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Tampa's Riverwalk showcases history as expansion plans move ahead


Standing in front of a bronze bust of his great-grandfather — Vicente Martinez-Ybor, the man who brought the cigar industry to Tampa — 83-year-old Rafael Martinez-Ybor said the likeness "makes me feel proud of the name that I carry." • "It's an honor to have this unveiling," he said during a ceremony last week at the Tampa Bay History Center. "It's just a great thing to see these people, that they're not forgotten for what they did for the area." • Far from it. • Busts of six Tampa pioneers — from pre-Columbian native peoples to railroad magnate Henry B. Plant — began going up last week on solid granite pedestals along the Riverwalk.

The nonprofit Friends of the Riverwalk raised private funds for the project, and the Hillsborough County Historic Preservation Challenge Grant program gave $120,000 to help cover the costs of installing six of the monuments both this year and next.

A committee of local historians and folklore experts made the first round of selections for what organizers intend to be an annual effort to add memorials of historic local figures to the trail.

To be chosen, the pioneers had to have been dead for at least 15 years, had to have lived in Tampa or Hillsborough County, must have served or influenced the community and must have made a lasting impact on Tampa's history and left a lasting legacy.

The first six selected included three men, two women and one group, mound-building Indians who settled along Tampa Bay long before European explorers arrived in the area. Along with Martinez-Ybor and Plant, the first set of trailblazers to be honored shaped Tampa through shipping (James McKay Sr.), nursing (Clara Frye) and women's rights (Eleanor McWilliams Chamberlain).

In sculpting the busts, artist Steven Dickey of Tampa says he typically had only one or two photos to go on. With one person, he had only a sketch, and in the case of the mound-builders, there wasn't even that.

Consequently, he had to do some detective work to re-create the figures and their clothes, down to spending a lot of time on the computer looking at dress patterns from the 1800s and early 1900s.

"Not having a live subject is a challenge," Dickey said. "It's difficult to get a lot of the depth that you might be able to get if you see somebody in the round."

Meanwhile, city officials plan to use a $10.9 million federal transportation grant to finish the last remaining sections of the Riverwalk — one going south of Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park under the Kennedy Boulevard Bridge and a second going north from the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts to Water Works Park.

The section that will go under Kennedy already has been designed, and city officials plan to seek bids for construction as soon as the grant agreement is executed. The grant agreement is scheduled to go to the City Council on Thursday, but then still needs to be signed off on by officials in Tallahassee and at the U.S. Department of Transportation in Washington, D.C.

Ideally, they'll seek bids in January and start construction by early April, according to city spokeswoman Ali Glisson.

The city is evaluating five applications from architects bidding to design the section north of the performing arts center. Design work is expected to take a year, with construction starting by May 2014.

If all goes as scheduled, the section under Kennedy should be complete by February 2015, and the northern section should be finished in April 2015.

"I want those bids on the street," Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said last week. "Every month that goes by is a month that I can't cut a ribbon on that thing."

Richard Danielson can be reached at or (813) 226-3403.

.fast facts

Six local pioneers

The Mound Builders

Riverwalk location: Between the Tampa Bay History Center and the Tampa Bay Times Forum.

Florida's first people lived here until the early 1700s, when they were decimated by European diseases, war and slaving raids. A small group, the Mocoso, lived along the bay near where downtown Tampa now stands. They built up large mounds, either for ceremonies or where they discarded shells, including one especially tall mound near where Fort Brooke, and more recently, the Tampa Bay Times Forum, were built.

Eleanor McWilliams Chamberlain (1845-1934)

Riverwalk location: David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts.

A year after moving to Tampa in 1883, she began speaking on women's rights. Within 10 years, she organized a suffrage society with a statewide reach. She later worked on "Mother's Pensions," an early form of Social Security for widows, and on charity, especially for African-Americans.

Clara C. Frye (1872-1936)

Riverwalk location: For now, just south of the Tampa Convention Center. In the future: Water Works Park.

A nurse, Frye moved to Tampa in 1901, opened a hospital for black patients in her home in 1908, using her dining room table as the operating table, then moved the hospital to a building of its own in 1923. The city purchased it five years later. Today a ninth-floor wing of Tampa General Hospital is named for her.

Vicente Martinez-Ybor (1819-96)

Riverwalk location: Next to the Tampa Bay History Center.

In 1886, Martinez-Ybor led the cigar industry to Tampa, bringing thousands of Cuban and Spanish workers with it. Tampa's cigar-producing Latin Quarter soon became known as Ybor City, and Martinez-Ybor founded companies for gas, paving and fire insurance. He built houses and sold them to workers at reasonable prices, brought in doctors and turned a factory over to workers for use as a theater. He invested in the streetcar line and his businesses led to improvements at the port. Every business in the city closed in his honor the day after he died.

James McKay Sr. (1808-76)

Riverwalk location: Tampa Convention Center, next to Platt Street bridge.

Starting in 1847, McKay built a downtown courthouse, the First Baptist Church, the Florida House Hotel and a sawmill. A mayor, county commissioner and county treasurer, McKay founded a shipping company that connected Tampa to other U.S. ports and Cuba, where he sold the cattle from Hillsborough ranches.

Henry B. Plant (1819-99)

Riverwalk location: Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park, across the river from the University of Tampa.

Plant brought the railroad to Tampa, opening northern markets for the city's produce and bringing in tourists. He opened the Tampa Bay Hotel, now the University of Tampa, in 1891.

Tampa's Riverwalk showcases history as expansion plans move ahead 12/14/12 [Last modified: Friday, December 14, 2012 6:15pm]
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