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Williams helped build city

Published Oct. 13, 2005

He brought a wife and large brood of children to St. Petersburg on a covered wagon in 1879 at age 62. He returned to his native Detroit, divorced, remarried, had a stroke, returned to build a city and died, all in the next 13 years.

He was John Constantine Williams, who, with Peter Demens, founded St. Petersburg. John C. Williams was born in 1817, and first came to Florida in 1875, looking for a place to live, farm, and seek relief from the asthma that plagued him. Disappointed, he was homeward bound on a boat out of Cedar Key when a stranger convinced him that Point Pinellas was the place to locate.

Back to Pinellas he went and hired a team of horses in Clearwater to get to south Pinellas County. He bought 1,700 acres, much of which is now downtown St. Petersburg. He returned to Detroit, and in 1879 brought his wife and children to Florida. The Pinellas County he came to had only a handful of settlers. But the orange groves, mild climate and continued breezes from water on both sides of the peninsula had been touted by publicists even then.

Williams bought the James S. Hackney home, the site of the present Manhattan Hotel at 444 Fifth Ave. S, and began farming. But Michigan soil tilling techniques did not work in Florida. The bugs and heat got to the Michigan natives, and they returned to Detroit two years later.

The land here was left in the care of several employees.

Williams' wife, by this time, had apparently had it with his restlessness, and divorced him in 1881. It must have been regarded as scandalous in this highly-respected family. Just eight months later, Williams, then 65, married a Canadian widow, Sara Craven Judge.

During this period, Williams suffered a stroke. But he still was well enough to read the Detroit newspapers and see that a man named Jacob Disston was buying huge amounts of acreage in Florida, and a lot of it on Point Pinellas. He also read that Dr. W.

C. Van Bibber had proclaimed Point Pinellas the healthiest spot in the nation. This had been said before no less august a body than the American Medical Society at its 36th annual convention in 1885.

So it looked like Rx: Point Pinellas for the country and for Williams.

Would you believe he persuaded his new wife to come to the bay area, which still did not have a railroad?

He did, in 1886. Only this time, he built her a fine home in the Hyde Park area of Tampa. He planned from there what he would do in St. Petersburg, which was not yet named, had no streets and a population of about 30 people. All the Pinellas action was in Disston City, which is now Gulfport, where such amenities as a hotel, a newspaper, and a post office were located.

Tampa could not have been all that civilized because Williams received a newspaper notice on Aug. 8, 1889, for killing a six-foot rattlesnake near his Hyde Park home. Also mentioned was his yacht, the Pauline, which must have taken him back and forth to Pinellas, because the trip by horse or ox cart took two days.

Williams' efforts were concentrated on building a town. In 1887 he teamed up with Peter Demens, a Russian immigrant who was building railroads in Florida and wanted to bring the Orange Belt Railroad to Disston City and past there to Mullet Key, which is now Fort DeSoto.

Demens and Disston could not agree on the price of the railroad extension. But Williams agreed to give a portion of acreage to the railroad if Demens would extend it into Tampa Bay. Demens was after a shipping terminus, so an agreement was made. On June 8, 1888, the Mattie huffed into town, one engine, one freight car and one passenger car carrying one shoe salesman.

Its first terminal, a wooden plank platform, was at Ninth Street S and First Avenue, but Williams would make no deal with his land until the Orange Belt extended into town and the bay. Within the next year, it went to a terminal on First Avenue S between Second and Third streets.

Meanwhile, Williams had built an empire. A son, John Jr., had a large general store across from the fine new Detroit Hotel, which his father owned. Son Barney owned the Crystal Ice Works which kept the fishermen in business, and son J. Mott had a thriving machine shop.

Williams' other children remained in Detroit with their mother. But Sara, his new wife, was active in the Women's Town Improvement Association, which got the cows and pigs off the streets. She also was a leader in the Women's Christian Temperance Union, another anomaly in this unlikely marriage. For when Williams ran for mayor of the newlyincorporated St. Petersburg in 1892, it was on the "Open Saloon" ticket, the "wets."

The "drys" won. Williams was so bitter at an ungrateful populace that when he died a few months later at age 75, he left the city only one lot valued at $200.

But his name lives on in our city through Williams Park. And his landmarks, the Detroit Hotel, minus its bric-a-brac and minarets still stands, as does the Manhattan senior resident hotel, built around the Williams residence.

_ Information from St. Petersburg: Once Upon a Time, by Del Marth; Pioneer St. Petersburg, by Rita Gould; St. Petersburg and the Florida Dream, by Ray Arsenault; The Story of St. Petersburg, by Karl Grismer; and Evening Independent and St. Petersburg Times clip files was used in this story.