment that was hardly welcoming. Enduring hardship. Risking peril.

Despite the gloom recorded by one visitor in the mid- 1800s - ``Tampa once reached is found to be a sleepy, shabby Southern town'' - the city has grown. Regardless of yellow fever and hurricanes and occasional crop-killing freezes. Regardless of land booms and busts and persistent political infighting and corruption.

Regardless of a reputation that has earned it sometimes lovely but often nasty nicknames, from ``Queen of the Gulf'' to ``Hellhole of the Gulf Coast.'' From ``Little Chicago'' to ``Sin City of the South.''

Even with all that, we seem to enjoy our town's raffish image. We herald a century-old celebration, Gasparilla, based on the philanderings of an imaginary pirate, and root for a football team called the Buccaneers.

Indeed, those who know the city best, who have studied its violent youth and witnessed its cheating heart, love it anyway. Mayor Pam Iorio wrote her master's thesis in history on one of the city's ugliest institutions - a political party devoted to keeping blacks from voting. But she nonetheless embraces her hometown, explaining how visitors often remark on the residents' warmth, the city's caring.

She echoes retired U.S. Rep. Sam Gibbons and former Gov. Bob Martinez when she describes Tampa as ``a big city with a small-town feel.''

A town that's evolving, maturing, growing.

But going where? Becoming what?

Our roots might give us some insight. A city's identity, how it works and the paths it follows as it moves into the future are nearly always products of the past - unless its people choose another course. Tampa is no different.

Most people think Florida history begins when they cross the state line, or so historians joke. Others are convinced Florida was a frontier until technological savvy - air conditioning and mosquito control - tamed it.

The former is funny.

The latter is fact.

Florida explorers, tortured by mosquitoes, wrote of covering themselves with sand while sleeping on the beach.

It wasn't until the mid-1920s that the state began to battle the tiny pests by establishing mosquito control districts.

Furthermore, central air wouldn't temper the Sunshine State for years. Among the first air-conditioned buildings in town was the Tampa Theatre, which boasted the technology when it opened in 1926.

From this whiz-bang boom, Tampa gained an ever-increasing population, unending growth and all manner of change. Throughout, certain themes and attitudes seem to have remained constant.

A rugged individualism that some might call hardheadedness and others, grit.

Add to this elements of racism and organized crime. Opportunity and opportunism. Constant development in a fragile environment.

And hope, always hope, steadily drawing transplants and immigrants, despite heat, humidity and sometimes the darkest of skies - which always turn sunny again.

These are the things from which we come. These are the things that influence us still.

Sun, Sand And Disasters

Tampa's oldest attractions are its most basic: the land, the water, the sun and the sunsets.

They still attract settlers.

The first were the Paleo Indians, who occupied the peninsula 12,000 years ago.

By the 1500s, the area was populated by Tocobaga Indians, resilient individuals with highly developed communities, cultivating corn and digging canals later imitated by explorers. One explorer, a shipwrecked Spaniard named Fontaneda who lived with the Tocobaga, assigned the name ``Tanpa'' to the tropical environs. The word apparently came from the language of the natives, although historians don't know what it meant.

Mapmakers likely altered the spelling.

Spaniards such as Ponce de Leon, Hernando de Soto and Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles all discovered the splendor of ``La Florida,'' says University of South Florida history Professor Gary Mormino. In 1757, Juan Baptista Franco was among the first to note on maps the area that would become Tampa. A skilled draftsman exploring Florida's timberlands, Franco wrote, ``We could not find a more delightful and comfortable place.''

By this time, the Tocobaga were extinct, and other American Indians and runaway slaves who made up the Seminole nation had taken their place. Not a tribe in the usual sense, the Seminoles numbered about 5,000 by 1800.

Gen. Andrew Jackson seized cattle and land and negotiated the acquisition of Florida from Spain in 1818. Three years later, Florida became a U.S. territory for $5 million. Today, Florida real estate is worth an estimated $1.24 trillion, according to the state Department of Revenue.

Land And Loss

Although historians disagree on the date, the U.S. Army began battling Seminoles about 1820 by attacking a fortress of Indians and runaway slaves on the Apalachicola River. Southern politicians wouldn't tolerate runaway slaves and couldn't stomach the notion of them conspiring with Indians. The U.S. government, meanwhile, wanted to herd the Seminoles west or confine them to the swamps of South Florida. Some might say the Seminoles eventually prevailed, though: They now run a string of casinos across the state that rake in millions of dollars a year. One is on Orient Road, just off Interstate 4.

The first Seminole War didn't bring peace. So in 1824, the Army chose the eastern bank at the mouth of the Hillsborough River for a fort, marking the beginning of a relationship between Tampa and the military that continues today. The fort was named for its first commander, Col. George Mercer Brooke.

More than 150 years later, the city built a parking garage, convention center and exhibition hall on the site, unearthing bones and artifacts - and reinforcing what some see as our ho-hum attitude toward Tampa history.

We belatedly recognized its significance by putting a park on the old fort's grounds along Garrison Channel. It's surrounded by some of downtown's most valuable real estate and might one day anchor a riverwalk along the Hillsborough River. Two weeks ago, the Tampa Bay Lightning made more history across the street from the park by winning professional hockey's Stanley Cup championship.

To some, Fort Brooke was a serene refuge in the wilderness. Old oaks braided with Spanish moss dotted the landscape.

``Surely the coldest heart would warm with admiration, for beauties which the dullest eye must perceive ... come with me and note this romantic grove of lofty trees,'' wrote Meyer Cohen of Charleston, S.C., a young soldier smitten with the scenery.

Another Army recruit was not. ``What we all suffer here in Florida [is being] almost eaten up by fleas, cockroaches and almost all manner of vermin,'' he wrote to his wife.

Nonetheless, by 1842, hardier souls happily set aside such misgivings to take advantage of a land giveaway. They were the point people in a still-widening river of migration.

To bolster the Seminole battlefront, the government offered 160 acres to family heads or single men older than 18 able to bear arms - if they lived on the land for five years and cultivated 5 acres. Homesteaders could not live within two miles of the fort, and the offer was restricted to whites.

Most of the pioneers were poor and disdained by Tampa's established residents, who thought they lacked roots and thus fostered corruption.

A census in 1845, the year statehood was sealed, found a sparse civilian populace here - 466 whites, 364 slaves and six free blacks. One soldier wrote in November 1845: ``As the land in the vicinity is mostly of a poor quality, and as the bay is difficult of approach for shipping, it does not seem destined to grow very rapidly in importance.''

Some thought otherwise - including James McKay, a Scottish mariner who embraced Tampa's future of development by purchasing lot after lot, meanwhile establishing a lucrative shipping business selling Florida cattle in Cuba.

Such people attempted to infuse civility into a hamlet that was more cow town than plantation society.

The third and final Seminole War ended in 1858, but peace did not immediately bring prosperity. In 1880, Tampa remained a small fishing port with a population of about 700.

Like McKay, Henry B. Plant of Connecticut saw something more. A wealthy entrepreneur in transportation, Plant realized the discovery of phosphate in nearby Polk County would change the business landscape. He was right - phosphate products remain the No. 1 export from the Port of Tampa.

Plant also knew the government would give land to someone willing to build a rail line. He was right again.

Plant's South Florida Railroad reached Tampa in January 1884, and with the purchase of several more lines - called the Plant System - he acquired some 750,000 acres of Florida real estate. Then he built a railroad to the tip of Tampa's Interbay peninsula, where he constructed port facilities. The government subsidized Plant's investment by deepening the channel, opening it to more shipping and cruise traffic.

But how to market the town? Erect a Moorish marvel of a hotel to lure the wealthy and influential. Plant's promise: ``to turn this sand heap into a Champs-Elysees, the Hillsborough into a Seine.''

Although the tycoon gave Tampa its most distinctive landmark, the hotel would never be a financial blockbuster. The city acquired it in 1905 and arranged for it to house the University of Tampa in 1933.

Abundant land and the potential for industry have always drawn entrepreneurs here. Spaniards Vicente Martinez- Ybor and Ignacio Haya saw promise and profits in undeveloped lots just northeast of downtown.

The men created Ybor City in the late 1880s and, with it, a Tampa icon - premium handmade cigars. The industry was Tampa's biggest for more than 30 years. It left the city with another legacy, too - traditions of family and culture that remain with us.

The result: a diversity so rich that many believe it soon will help to transform Tampa into a cosmopolitan gateway to South America.

Nature in the 19th century seemed bent on tearing down what so many people had worked so hard to build. A massive hurricane virtually destroyed Tampa in 1848. Epidemics of yellow fever felled dozens of residents throughout the 1800s. A freeze devastated the area's citrus industry in 1895. And fires swept through parts of the city in 1908, 1918 and 1919.

Nevertheless, real estate investors remained fixed on that first promise: the land, the water, the sun. In 1924, David P. Davis ballyhooed the ``Eighth Wonder of the World'' by creating pricey real estate from submerged mud flats.

The Davis Islands development, which Davis seeded with $200,000 raised through citizen-backed bonds, generated almost $3 million in sales in three days.

Today, those flats are worth almost $807 million, according to the county property appraiser's office.

By the mid-1920s, Florida was in a real estate frenzy. But in a foreshadowing of contemporary problems, transportation systems proved inadequate. Then stories of land fraud began to spread.

Even before the Great Depression in 1929, the state's land boom went bust. From 1926 to 1930, Florida real estate values plunged from $623 million to $441 million.

Military Marvels

The military's influence on Tampa, so crucial to its birth, diminished after the Civil War, then was revived practically overnight in 1898.

Situated relatively close to Cuba, and with a burgeoning population of Cuban immigrants, Tampa seemed the logical place to launch U.S. troops into the Spanish- American War. Soldiers began arriving by the thousands that spring, but it was a brief, raucous visit by Theodore Roosevelt and his Rough Riders that historians recall.

Opinion-makers from around the globe praised and pummeled the dusty, disorganized enclave, among them a correspondent named Winston Churchill and a painter named Frederic Remington. Each noted Tampa's most obvious splendor: Plant's Tampa Bay Hotel, where military officers held court. Others were more intrigued by garish goings-on: prostitutes, gambling, an anything-goes mentality and Wild West physicality.

Visions of the Rough Riders stampeding through an Ybor City restaurant - an incident nicknamed ``The Charge of the Yellow Rice Brigade'' - would become one of many lending credence to the area's rough-hewn reputation. Tampa's Imperial Theater Saloon, featuring a stripper named La Culebra (The Snake), was filled with soldiers 24 hours a day.

``Seldom a night passed without a serious riot,'' Tampa's newspapermen wrote. ``There were hundreds of bullet holes in the metal ceiling of the main hall ... with toughs who demolish saloons, theatres and restaurants and are in all kinds of diabolical mischief.''

When World War II loomed, the military again called Tampa's name - this time for a project born of a law authorizing airfields coast to coast.

It couldn't have come at a better time. To put Americans back to work during the Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Works Progress Administration. Its legacy here was vast, from the Bayshore Boulevard seawall to the Fort Homer Hesterly Armory to hospitals and theaters.

None was more significant than the work on a sandy expanse of land called Catfish Point. Transformed into MacDill Field and named for Army aviator Col. Leslie MacDill, it became one of the country's most vital wartime training bases for airmen. Across town, Drew Field's runways also benefited from WPA money and served as a WWII military base. So, too, did Henderson Field, far north of downtown.

And what did they become? Drew Field - eventually connected to MacDill by a road named for Army Capt. Dale Mabry - became Tampa International Airport. Henderson was given to Busch Gardens and the University of South Florida. MacDill grew in global importance to become crucial to today's war on terrorism.

Thousands also found wartime employment in the shipyards dotting Tampa's harbor. During World War I, two dozen steel ships and four wooden cargo vessels were built here; during World War II, four shipyards employing 23,000 people churned out dozens of ships. And although shipbuilding slumped after the war, phosphate and petroleum exports from port facilities at Hookers Point - now the Tampa Port Authority's home - continued to prosper.

Those profitable industries might have led Tampa to view its picturesque waterfront in terms of industrial, rather than aesthetic, value, Mormino says. ``Certainly that's part of the reason [the waterfront hasn't been commercially developed], and has been since the early 1900s, when railroad and utility interests - and lawyers - controlled the waterfront,'' he says.

Renegades And Rogues

People who call Tampa home are remarkably eclectic and independent - and so focused on land that individual property rights regularly trump the common good in conflicts over development.

For years, the pioneering Hackley family claimed the land under Fort Brooke, saying the property resulted from a Spanish land grant. The family did not relinquish its claim until 1907 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the grants worthless.

Homesteaders slowly put down roots near the fort, something the government discouraged. For with these villagers came seedy sorts and hangers-on. And in a place so isolated from the rest of the United States, they thrived.

So did another sort of settler: the hard-working, self- sufficient pioneer who herded cattle with a whip that ``cracked'' the air. The so- called Florida Cracker was a cowpoke mighty proud of a life and a home conquered by sheer will. They had to master things such as dangerous critters and foreign exchange - ranchers shipping beef to Cuba were paid in Spanish doubloons as late as the 1880s.

The men and women who limped here after the Civil War were different yet again. Historian Canter Brown Jr. says Reconstruction brought to Florida the bitter and poor.

``We got pretty much the sorriest element from everywhere,'' Brown says. ``Pioneers developed a tradition of rugged individualism and abhorrence of government that contributed to a willingness to resort to violence.''

Transplants from the North and Midwest - from which Tampa still gets many of its newcomers - also were greeted with disdain. When a handful homesteaded north of downtown and named the sandy trail Nebraska Avenue, the response was swift.

Southern neighbors christened a parallel road Florida Avenue.

County Versus Town

Tampa politics was a bloody, bawdy sport in those days - hinting, some say, of imbroglios to come.

When Hillsborough County was established in 1834, Tampa lacked its own governing body, so the county's board of commissioners oversaw its affairs. In January 1849, 14 men decided to incorporate the ``village of Tampa.'' They failed spectacularly.

During the next 20 years, a handful of residents would lead Tampa in and out of incorporation - and bankruptcy - a half-dozen times. The public had so little faith in these leaders that in 1869 a ``no corporation'' slate of candidates ran for city office and won, once again dismantling the city's attempts to organize formally.

Sewage problems were common. Garbage piled up in the streets. Roads were pathetic - a huge hole at Franklin and Polk streets was ignored so long that one citizen implored the government to ``either fill it up, dig a drain or run a ferry boat.''

Apparently, some things never change. Just ask anyone driving the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway or passing through ``Malfunction Junction.''

The Florida Legislature granted Tampa a city charter in 1887, incorporating Ybor City in its boundaries. And a new Board of Trade began to promote business.

Soon more cigarmakers came, followed by fresh waves of foreign immigrants, with customs that seemed odd, even threatening to hardheaded Floridians.

The languages of these newcomers made communication difficult. Moreover, they drank alcohol freely, started socialized medicine, played games of chance and joined labor unions - all of which unsettled conservative descendants of the town's founders.

Tampa In Black And White

These immigrants weren't the only menace in the minds of Tampa's mostly white, mostly male power brokers. As was true throughout the post-Civil War South, this group had the mightiest say in the city's day- to-day affairs.

Beginning in the late 1800s, these men began to sequester Tampa's black population into a tiny downtown quarter called The Scrub - a neighborhood later lost in part to a more modern symbol of social dysfunction, the tangle of interstates on the edge of downtown called ``Malfunction Junction.'' In The Scrub, residents' pleas for basic services such as sewerage and paved streets were routinely ignored.

Such elitism emerged periodically through the decades, rearing its head in monumental controversy even in contemporary times. In 1991, as Tampa prepared to host Super Bowl XXV, a city-arranged parade replaced Gasparilla. Charges of racial exclusion had been leveled against the event's sponsor, Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla. In 1993, plans for a museum detailing the voyages of the Whydah - a salvaged pirate ship that once transported slaves - sank swiftly in the face of revelations that city officials had not consulted Tampa's black community.

Forget that black carpenter Joseph A. Walker was among Tampa's first politicians, elected to the city council in 1887. Even before the era of Jim Crow, blacks here had been stripped of nearly every civil right.

The first lynching in the area occurred in 1859, when a mulatto slave named Adam was wrongly blamed for the murder of a local farmer. The practice grew to horrific proportions in Florida, spawning local chapters of the Ku Klux Klan. The Sunshine State led the nation in lynchings from 1890 to 1930, historians say, with local KKK members reportedly inducted near what is now Lowry Park.

Compounding the problem, the Florida Democratic Party limited its membership to whites in 1902. Blacks could join the Republican Party, but in those days, its role in Florida politics was inconsequential.

In 1908, a group of Tampa residents led by D.B. McKay, a grandson of James McKay who served as mayor four times from 1910 to 1931, designed a system for Tampa primary elections that allowed for just one political party, the White Municipal Party. It essentially outlawed blacks from the electoral process here for the next 40 years. Its consequences can still be seen in the separation between whites and blacks in Tampa today.

Blacks weren't the only victims of elitism. In 1901, a group of residents kidnapped 13 union leaders who had rallied hundreds of cigarworkers to strike. They were unceremoniously abandoned on a beach in Honduras. In 1935, Joseph Shoemaker - who had dared to question Tampa's corrupt elections - was flogged to death by KKK members with the connivance of Tampa policemen. All escaped prison.

Crime And Power

Indeed, the 1920s and '30s were among Tampa's darkest years, when organized crime brought the city national attention and disdain.

For gambling. For bootlegging. And for so many gangland slayings from 1928 to 1959 that Tampa earned the moniker ``Little Chicago.''

And who was Tampa's crime czar? A descendant of two of the town's best-known pioneer families - Charlie Wall, related to both the Lykes and McKay clans. He was the kingpin in the bolita racket, a lottery game imported by Cuban immigrants.

Wall turned the game into a massive enterprise involving the city's powerful and elite in payoffs and political corruption that extended throughout Tampa's law enforcement community. Numbers games flourished, as did prostitution and smuggling - indeed, historians say Prohibition made Tampa, with its access to the bay, a bootlegger's paradise.

Confusion And Corruption

A rarefied few came to control city affairs in this era. For more than three decades, these men abused their power, creating a conclave in which corruption was business as usual. They received hefty payoffs from bootleggers, gamblers and brothel owners in exchange for protection. Elected officials also expected their employees to put 10 percent to 15 percent of their salaries into their bosses' war chests.

Elections generated wide- open warfare. Ballots were bought, stolen and stuffed. For days beforehand, whiskey was free in saloons, where votes were routinely purchased.

In 1935, the pandemonium peaked and drew national attention. Robert E. Lee Chancey, a Georgia-born criminal lawyer and Hillsborough County solicitor with family ties to Florida's statehouse, defeated McKay, who was attempting a comeback.

A tropical storm on that day in September didn't stop the factions from openly stuffing ballot boxes and hiring shotgun- toting denizens to keep the other side from doing the same. Fights broke out, blood was shed, and the National Guard was called in to restore the peace. Precinct workers were arrested and ballot boxes seized.

The incident drew headlines nationwide, including a story in The New York Times that detailed the ``bitter, skull- cracking election.'' It generated such disgust among Tampa voters that a 1937 referendum approved replacing hand ballots with voting machines.

Hillsborough County was the first in Florida to use the new technology.

By the 1950s, Tampa had such an anything-goes image - an article published in 1951 called the town one of America's ``Cities of Sin'' - that it attracted the Kefauver Commission. Overseen by Sen. Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, the commission held hearings nationwide to explore connections between organized crime and municipal governments.

No one accused in the Tampa investigation was convicted. But the event humiliated the city's image-makers, and they pledged to improve the town's reputation. Civic associations vowed to help. And for a while it looked as though the town might change.

Yet the scandals keep coming. In the past generation, they have touched the county commission, the county courthouse, the state attorney's office, the city council, the sheriff's office, the city housing department and the hierarchy of two union locals. Tampa still has a national reputation for its sex industry, born of its topless bars, so- called lingerie shops, locally made porn movies and a thriving call-girl industry.

As the dust from the Kefauver Commission cleared, Tampa's movers and shakers began looking beyond the city for the future.

In early 1953, an annexation effort led by Sam Gibbons - newly elected to Florida's House of Representatives - vaulted Tampa's population from 124,000 to 215,000. Government money poured in to build Tampa International Airport, the University of South Florida and a complex expansion of roadways including Interstate 275. It also financed an urban renewal program that, in hindsight, some politicians admit was a disaster.

Sprawl began with a vengeance. Jim Walters' tidy start-up homes sold by the thousands after WWII as transplants descended on Florida.

And still they come.

To gamble on a fresh start. To retire and watch the sunsets. To buy the homes that keep rising from the scrub-covered land that used to seem so limitless.

``There has always been something special about Tampa,'' Mormino says. ``We have always attracted dreamers and schemers.''

Such is the stuff from which we spring.

The challenge now is what we become.

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Wow! Never knew Tampa had such a colorful, be it infamous history behind it! Mostly all I knew was it was the southernmost depot for Teddy Roosevelts roughriders, fort brooke in the early 1800's and about it in the last 20 years.

3 quick questions though:

1) Whats with that tower that looks like something off the set of Romeo and Juliet on I-275 north of town (Fletcher Ave. Exit) the history of that tower must me something else, was it built for a lost love or what?

2) The Spanish landed in Tampa in the 1500s they got chased out seemed there was a really agressive clan of Indians there at the time and stories on that?

3)crap forgot but I'll add it later ;) lol great article!

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