In the summer of 1955, as a wide-eyed 15-year-old, I sat on one of the famous green benches that lined Central Avenue in downtown St. Petersburg. It was a typically steamy summer day, and as I sat in the shade of the McCrory’s building, resting, enjoying an RC Cola, I was soon joined by an elderly gentleman. His skin was burnished a dark bronze and weathered by the Florida sun. Soon we struck up a conversation, and I became spellbound as he related the history of St. Petersburg.
The man’s father, an early Florida settler, had explained to him how the railroad was brought to Tampa by Henry B. Plant, who in 1883 was offered a subsidy of 13,840 acres of land for every mile of track he laid. There were many skeptics, but on January 23, 1884, Plant’s line to Tampa was completed, putting Tampa on the map.
After the completion of his rail line, Plant did everything he could to hinder development of the Pinellas peninsula, but a young Philadelphian named Hamilton Disston had other ideas. In exchange for depositing one million dollars in the ailing state treasury, Disston obtained four million acres of land from the state in 1881, to become the largest landowner in the United States. Disston developed much of the land around the Tarpon Springs area, but in the summer of 1884, he looked south to the area around Boca Ciega Bay, and found what he considered the perfect place to build his “Capital” city. That year he filed a 25-square-mile city plat with streets and boulevards running along the waterfront. He named it Disston City.
By 1885, there were three stores, a post office and a 26- room Waldorf Astoria Hotel. The United States Postal Service would not recognize the Disston City name, as it conflicted with another city in Hillsborough County. Eventually, the name was changed to Gulfport. Disston tried unsuccessfully to have Peter Demens, who was building a line southward from Sanford, Florida, extend his railway to Disston City, but they were unable to come to terms, and St. Petersburg would reap the benefit.
By this time the old man’s voice was becoming hoarse, and he asked if I wouldn’t mind running into McCrory’s to get him one of those RC Colas. When I returned with his drink, he took a sip and continued his narrative. He told me he had been among a crowd of settlers and railroad workers who watched as “Mattie”, the first locomotive of the newly completed Orange Belt Railway, huffed and puffed its way to a stop near the corner of 9th Street and 1st Avenue South on June 8, 1888. Behind Mattie were one empty freight car and a single coach, carrying a single passenger, a salesman from Savannah, Georgia.
Since there was not yet a proper depot, he stepped off the train onto a shaky wooden platform fronted by dusty streets. You can imagine his confusion as he looked out at the crowd carrying signs stating ”Welcome to Wardsville”. He thought his destination was called St. Petersburg. His confusion was understandable since the only building in sight was the combination general store and post office owned by E.R. and Ella Ward.
In actuality, he had truly arrived in St. Petersburg. Peter Demens, a Russian immigrant who controlled the Orange Belt Railway, named the area St. Petersburg in honor of his hometown in Russia. Soon a petition signed by five people made its way to Washington, D.C., where it was approved by the U.S. Postal Service, signaling the birth of St. Petersburg, Florida.
Demens had negotiated with John C. Williams, a wealthy land owner whose property blocked the line’s progress, for the right of way to finish his railroad. Their relationship was less than amicable, but they eventually came to terms and shared the cost of clearing away countless palmettos and pine trees to make way for the town’s grid of streets and avenues. In a coin toss, Demens won the right to name the town, while Williams built the first hotel in St. Petersburg and named it The Detroit Hotel, in honor of his hometown.
The old gentleman told me that he had been there on February 29, 1892, when St. Petersburg was first incorporated as a town, and again when it was reincorporated as a city in June of 1903.
As I sat mesmerized by the old man’s tale, my parents, who had been shopping for souvenirs, returned. Sadly, it was time to go. I could have listened for hours, but I thanked the gent for a wonderful history lesson, shook his boney hand, and bid him good day. As I turned to leave, he called after me to let me know I could find him sitting there on “his” bench most Sunday afternoons.