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The war that launched Tampa

In Spain, the war that broke out in Cuba in 1898 marked the beginning of the end for a once-great empire, and thus is sometimes remembered as "el Desastre," "the Disaster."

In Tampa, however, the Spanish-American War was the start of something big, and it couldn't have been better.

Before the Spanish-American War, Tampa was a little-known spur at the end of Henry B. Plant's railroad with a good port, a seemingly misplaced luxury hotel and a fledging cigar industry.

During 1898, which featured months of preparation but only about three weeks of fighting, Tampa went through a mini-boom. The city billeted up to 30,000 troops, officers, war correspondents and Teddy Roosevelt's 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry, better known as the Rough Riders.

Given that history, it is not surprising that city officials and history buffs are planning a series of events to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the war. A committee has just begun meeting, but it includes city officials, as well as representatives from Tampa's ethnic clubs, colleges and museums, local historians and civic leaders such as E. J. Salcines.

Plans are sketchy, but Tampa's involvement in the war mainly took place from April to July, so most of the events will probably be scheduled for those months. There might be a few exceptions: Ybor City's Fiesta Day is Feb. 14, the day before the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the U.S. battleship the Maine.

"We're starting to talk to Key West because Key West and Tampa played the central role," said Fernando Noriega, city director of business and community services. "Actually, that particular event or war _ we hate to use the word "war' _ put Tampa on the map."

An elusive fame

It didn't take long for Tampa to begin lobbying for the war's business. Three days after the sinking of the Maine, Tampa's representative to Congress, U.S. Rep. Stephan Sparkman, introduced a resolution for the War Department to improve the city's harbor.

Troops began to arrive on April 24, 1898, four days after President William McKinley bowed to frenzied jingoism and reluctantly declared war on Spain. By mid-May, there were about 1,000 railroad cars loaded with military supplies on sidetracks in and around Tampa, with 50 more arriving daily.

By June 2, the Tampa Weekly Tribune reported that every warehouse and empty store, plus several cigar factories in Ybor City, was packed with army supplies. In response, the City Council gave the railroads permission to lay temporary tracks on any city street to meet military demands.

On June 14, 1898, a 29-ship flotilla sailed from Port Tampa with 819 officers and 16,058 enlisted men aboard. It was the largest expeditionary force ever assembled by the United States for combat on an enemy shore.

Despite the operation's scope, the city got a boost "not so much from the money that was spent here or anything, but because all of a sudden worldwide publicity was focused on Tampa," said Canter Brown, historian in residence at the Tampa Bay History Center.

Writing for Outlook magazine, for instance, George Kennan was awestruck by the opulence of U.S. military headquarters at the Tampa Bay Hotel, now the University of Tampa.

On his arrival, Kennan wrote that "a nearly full moon was just rising over the trees on the eastern side of the hotel park, touching with silver the drifts of white blossoms on dark masses of oleander trees in the foreground and flooding with soft yellow light the domes, Moorish arches and long facade of the whole immense building.

"Two regimental bands were playing waltzes and patriotic airs under a long row of incandescent lights on the broad veranda. Fine-looking, sun-browned men, in all the varied uniforms of the army and navy, were gathered in groups here and there, smoking, talking or listening to music. The rotunda was crowded with officers, war correspondents and gaily attired ladies, and the impression . . . was that of a brilliant military ball at a fashionable seaside summer resort."

Though the magazine dismissed the rest of the city as "a huddled collection of generally insignificant buildings standing in an arid desert of sand," Brown said the generally favorable coverage helped Tampa's reputation.

With newspapers just beginning to run photographs, readers elsewhere "would constantly see these incredibly exotic scenes of the troops de-training or boarding ships on their horses," Brown said.

Such coverage "launched Tampa toward becoming Florida's largest city, which it did become in the 1920s," Brown said. "It brought tourists, it brought settlers and it just brought Tampa the kind of recognition that had eluded it until then."

And the city grew. In 1890, Tampa's population was about 5,500, and there was little outlying settlement. A decade later, Tampa's population had gone up almostfourfold. Counting those who lived in areas such as Port Tampa, West Tampa, Hyde Park and College Hill, the area's total population was nearly 22,000.

The press corps that descended on Tampa in 1898 included writers from virtually every major newspaper in North America, at least 10 British journalists and, in a rare twist, two women.

Despite being ignored by the War Department and shunned by their male colleagues, Kathleen Blake Watkins and Anna Northend Benjamin managed to come up with their share of full-fledged scoops.

Watkins, for example, not only got the first details of an expedition to smuggle arms and supplies to Cuban insurgents but found her share of local color. Her dispatches included the story of a New York recruit who, on his first day in camp, was bitten by mosquitoes and a tarantula, came down with malaria, stabbed his hand with his bayonet, sat on an ant hill and found a snake in his boot. She also interviewed six outlaws who had enlisted because they heard the Spaniards couldn't shoot, while those in the posse hunting them were all "dead shots."

Concerts every day,

dances every night

Most of the action, however, took place around the hotel, which "was not a terribly serious place," said Cynthia Gandee, the executive director of UT's Henry B. Plant Museum.

For the headquarters of a war against the Spanish empire, the hotel had been modeled in part on the Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain. Though correspondents were plainly impressed, they began to call the officers and others relaxing on its wide porches the "Rocking Chair Regiment."

"The hotel became the headquarters for a lot of the social events," Gandee said. "As time went by, (there was) a concert every day, dances every night and wonderful lavish meals."

A menu from one of those banquets survives. Courses are named after U.S. generals _ "consomme Dewey" and "roast turkey with Shafter sauce" _ and that has given organizers of next year's centennial celebration an idea.

"We're going to do a big dinner in the original hotel dining room re-creating this menu and then we will do some kind of big dance in the hotel ballroom," Gandee said. Museum administrators also are contacting the secretary of the Army to send a military band for an outdoor concert.

Rough Riders

and Buffalo soldiers

As part of next year's celebration, Tampa's current Rough Riders, a social group founded in 1977 by businessman Charles Spicola Jr., has offered to hold a parade, perhaps one re-creating Roosevelt's arrival east of Ybor City.

If they do, they will get a much friendlier reception than their namesakes. The original Rough Riders left Texas on four-day train trip with only two days' rations, so they scoured the countryside along the way for pigs and chickens.

"In truth," Anna Benjamin wrote, they made off with so many farm animals that "their fame spread on before them," and by the time they reached Tampa, residents here had circulated a petition demanding that they stay in camp.

Despite the that less-than-enthusiastic welcome, Spicola dismisses as myth the story that Teddy Roosevelt once rode into an Ybor City restaurant on horseback.

"He didn't do that, but probably some of the soldiers that stayed behind that were bored did," Spicola said. "There's no doubt that somebody did it, but it wasn't Roosevelt."

The Rough Riders camped near where Fort Homer Hesterly armory stands today, but theirs was only one of many regiments to camp in and around what is now downtown and Port Tampa. Those troops included four regiments of the Buffalo soldiers, black troops famous for patrolling the West.

In the Promise of the New South, Edward L. Ayers described what was one of Tampa's first, if not the first, serious outbursts of racial violence.

With both black and white soldiers in town, some white volunteers from Ohio got drunk one day and "set out to have some fun," Ayers wrote. One of the men grabbed a 2-year-old black boy from his mother, spanking him with one hand while holding him with the other.

Then, with the mother watching in hysterics, the Ohio soldiers used the boy for target practice by seeing how close they could shoot to him. One soldier put a bullet through the toddler's sleeve.

When the Buffalo soldiers heard of the incident, they were so outraged that they swept through Ybor City and a poor area of Tampa once known as "the Scrub," ransacking bars, cafes and brothels that had refused to serve them.

In response, military authorities called out white Georgia volunteers, who put down the uprising with violence brutal enough to do serious injury to 27 black soldiers. Some of the black soldiers were jailed and did not go to Cuba.

Those who did, however, fought with distinction. Four Buffalo soldiers won the Congressional Medal of Honor for their service. At Las Guasimas, the all-black 10th Cavalry came to the aid of Rough Riders who had come under Spanish sniper fire.

At the foot of San Juan Hill, the 9th Cavalry was in front of the Rough Riders when it stopped to await orders. Roosevelt, acting on his own initiative, yelled, "If you're not going ahead, get out of my way for I am," and led his men through the 9th Cavalry's ranks to make his famous charge up the hill.

After the campaign, Brown said, the Buffalo soldiers "came back through" Tampa and Lakeland, "broke their comrades out of jail and took them back north."

Although the Spanish-American War was welcomed widely as a campaign for Cuban independence, Tampa's Hispanic community was also briefly inconvenienced by American troops.

Gus Jimenez, the retired director of the social studies program for the Hillsborough County school system, found evidence of this while looking through a book written for the 50th anniversary of the Centro Espanol Hospital.

"I stumbled on it," Jimenez said. "It appears that when the troops got here, they closed everything down. . . . If it was a Spanish-owned business, it was locked up."

After Latin and Anglo businessmen from West Tampa, Ybor City and downtown protested, authorities struck a deal. If hospitals such as the Centro Espanol and Centro Asturiano _ HMO-style clinics created by and for immigrants _ would treat soldiers, Spanish-owned businesses could reopen.

The incidents involving the Buffalo soldiers and Hispanic businesses foreshadowed racial and ethnic unrest in Tampa, but Brown said they also illustrate something that has often set the city apart from other Southern communities.

"One of the wonderful aspects of Tampa's history," he said, is that it "was relatively diverse from the very beginning," with many immigrants, Roman Catholics, free blacks, Jewish pioneers and others. "Tampa's always been mixed, and sometimes that mix bubbles up and boils over."