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Dredging up our ties to Fort De Soto Park, Tierra Verde

As a St. Petersburg Times reporter from 1948 to 1965, Jerry Blizin covered some of Pinellas County's biggest stories.

Dredging and filling was controversial during the 1950s and 1960s, but it yielded one public benefit that endures — beautiful Fort De Soto Park.

The dredging and filling that it took to create easy access to the park embraced an island called Mullet Key several miles south of the southern tip of St. Petersburg, site of an abandoned federal fort, as well as a number of smaller islands. It wiped out Cabbage Key, home of a famous hermit named Silas Dent, and made possible the Tierra Verde development and the Pinellas Bayway toll road.

Today Fort De Soto Park, Pinellas County's largest, attracts 2.7 million visitors per year. They come for the acclaimed beaches, campgrounds, fishing, canoe and kayak areas and, of course, the 112-year-old fort, whose guns never fired at an enemy.

A decade before the park opened in 1962, I visited the mosquito-infested fort twice by boat and once by airplane. Those were the only means of access back then. Going by boat was safer and slower. Then-County Commissioner Joe Bonsey flew me to the site in a Piper Cub, terrifying me when the plane barely cleared the trees on departure from the island's World War II dirt airstrip.

Two brothers from Detroit, Hyman and Irving Green (Tierra Verde means green land), changed this isolated island forever. They teamed up in the '50s with a politically connected man, Dr. Bradley "Doc" Waldron, who had managed to get the state to sell him Pine Key, Cabbage Key, Pardee Key and an expanse of bay bottom.

By then, dredging and filling was starting to turn Pinellas into what historian Gary R. Mormino calls "Florida's most dredged-up and built-out county.'' Developers repeatedly dredged up submerged muck and used it to create waterfront land. By 1956 they had created 37 miles of new shoreline.

In 1957, the Greens and Waldron pumped up 9 million cubic yards of Boca Ciega Bay bottom that would become Tierra Verde. Conservationists howled at the loss of bird rookeries, as well as ancient Indian ritual and burial sites on islands that had once known Spanish conquistadors, pirates, federal soldiers and Dent, who was dubbed "the happy hermit of Cabbage Key'' by Life magazine in 1948.

(Dent, who lived in a thatched cottage there for half a century, died in 1952, but his name is preserved today in a St. Pete Beach restaurant. Years before, Dent and his brother ran a dairy on Cabbage Key, delivering their milk to Pass-a-Grille in an old Cadillac lashed to a barge.)

Other developers got into the dredge-and-fill game, creating Isla del Sol and other projects. Lee Ratner created a 445-acre landfill off southernmost St. Petersburg, some of which became the site of Florida Presbyterian College (now Eckerd College). But Tierra Verde was the biggie. The Greens eventually donated landfill for the future Bayway, provided the state would build a Mullet Key leg or spur, as it was then called, connecting to the toll road that would cross their property.

All this activity generated a tremendous political battle. The Green brothers badly needed a mainland road connection if their Tierra Verde was to become successful. But opponents wanted neither the toll road nor Tierra Verde. The developers derided their opponents as "aginners" opposed to business. The donation of land for a Mullet Key connection proved, in the end, to be a politically brilliant move that soon made the Bayway a reality.

It also made possible the development of Fort De Soto Park.

Mullet Key was owned by Pinellas County, which twice bought the property from the federal government — once for $12,500 (in 1938) and again for $26,500 (in 1948). That's because the feds reacquired it during World War II for use as a gunnery and bombing range, then sold it back to the county after the war. The Bayway provided the essential motor link through Tierra Verde from the mainland, connecting to the beaches at Pass-a-Grille.

After the road was assured, Green-Waldron Associates sold out to Louis Berlanti and his son, Fred (the two were subsequently killed in a 1969 plane crash at Lake Okeechobee). Texas oil millionaire Clint Murchison, who served as a director of the Tierra Verde Community Association, helped finance the project.

Another developer named Frank Mackle became president of Tierra Verde Co. in 1977. Mackle Brothers Inc. was a big development firm with projects all over the state. It also created an airline that flew to Nassau in the Bahamas.

There was even a moment of glamor when bandleader (and speedboat racer) Guy Lombardo opened a nightclub on Tierra Verde in 1963. Traffic on the Bayway picked up in 1984, when the state added a ramp to Interstate 275.

Mullet Key is no longer a remote island, but its neighbor, Egmont Key, remains a reminder of the past. It boasts a lighthouse and the ruins of a fort and is the home base for the Tampa Bay pilots who guide big tankers and other vessels into the Port of Tampa.

Times researcher Christopher Sturgeon contributed to this report, which includes information from Land of Sunshine, State of Dreams by Gary R. Mormino, This Was Florida's Boom by Walter Fuller and Mangroves to Major Leagues by Rick Baker. Jerry Blizin, who lives in Tarpon Springs, can be reached at [email protected]

Dredging up our ties to Fort De Soto Park, Tierra Verde 01/05/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 5, 2010 5:03pm]
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