The clear water drew people to its shores

Published May 24, 1990|Updated Oct. 17, 2005

It must have seemed like the obvious name for David B. Turner to give his new post office back in 1859. "Clear Water Harbor," he wrote on the federal government form.

A scant block away from Pinellas County's first post office at the foot of Turner Street lay the harbor. No name better described the body of water where the mail-bearing schooners docked.

"He named it Clear Water Harbor because the water in the bay was so clear you could look down 10 to 12 feet and see the fish," said Joseph Turner Sr., former mayor of Clearwater and grandson of the post office founder.

The name probably wasn't just Turner's idea. Historians have said that Indians who lived in the area gave it that name long before white men came. And they may have been talking about more than just the water in the harbor.

Fresh, pure springs bubbled up along the shoreline, giving a dependable supply of fresh drinking water.

The name was slightly altered after Turner set up his post office. "Harbor" was dropped and Clearwater became one word over the years, but the name stuck.

Hearty souls

Turner, who arrived in 1854, wasn't the first to come to the high bluff overlooking the Gulf. The Spanish and English had been there before, and Indians had called the area home for hundreds of years.

But it was people like Turner who moved here in the 1840s and '50s and put down permanent roots, who are considered pioneers.

The McMullens, Turners, Taylors and Johnsons all were pioneer families _ hearty souls who left their surnames on the area's creeks, streets and parks and their offspring to become the founders of a city and a county.

Many came for a better life. Others came because they were told it was their only chance for life.

Even as early as 1841 the area's warm climate was touted as a place where people could recover from their ills. Fort Harrison was built off Druid Road that year as a recuperation place for soldiers wounded in the Indian wars at the time.

The area was promoted as the "healthiest spot on earth" by a nationally known Baltimore physician in a medical journal in 1885, Michael Sanders reported in his book, Clearwater A Pictorial History.

Some of the early settlers who came by water were attracted by the unusually high bluff overlooking the Gulf.

Charles Wharton Johnson ran his mail boat aground off the coast around 1870 and became so entranced by the bluff that he came back a few years later and homesteaded where the Belleview-Biltmore Hotel and Resort is today.

His descendants still live in the area as business people and lawyers.

About the same time, Philip James Bayly, an Englishman

seeking his fortune around the world, came into the harbor and also became attached to the bluff.

"He said it reminded him of the cliffs of Dover," recounts his granddaughter, Ann Bayly Cornett, who lives on Clearwater Beach.

Roaring sound of mullet

Bayly settled on land in the Belleair Bluffs area, south of Johnson's claim.

The early settlers seldom wanted for food. Feasts of scallops, oysters and fish were there for the taking in the shallow, rich bay waters.

"During the fall months, when the mullet were spawning, they often came into the Bay in such numbers, that at low tide the men could walk out and kick them ashore; the women scooped up aprons full at a time. The roaring noise the fish made was often heard across the bay," according to A History of Clearwater written by the Woman's Club of Clearwater in 1917.

The soil grew sweet potatoes, sugar cane, rice and citrus, and provided good, free fodder for livestock. Because the climate was mild, food could be grown all year round and barns seldom were necessary for livestock.

But insects plagued pioneers and heat lasted many months of the year. Air conditioning had not been invented.

Communication from the outside world was sparse. Until Turner established his post office and schooners began bringing mail from Cedar Key, the first pioneers had to walk to Tampa for their mail or ask somebody who was going to pick up theirs. It often took two days each way, according to W.L. Straub's History of Pinellas County, Florida.

During the Civil War, the population of Pinellas County dropped. Many men went off to war and their families went back to where they came from _ many to North Florida and South Georgia, said Bob Harris, curator of the county's Heritage Park museum.

There were blockades, and some provisions, particularly salt, became scarce. Half-grown girls spent days out on Clearwater Beach, continuously stoking fires under cauldrons of sea water until the water evaporated, leaving salt behind, according to the Clearwater Woman's Club history.

But in the 1880s, the population began to swell again. Two new money-making occupations _ tourism and citrus growing _ were discovered.

Clearwater's tourism business began in earnest in 1880 when the first hotel was built. It was called the Orange View and was built on the site of Peace Memorial Church. The second hotel, called the Sea View, was built on the bluff overlooking Clearwater Harbor soon after.

The coming of the first railroad to Clearwater _ called the Orange Belt _ in 1888 was closely linked to the building of the Belleview-Biltmore in Belleair by Henry Plant. The railroad made it easy for the wealthy to travel to the hotel for the winter in their private railroad cars.

The rickety bridge

Citrus had been grown in the area since Odet Philippe, the first settler in Pinellas County, began growing the fruit in Safety Harbor.

But the fruit became a viable cash crop when it became more economical to ship it. That, too, came with the railroad.

The budding citrus industry came close to disaster during the Great Freeze of 1894-95. Many crops and trees were destroyed. But some Pinellas growers lucked out because the Gulf and bay waters moderated the temperatures and kept the groves warmer. Several growers' crops survived and scarcity drove the price up from $1.50 a crate to $15.

The turn of the century brought a building boom to the little town on the bluff.

An ice factory was built in 1900, and the beginning of a water system was started.

The first public dock and pavilion were built at the foot of Cleveland Street, where the Memorial Causeway is now, in 1902. (See the cover picture.)

The following year brought a telephone exchange, and threeyears later an electric light franchise was granted.

The city's first bridge to Clearwater Beach came in 1917.It was called the Seminole Bridge because it started where Seminole Street ended, crossing to an island that later became Island Estates and then through the mangroves to Clearwater Beach.

"The easy access to the Gulf beach adds greatly to the pleasure of both residents and tourists," said the Women's Club History, which was written the same year the bridge was built. "The surf is very safe, there being no undertow, and surf bathing may be indulged in both summer and winter."

The wooden bridge quickly gained a nickname _ the rickety bridge _ because the hot sun soon caused the wooden boards to warp and make an unsettling noise as cars drove over it.

"We used to think it was exciting to go across the old wooden bridge," said Ann Bayly Cornett, who was born the year the bridge was built.

That bridge was replaced in 1927 when the Million Dollar Causeway was completed from Cleveland Street to the beach. The Pavilion, a popular visiting spot at the end of Cleveland Street, was torn down to make way for the new bridge.

The '20s brought what old-timers call the "boom time" to the area. Real estate speculators invaded the area, and property quickly passed from hand-to-hand, with large paper profits. Then the public lost interest in buying property in Florida, and land values fell steeply.

The cash money that had been so plentiful through the early '20s was gone.

"The garbage man wasn't driving a Pierce-Arrow anymore," said Clark Mills, a local boat builder who spent most of his youth in Clearwater.

It stood the city as good preparation for the Depression.

Cash was short during the '30s, but few went hungry.

"Most everybody had a garden," said Tetula McMullen Coryell, who was born in Clearwater in 1926. "Many people bartered food for medical services and for clothing."

From gladiolas to houses

Prosperity came again with World War II.

Nearly the entire Tampa Bay area became training grounds for soldiers during the war. Hotels were turned over to house troops. A common sight was soldiers marching around town.

While eligible males were scarce in other parts of the country, Clearwater had plenty. Local girls remember never being short for a date.

Many, like Mrs. Coryell, ended up marrying soldiers.

Donald Roebling, grandson of the builder of the Brooklyn Bridge, had invented the Alligator in Clearwater _ an amphibious tank that was useful during the war. He received a medal for his invention.

World War II and the invention of air conditioning probably were the two best advertising tools the area ever had.

Many of the soldiers who trained here moved back after the war and brought their families. That was about the same time air conditioning became economical enough for the average homeowner to install.

During the 1950s subdivisions began popping up on the outskirts of town. One of the biggest was Skycrest, the area north of Gulf-To-Bay with streets named after planets. It had been a gladiola farm.

By 1957 Clearwater was the second fastest growing city in the United States. It grew from 15,000 in 1950 to 33,000 by 1957, according to local historian Michael Sanders.

Even more subdivisions began popping up in the '60s, and the city and county's agricultural character steadily began to disappear.

One decisive event was a severe freeze in 1962. After that many citrus growers decided selling their land for neighborhoods and shopping centers would be more profitable and less risky than farming.

Information from Mike Sanders' Clearwater A Pictorial History, A History of Clearwater, Florida by the Women's Club of Clearwater, The History of Pinellas County, Florida by W.L. Straub, and Yesterday's Clearwater by Hampton Dunn were used in this report.

A growing city

Since the turn of the century, Clearwater's population has been on the move up.

1900 343

1910 1,171

1920 2,427

1930 7,607

1940 10,136

1950 15,535

1960 34,653

1970 52,074

1980 85,528

1989 100,792

Numbers are from the U.S. Census, except for 1989, which came from Pinellas County estimates.