Port Tampa City is still holding on to yesteryear

Published Aug. 8, 1993|Updated Oct. 9, 2005

(ran LA edition of LT)

Back in 1961 when the Florida Legislature was set to vote on whether to dismantle Port Tampa City, the city's council declared the day a holiday and urged residents to head to Tallahassee and fight for their city's survival.

The police led a caravan of 25 cars. The chamber of commerce commandeered a private plane. And one resident actually walked all the way to the state capital.

"He had very strong beliefs," explained Vernon Clark, a lifelong resident of Port Tampa.

But neither strong beliefs nor prayerful entreaty helped. On May 11, 1961, the Legislature revoked the city charter and allowed Tampa to annex Port Tampa.

"Tampa took everything, including our dignity," Clark said. "I didn't think things like that happened in this country."

Even though Port Tampa City has not been a city on paper for 32 years, there are many here who refuse to acknowledge the fact. Port Tampa, at the end of West Shore Boulevard, is still a city in spirit for many of the people who call it home. And last month, Port Tampa celebrated its 100th anniversary.

Last month, donations were collected to try to save the First Bank of Port Tampa City building, which was built in 1926 at Commerce Avenue and Mascotte Street. The Port Tampa City Women's Club hopes to persuade the county to move the library branch to the ornate Greek Revival building if the restoration can be accomplished.

Port Tampa was created when Henry B. Plant decided in 1887 that he wanted to extend his railroad line to Old Tampa Bay and create a port city. Plant dredged a channel to accommodate large ships and built two hotels, and the area officially was declared a city June 30, 1893.

In its heyday, Port Tampa bustled with activity as luxury liners carried passengers to Key West, Cuba and Nassau, and thousands of tons of phosphate and thousands of boxes of oranges were loaded on its docks for export. The city was home to the world's largest electric sign, which advertised the Atlantic Coastline Railroad. At the Port Tampa Inn, it was advertised that restaurant patrons could throw a fishing line out the window and catch their dinner while they ate their lunch.

During the Spanish American War, troops left for Cuba from the docks of Port Tampa. Col. Theodore Roosevelt and his Rough Riders and William Jennings Bryan passed through the city.

The city of towering oak trees and turn-of-the-century homes that grew up around the docks was settled by families of both black and white laborers who helped lay the tracks for the railroad, build the docks, load and unload the ships and cater to the hotel guests.

People who grew up in Port Tampa City talk about idyllic childhoods spent crabbing, swimming and fishing for mullet along the waterfront in a community where the pace was slow and the people friendly.

"We are sort of surrounded by water," explained Norman Cannon, whose grandfather came to Port Tampa in the 1920s to work for Shell Oil Co. "Water seems like it has a calming effect on people."

In the city's black community, Cannon remembers playing football using a soda can, paying a quarter to watch the Creature from the Black Lagoon at a wooden lodge on Idaho Street and hunting quail in the woods nearby.

Vernon Clark said his family stocked chicken feed at V. T. Clark General Merchandise store, along with screen wire, fuel oil, meats, vegetables, threads, pipes and just about anything else people needed because most families kept a couple of chickens in their back yards.

"We were our own city, so we made our own rules," said Clark, whose grandfather came to Port Tampa to help drive pilings for the docks used by the railroad.

Nancy Larcom's grandfather Charlie Strickland fed his 14 children on the money he made mullet fishing in Tampa Bay. Mrs. Larcom said she hears from schoolmates who grew up and moved away from Port Tampa and now long for the kind of close-knit community that she says still exists here.

"Our grandparents were friends. Our parents were friends, and now our children are friends," Mrs. Larcom said.