What could the Czar of Russia, violent terrorism and jeweled eggs possibly have to do with the founding of St. Petersburg? How did the obscure brotherhood between a beautiful city and the end point of a railway line in Florida come to be? Why would the opening exhibit of the Florida International Museum mark full circle a century later the ironic beginnings of a town in a nation on the other side of the planet and politically just as far away from an aristocracy blundering toward revolution?
The reality of local history may not be as romantic as that of the czars, but it is true that one of St. Petersburg's founders was a highly educated nobleman who spoke and wrote in four languages, one of the landed gentry with family estates in the Tver province, a captain in the Russian Imperial Guard and oddly enough a "political refugee" from the czarist regime of 1880. It was Piotr Alexewitch Dementief who is credited for the naming of St. Petersburg, Fla., after the Russian city of his homeland. And it may be fitting that the first exhibit of the Florida International Museum in January is a world-class treasury from the royal dynasty of the last czars and czarinas with which Peter A. Demens (Americanized) was so intimately connected yet a government from which he fled during a period of political repression.
Demens was born May 1, 1850, in St. Petersburg, Russia, and by the 1880s had risen in rank in the imperial guard, no doubt because of his nobility. He was a driven man as evidenced later by his relentless pursuit in Florida to finish a rail to the gulf. At that time in Russia, he was a confidant to influential men in government, a young linguist with an ability to display with some impunity his liberal views, which ran counter to those of the Romanoff rule.
And that may be the reason for his swift departure to America shortly after the bombing of the imperial dining room of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg by a terrorist probably allied with political factions representing liberal and democratic principles similar to those of Demens.
So Demens left his country to invest in the "American ideal." And while no evidence has ever linked him to the bombing, that subsequent chain of events was fortunate, for it may have accelerated the founding of a city in Florida almost cut off from the politics of civilization by water. Demens began a partnership in the lumber business near Sanford but soon bought the partners out, built a railway into the woods and a sawmill to cut the wood. By 1885 he had exhausted the supply. He took over the Orange Belt Railway simply for something to do and because the railway owed him money. His charter then was to connect with a terminus at Lake Monroe on the Jacksonville, Tampa & Key West Railroad, but he used the light 16-gauge rail he had left over from his timber enterprise, a decision which would later beleaguer the service and profits.
The new terminus town was named Oakland, though Demens attempted to have it called St. Petersburg, to no avail. After the railway to Oakland was complete, Demens, driven by the idea to build a rail to the gulf at Point Pinellas, convinced his partners to change the charter. Demens had financial troubles throughout his venture, almost giving up several times. If in 1886 Hamilton Disston, who owned 4-million acres of land in Florida, had not walked into Demens' office and offered assistance and land grants along the proposed railroad, Demens might have failed before the first rail to Pinellas was struck.
Economic troubles plagued Demens constantly throughout this project, especially his ability to obtain northern financial backing through bonds. But his persistence was amazing. He overcame angry unpaid mobs, decimation by yellow fever among Florida settlements, worker riots, even the chaining of his engines to the track because of an overdue debt. It must have been the vision of an industrial port on Point Pinellas that helped him finish the charter there when all hopes of profit vanished on those light rails that flagged under wear and weight.
In the end it was Disston's hope that the railroad would landfall at his dream town of Disston City (now Gulfport) just north of Mullet Key. While representatives of Disston's companies were meeting over the Demens' proposal, Demens' partner in the Orange Belt was meeting with John C. Williams about a landing site around what is now First Avenue South. This site had been surveyed in the 1850s at an 18-foot depth and there was no need for causeways as there would be from Mullet Key. Disston's board decided the cost of causeways was too high and declined the proposal but facilitated some of the financing anyway. Finally, April 30, 1888, marked the completion of the Orange Belt to the edge of Williams' property, and later that summer the first train came to the peninsula from the eastern end of the St. Johns River line. It was then that the dubious Russian connection began. As the story goes, after straws were drawn, St. Petersburg was named by Demens in return for the building of a hotel at the end line that Gen. Williams could name after his home town, Detroit.
There appeared to be an immediate and positive harvest for Pinellas settlers by giving them access to larger markets, increasing land value, in fact, helping all the communities along the right-of-way northward through the peninsula. But the railway was born in debt and nurtured by a neglect of funds, let alone profits, so that Demens would soon liquefy and leave.
Howard Hansen of the St. Petersburg Historical Society found it significant that when Henry Plant leased the Orange Belt from the syndicate Demens had sold it to, he refurbished and renamed it, thereby cementing control of potential commercial growth in the bay area especially on its eastern shore. Alas, it was also the beginning of that inter-bay rivalry that exists today, and the divergence of tourism and industry between the two counties.
In reflection one might see a lack of Russian influence here at first, but St. Petersburg has grown to possibly symbolize the future of its post-Bolshevik namesake. And the name, disregarding the old tales, probably was coined by the first postmistress and a stockholder of the Orange Belt by registering St. Petersburg with the Washington postal office, knowing all along Demens' desire.
Of course our city's history seems humble compared to the 300-year rule of the czars, but a certain magnetism has evolved. A number of Russian Orthodox Churches lured to south St. Petersburg followed Russian expatriates who filtered to the city during the first half of the century. And next year it has drawn the first exhibit, Treasures of the Czars, to the Florida International Museum a century later as if it were meant to be a ceremony of history.
So when the museum opens in January and you stroll past the centerpiece _ a Faberge creation _ stop for a moment and admire the gold and silver and diamonds filigreed over the white enamel shell. Study the portraits of the emperors scattered symmetrically throughout the golden overlay.
I think you might feel a sense of alliance between the old imperial city and St. Petersburg's. Intuitively you realize the cities are sisters allied through the life of Piotr A. Dementief, a noble libertarian tied to royal honor so much so that in homage he would name a city after his homeland but live the rest of his life in a novel country free from lawlessness and repression.
To Demens, the jewels of freedom and opportunity should also have shone among the treasures of the Czars.
Edward Reed is a free lance writer living in St. Petersburg. Guest columnists write their own views on subjects they choose, which are not necessarily the opinions of this newspaper.