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Get-rich-quick schemes make, break Gulfport

Published Oct. 2, 2005

When Gulfport incorporated on Oct. 12, 1910, the headline the next day declared that the "Largest Town in State of Florida Can Now be Claimed for Pinellas."

"In fact, when these ambitious people get through, St. Petersburg is to be only a suburb of Gulfport," W.L. Straub declared in a 1910 editorial about the city's incorporation plans.

The boundary of the new city included farmlands east of the present-day Gulfport, stretching roughly along what is now Fifth and 35th avenues S all the way to Fourth Street.

In fact, the real estate that could be claimed for Gulfport, and its predecessors _ Bonifacio, Veterans City and Disston City _ had been even larger.

Gulfport was first settled by returning Civil War Confederate captain James Barnett and his bride, Rebecca, in 1867. Other settlers followed, forming an independent colony of boatbuilders, seamen and farmers.

Hamilton Disston jolted the community into the big time when he decided to make it the center of a model town in 1884.

The president of a Philadelphia saw manufacturing company, Disston was a harbinger of the get-rich-quick schemes and grand dreams that have both flourished and floundered here.

On fishing expeditions to Florida that he started taking with friends in 1877, Disston became convinced of the state's potential. When he heard the state was selling swampland cheap on the condition it be drained and made useful, he wanted in.

Because the state owed a $1-million interest payment on a $14-million bond, it offered Disston a deal. In 1880, he bought 4-million acres for 25 cents an acre. With the million dollars promised by Disston, the state was able to regain financial credibility. When the deal was complete, Disston owned most of the central portion of the state south of Orlando.

Disston proceeded to drain portions of Lake Okeechobee, build canal systems and plant thousands of acres of sugar cane and rice. He also dreamed of cities. In Pinellas County, Disston first platted Tarpon Springs. In 1884, he came to south Pinellas, platting a grandiose city that bore his name.

Disston City had 100-foot wide boulevards and covered 12,000 acres on the tip of south Pinellas County. It was to have room for 50,000 residents. Disston purchased and enlarged a waterfront hotel on Boca Ciega Bay and opened a real estate office. He advertised heavily in newspapers in England and the northern states.

The design for Disston City is thought to have influenced J.C. Williams when he laid out the plat for St. Petersburg four years later.

Disston City might have dwarfed St. Petersburg even today, if not for the yellow fever. Williams persuaded the Orange Belt Railroad to end the line in St. Petersburg while Disston City was quarantined. The railroad focused development in St. Petersburg. Many of the settlers lured by Disston's advertisements settled there instead.

In 1893, Disston lost his fortune during an economic downturn. He committed suicide on April 30, 1896.

Gulfport still rivaled St. Petersburg in land mass when it was incorporated in 1910. It took another grand schemer to be its undoing.

I.M. Jack "Handsome Jack" Taylor came to town with his wife, Evelyn, and a thick roll of cash on the cusp of the Florida land boom in 1921. The couple paid $5,000 cash for 600 acres in the Pasadena area on the western edge of the peninsula. They planned a community to rival Florida's opulent east coast. Stetson University College of Law, formerly the Rolyat Hotel, and the Pasadena Golf Course are the remnants of that dream.

Taylor came to the city of Gulfport for help. Impressed with the plans, the city floated more than $250,000 in bonds to build roads and make other infrastructure improvements. After a year of heady marketing in 1925, the Taylors left town. By 1928, the city was considering taking the Pasadena Co. to court to get delinquent taxes.

The city found itself paying the interest on bond notes it could not afford. An effort to raise money by refinancing the bonds further buried the city. Raising taxes also backfired. The city's millage rate climbed from 8 mills in 1928 to 26 mills in 1931.

When residents could not pay taxes, the city foreclosed on properties and sold them. Pasadena Estates eventually was removed from the city boundaries. Because of Gulfport's financial problems, the state of Florida mandated the city return to the county most of the properties east of 49th Street in 1929.

From the days when Gulfport's aspirations worried W.L. Straub, the city has shrunk to a 2-mile-square town of 11,000 residents on Boca Ciega Bay with 49th Street S at its eastern edge. Don't tell the old-timers, though. You will find it is still a prickly subject.

Information for this story came from Times files, Florida Trend and historian Claudette Renney Dean.