St. Petersburg: History

Railroad Line Leads to City's Founding

Like much of Florida, the Tampa Bay area had been settled by Native Americans for generations before the first white explorer arrived. The region was visited in 1513 when Ponce de Leon of Spain anchored near Mullet Bay to clean barnacles from his ships. His party was greeted with a violent reception from Timucuan tribe and de Leon retreated. Eight years later, de Leon returned, suffered an arrow wound, and again fled, this time to Cuba, where he died of his injury. A statue of de Leon stands in the city's Waterfront Park today. Seven years after de Leon's disaster, another Spanish explorer, Panfile de Narvaez, landed in St. Petersburg on Good Friday of 1528. He, too, had notoriously bad relations with Native Americans, and following some preliminary explorations, Narvaez died in a storm while leaving the region.

The first modern settler to remain in the area was John Constantine Williams of Detroit, Michigan, where his father was the first mayor. Williams, like many who would come after him, moved to Florida for his health. An asthma sufferer, Williams bought thousands of acres in St. Petersburg, but lived in Tampa until an 1887 yellow fever epidemic there drove him across the bay.

Williams transferred part of his land to Russian exile Peter Demens and in return Demens extended his Orange Belt Railroad from Sanford, Florida, west to Tarpon Springs and then south along the Gulf coast to Williams's settlement. As part of the deal, Williams agreed to let the railway man name the settlement. Demens called it St. Petersburg after his Russian birthplace. When the railroad made its first run in 1888, the population of St. Petersburg numbered 30 people. Even with the new rail line, the population reached only 273 people two years later. Williams, who died in 1892, the same year St. Petersburg was incorporated, built the first big resort in the city at the corner of Central Avenue and Second Street. Called The Detroit, the hotel still stands today.

Tourism soon followed. By 1909, the first direct train arrived from New York City. The next year, Lew Brown, publisher of The Independent newspaper, began his tradition of giving away that day's papers anytime the sun didn't appear—a promise that was kept until the paper closed in the 1980s. Giveaways averaged just four a year, and according to the Guinness Book of World Records, the longest stretch of sunshine was 768 days in a row.

Early Baseball Days

Professional baseball's spring training had first come to Florida as early as 1888 in Jacksonville, but it was civic boosters in St. Petersburg who made "Grapefruit League" action an institution. The city's first game was played on February 27, 1914. The hosting St. Louis Browns lost to the Chicago Cubs, who were training in Tampa and made the trip by steamboat across Tampa Bay. Al Lang, a former Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, launderer, moved to St. Petersburg in 1909 and soon became mayor. Lang, a baseball fan, enticed the Philadelphia Phillies to St. Petersburg in 1915. When Philadelphia got off to a rousing start back north for the regular season, St. Petersburg's good spring weather got much of the credit. City leaders later named their baseball stadium after Lang.

Real Estate Boom Collapses

Improved roads, increased automobile travel, and the search for warm weather helped make St. Petersburg one of the first Florida cities to live through the real estate boom of the 1920s. The city counted 14 residents in 1920 and 50,000 residents just five years later. The boom years left a legacy of landmarks built in the Mediterranean Revival style that today remain as a graceful reminder of the city's past.

But the first boom didn't last. By the Great Depression of the 1930s, all nine of the city's banks had collapsed, script was used instead of U.S. currency, and the population dropped back down to 40,000 people. Signs posted at the edge of the city warned newcomers against moving in.

On New Year's Day in 1914, commercial aviation was inaugurated in St. Petersburg, or, more precisely, in the waters just offshore. Pilot Tony Jannus flew a lone passenger (St. Petersburg's mayor), who had paid $400 for the honor, from the yacht basin in St. Petersburg to the foot of Lee Street in Tampa. The flight, on the wooden airboat "Benoist," took 23 minutes, and 3,000 spectators cheered its arrival. The St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line survived for a year before interest flagged.

Foul weather has altered the area on several occasions. In 1843, four decades before the Detroiter Williams arrived, Antonio Maximo set up a fishing camp at the southernmost tip of the Pinellas peninsula. But five years later, a hurricane wiped out his holdings and Maximo disappeared. Much later, the hurricane of 1921 brought 106-mile-per-hour winds and more than 6 inches of rain in one 24-hour period, washing ships up to a half mile inland. The city's main pier was destroyed.

Modern Development Extends to Gulf Beaches

Despite these weather-related problems, development continued. Ten major hotels were built in the first half of the 1920s. More important, bridges were extended to the Gulf beaches, which are separated from St. Petersburg proper by the Intracoastal Waterway. Then, in late 1924, the Gandy Bridge, connecting St. Petersburg to Tampa, was opened, eliminating dependence on unreliable ferry schedules or what could be a day-long train ride around Tampa Bay to the city of Tampa. When tourist-dependent St. Petersburg suffered because of gas rationing during World War II, the U.S. Air Corps filled the void by stationing many of its troops in the area's big hotels. The resorts returned to civilian use after the war. During the post-war years, a second bridge spanning Tampa Bay was added, and the Sunshine Skyway linking St. Petersburg to communities to the south was built.

In the 1960s the city moved to shift its image from a retirement haven to a prime spot for investment and business growth. Besides tourism, the fields of health care, manufacturing, high technology, marine sciences, and electronics were emerging to lead St. Petersburg into its future.

Following two nights of civil disturbances in October-November 1996, St. Petersburg united as a community and vowed to change the way it does business in the inner city by creating jobs, improving education, increasing property values, and reducing crime. In 2000 the National League of Cities awarded the city's efforts with its top award for promoting cultural diversity. Today's St. Petersburg thrives on its popularity with tourists and its flourishing economy.

Historical Information: St. Petersburg Museum of History, 335 N. 2nd Ave., St. Petersburg, FL 33701; telephone (727)894-1052; email