Wednesday, March 23, 2011

In Tampa, sources of civic pride

Tampa’s civic leaders were apparently quite proud of their brand new concrete Lafayette Street Bridge when it opened in 1913. They were proud, too, of the Tampa Bay Hotel, a magnificent jewel of a resort that opened in 1891.

A remarkable panoramic photograph showing the bridge and Tampa Bay Hotel it is in the collection of rare and unusual items at Lighthouse Books, ABAA. It is hand-tinted in muted blues and greens. It is unclear exactly when the photo was taken–perhaps in the Teens or the Twenties–but it shows a city very different from today’s teeming metropolis.

A pair of street cars wisk across the strand, and a few automobiles can be seen. But it was clearly a time of transition. Horse-drawn buggies are also seen clip-clopping their way across the Hillsborough River.

At the time it was dedicated, the new Lafayette Street Bridge represented a leap for the city into the modern era. Two previous bridges at the location had been built of iron. This one was concrete–and sturdy. Bursting with civic pride, city leaders organized a huge celebration in February 1914 to coincide with the Gasparilla festival. It was complete with a parade and gala ceremonies largely for the city’s elite. 

The dedication took place on February 23, 1914, with Mayor D.B. McKay reminding citizens that it was his administration that finally brought this third bridge project to completion. The second one had been opened in 1896, and had been beset with problems almost from the beginning. It took many years of political indecision and voter reluctance, though, before city leaders finally got a bond issue passed to build a new bridge, so citizens struggled with the old one.

The gala celebration belied the turmoil that preceded the building of the bridge, including a lawsuit that ended up in the Florida Supreme Court, fierce debates over the cost of the project and numerous technical problems. A legend on the photo proudly proclaims that the bridge was erected “at a cost of $250,000.”

The Tampa Bay Hotel, built a couple of decades earlier, had been the crown jewel of railroad tycoon Henry B. Plant’s railroad, steamship and hotel empire. When Plant died in 1899, he left his holdings to his grandson but the will was nullified in a New York court and the empire was eventually broken up.

By the time of this photograph, the City of Tampa was operating the minaret-bedecked Tampa Bay Hotel, which it did until 1930. A legend on the photo proudly proclaims “The Tampa Bay Hotel, the finest Municipally owned Hotel in the World, valued at $5,000,000.”

To the left can be seen boxcars of the Atlantic Coast Line railroad resting on rail spurs beside the river.  After Plant’s death in 1899, the company acquired his railroad holdings.

Beyond the bridge, the Tampa Electric plant spews smoke into the air from its solitary stack. TECO not only provided electric power to homes, it also operated one of the electric trolly companies in town and installed street lighting in downtown to create a “White Way,” an area bustling with evening activity and a source of great civic pride.

Many of the facts in this report came from the research of Tampa historian Lucy D. Jones for her excellent Master’s thesis, Tampa’s Lafayette Street Bridge: Building a New South City (2006).

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