Spend even a little bit of time in Tampa Bay and you’ll likely cross paths with these places. If you live here, you probably encounter at least one every day.
We drive to work on these bridges, enjoy the beautiful weather in these parks and watch sporting events in these stands. But how often do we actually think about the people whose names are on the signs?
We combed through the Times archives and local history books to dig up the stories behind the names. The next time you’re sitting in traffic on Fowler Avenue, watching the curtain rise at Ruth Eckerd Hall, or soaking in the sunshine at Straub Park, you can remember the people that most of us forgot.
W. Howard Frankland Bridge
According to the Times archives, Frankland was the son of a horse buggy salesman from Tennessee. He founded Pioneer Tire and Rubber Products Inc. after arriving in Tampa in 1925.
Frankland went on to work as a banker in Tampa. He also joined the State Road Board. When he came up with the idea for the bridge, Frankland faced fierce opposition — some said no one would use it, and others called it a death trap. The $6.5 million project opened in 1960. A 2002 article in the Times says that his bridge has remained “the most traveled of the bay’s bridges.”
He remained in the Tampa Bay Area until his death in 1980. He was 79.
Al Lang Stadium
Albert Fielding Lang went by Al, but many also called him "Mr. Baseball.” Determine to boost tourism, Lang was the first person to bring the sport to St. Petersburg.
“Al used to hang around New York,” Dan Daniel of the New York World Telegram & Sun told the St. Petersburg Times in 1960. “He vowed he would bring not one, but two teams to St. Petersburg. We laughed at him and said, ‘Go back to that dump if you like it so well.’ But the first thing we knew, we were here and so were the Boston Braves. Nobody will ever know how much he did for St. Petersburg and Florida.”
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In 1914, the St. Louis Browns were the first team to come to St. Pete (the Cubs came to Tampa in 1913). The Phillies came in 1915, one year before Lang was elected mayor.
After he brought teams to St. Pete, Lang shifted his mission to getting a baseball stadium. By 1947, Al Lang Field was finished. The shift to soccer came in 2011. The Rowdies have been at Al Lang ever since, though this may change since the Tampa Bay Rays purchased the Rowdies in October 2018.
While Lang was known for his baseball-related endeavors, he’s also the mayor who made St. Pete the “city of green benches” by instituting an ordinance that required all of the benches to be the same size and color. And the historic post office downtown? He oversaw that project as well.
Lang died in 1960 at 89. He credited his long life to St. Petersburg’s beautiful weather.
Bruce B. Downs Boulevard
Bruce Barkley Downs was a man who loved roads, wrote Times writer Emily Nipps in a 2007 profile. Downs spent nearly three decades with the Florida Transportation Department before working as Hillsborough County’s deputy public works administrator.
In 1983, a newspaper article called his job one of the most stressful in the county. The next day, he collapsed at a restaurant. He was just 53 when he died from the massive heart attack.
Downs was a beloved and respected man, known for his directness and professionalism. More than 500 came to his funeral. He was survived by Patsy Downs, his high school sweetheart, as well as his children, Luanna Sheridan and Bruce Barkley Downs Jr. He also had two grandsons, Bruce Barkley Downs III and Justin Sheridan (who went on to live off Bruce B. Downs Boulevard during his time at USF).
Three years after his death, the county renamed 30th Street in his honor. Thousands still drive down the road every day.
Patsy recalled her husband’s remarkable photographic memory and ability to remember names and faces after just one meeting. She told the Times that her husband would have felt shocked to know about the road being named after him.
“He would have felt so humble.”
Albert Whitted Airport
Lt. James Albert Whitted was one of St. Petersburg’s best known pilots. He was born in the Sunshine City in 1893.
Whitted enlisted at age 24 when World War I broke out. According to Times archives, Whitted was one of the first 250 pilots in the U.S. Navy. Though he became a lieutenant in the Naval Flying Corps, he never ended up flying overseas.
After his time in the Navy, Whitted started a commercial flight business in St. Pete. Over over the years he took hundreds of people up in his plane for free, just to share the experience of flight. He especially loved to delight children with free rides. Whitted kept his planes, the Falcon (which he built himself) and the Bluebird, at a hangar at the Vinoy Basin.
Whitted’s nephew Eric Whitted was interviewed by the Tampa Tribune in 2003. Eric recalled his uncle’s plane swooping over Tampa Bay and slicing a floating newspaper in half.
“That’s how accurate he was in flying.” Whitted told the Tribune.
In 1923, Whitted’s plane crashed during a pleasure flight near the Camp Walton resort near Pensacola. During the flight, the plane’s propeller broke and crashed into the wings. There were four others in the plane — three men, and a woman. All five passengers died instantly.
Whitted was survived by his wife and two young daughters. He was just 30 years old. The Albert Whitted Airport opened in 1929, several years after his death.
Lee Roy Selmon Expressway
Hailing from Eufaula, Oklahoma, Selmon was the youngest of three brothers to play football at the University of Oklahoma. (“God Bless Mrs. Selmon” bumper stickers decorated cars around campus, wrote the Tampa Tribune.) Selmon was the No. 1 pick during the 1976 NFL draft and became a dominating defensive end for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Selmon was voted NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1979 and retired in 1986 after herniating a disk in his back. He worked as a banker in Tampa until 1993, when he became the associate athletic director at USF. Selmon’s fundraising efforts supported the university’s new football program and helped bring upgrades for other sports.
In 1995, Selmon became the first Buccaneer to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Four years later, the Southern Crosstown Expressway was changed to the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway in his honor.
Off the field, he was known for being approachable and kind. Selmon did interviews and other public outreach for the Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority after the expressway was named after him. Instead of getting paid for this, he had THEA set up educational opportunities for students, including scholarships and internships.
He also started the barbecue restaurant Lee Roy Selmon’s in 2001, basing the menu after his mom’s home cooking. He often stopped by to chat with customers. (The original location went on to close in 2018.)
Selmon died of a stroke in 2011. He was 56.
“He walked amongst us as a special person,” Mayor Bob Buckhorn said in 2011. “The city is thankful for Lee Roy having been a part of it. I think he made us better.”
William L. Straub was responsible for turning the St. Petersburg Times into a daily newspaper. The Michigan-born journalist purchased the paper in 1901 and became the editor.
According to a profile in the Orlando Sentinel, Straub used his position to campaign for change. His crusades included advocating for Pinellas to become its own county separate from Hillsborough and protecting the waterfront from development. He also pushed for St. Pete to own the port and hire a professional planner.
Straub sold the paper to Paul Poynter, father of Nelson Poynter, in 1912. He stayed on as the editor until he died in 1939.
George Sheppard Gandy, or “Dad,” as many called him, was mocked for his idea to build a bridge stretching across the Bay. Yet despite 20 years of people laughing at his obsession, Gandy insisted, “I am going to build that bridge.”
Gandy had just brought the first electric streetcars to Philadelphia when he was invited to oversee a trolley system in St. Pete. He came to Florida in 1903, according to Florida’s Past: People and Events that Shaped the State, Volume 1 by Gene M. Burnett.
“At some point during this time, the visitor, then already in his 50s, gazed out over the broad expanse of Old Tampa Bay to the thin shore line on the far side and quietly whispered to himself: ‘Why not’,” wrote Burnett.
Gandy pursued other projects around Pinellas County, but the bridge plan stuck in his head until he was finally able to hire engineers to map out a route in 1915. He formed the Gandy Bridge Company and started surveying causeway dredging. By 1917, his company was clearing away palmettos and mangroves on both sides of the bay.
When competitors popped up and tried to poach his idea, one even going as far as to file plans for a bridge along the identical route as Gandy’s bridge, he resisted.
“If that bridge is ever built, by myself or anyone else, it will be by some fellow who gets behind it like I have and never quits,” he said, slamming his fist on the table, during a hearing with the Board of Engineers of the U. S. War Department. The board approved his bridge in 1918.
Finally in 1923, construction started. Here’s a breakdown of the process by the numbers (source: “St. Petersburg: An Oral History”).
- Time to build: 2 years
- Workers needed: 1,500
- Cost: $3 million
- Tons of gravel used: 30,000
- Sacks of cement used: 170,000
- Bricks used: 1.125 million
- Feet of lumber used: 1.5 million
- Drivers who crossed on the first day: 4,000
- Cost to cross: 75 cents plus a dime per passenger (horse riders crossed too, paying 35 cents, while bikers just had to pay a dime).
When the bridge finally opened in November 1924, 17 state governors were present, including Florida Gov. Cary A. Hardee, who severed a flowered rope to make it official. Gandy was celebrated that night at Williams Park.
At the time, the Gandy was the longest highway built over water in the world. According to the St. Petersburg city website, the bridge cut travel time between Tampa and St. Petersburg by more than half. The bridge enabled the growth that allowed St. Pete to become the largest city in Pinellas.
Gandy died in 1946 at 95, enjoying the product of his obsession for his final 22 years.
Tampa’s Fowler Avenue is said to be named after Maud Fowler, a businesswoman and real estate owner who helped found Temple Terrace. Also known as M.C. Fowler, Maud is described in Times archives as “an ‘imposing’ 6-foot woman with a bankroll and plenty of business acumen.”
She was the vice-mayor of Temple Terrace in 1925 and later became the mayor.
Her son was Cody Fowler, a prolific Tampa lawyer who helped with the city’s transition to integration. He went on to be president of the American Bar Association and became involved with multiple civil rights groups, including Tampa’s biracial commission. President John F. Kennedy appointed him to the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights under Law.
Odet Philippe’s life is surrounded in flashy legend: The story goes that he was the chief surgeon of Napoleon’s army, so brave that Napoleon himself gave him a special medal. According to “A Brief History of Safety Harbor, Florida” by Warren Firschein and Laura Kepner, Philippe he was captured by the British and taken to London as a prisoner before being transferred to the Bahamas. He only was freed after using his medical skills to cure the locals, but never again could he go back to France or England. He spent his life in the Americas, flitting from South Carolina to Fort Lauderdale and back to the Bahamas, where he picked up seeds and started growing citrus.
Philippe is credited with starting one of the first cigar factories in Key West before his run in with the pirate John Gomez. Once again his medical skills came in handy. After he cured Gomez and his crew of their ailments, the pirate rewarded him with a chest of treasure — and a map of the beautiful waters now known as Tampa Bay. Philippe established the first white settlement in Pinellas near today’s Safety Harbor area. He also used slave labor to build a plantation, where he grew tobacco with Cuban seeds.
He established the first white settlement in Pinellas in 1821 around Safety Harbor. He also created a plantation, using slaves to grow tobacco for cigars using Cuban seeds, and cultivated grapefruit, guavas and avocados using plants from the Bahamas.
He was 100 when he died in 1869, and is buried somewhere in Philippe Park.
MacDill Air Force Base
According to the MacDill Air Force Base website, the base is named in honor of one of aviation’s early pioneers. Col. Leslie MacDill.
Times archives say MacDill served in World War I, often doing “hazardous flying in the interest of scientific investigation and development.” He also was the commander of the Aerial Gunnery School in St Jean de Monte, France.
Before he died, MacDill was in Washington, D.C. to help with a plan to expand the United States’ bases in case the country joined World War II. On November 8, 1938, he died in an air crash shortly after taking off. He was 49.
Courtney Campbell Causeway
The 9.9-mile long causeway that links Tampa and Clearwater is named for Courtney Warren Campbell.
According to his biography on Congress’ website, Campbell was born in Missouri in 1895. After serving in World War I as a second lieutenant, he came to Tampa to practice law. He also grew citrus and was a land developer.
Campbell served as a Democratic U.S. representative from 1953 to 1955. He was also a member of the Florida Road Board and an advocate for beautification around Tampa Bay. He lived in Clearwater and died in Dunedin at age 75 in 1971.
Ruth Eckerd Hall
The performance art hall’s arrival was called “the beginning of culture in Pinellas County,” by Gus Stavros.
For Ruth Eckerd, it was her way of carving out an identity that was something other than “Jack Eckerd’s wife.” She helped with renovations in 2003, focusing down to the little details like the seat colors.
Ruth was born in Tampa. The daughter of a wealthy banker, she was a true Tampa society belle. She was the Gasparilla Queen in 1941 before she wed James Swann, the descendant of a cigar and citrus family.
She met Jack Eckerd several years after Swann died. She was the mother of three children when they met on a blind date, but he quickly charmed the family by hanging on monkey bars with her children.
Jack’s father, J. Milton Eckerd, founded the Eckerd Drugs chain. Jack built his fortune as he grew the company, expanding the locations nationwide.
After six weeks of dating, Jack and Ruth wed. They moved into house overlooking Clearwater Bay. They had a blended family with seven children.
Ruth was described as gracious, with a charm compared to that of Nancy Reagan. She loved attending performances at the hall named after her, as well as hosting annual omelet party fundraisers to benefit the Upper Pinellas Association for Retarded Citizens. The couple founded Eckerd Connects, a youth services organization that has helped tens of thousands of vulnerable children.
Dale Mabry Highway
Dale Mabry was born in Tallahassee and went on to work with his brothers in the real estate business in Tampa. During World War I, Mabry was stationed as a pilot in the Army Air Service in France. He returned to America in 1919 and entered the army as a captain.
Mabry became a leader of the Tenth Balloon Company. When the U.S. government purchased the Roma, he traveled to Italy to disassemble it and bring it back to Norfolk, Virginia.
The Roma was called “Queen of the American air fleet.” At 410 feet long, it was the largest dirigible balloon in the world at the time. Mabry was part of the flight crew tasked with testing the Roma at Norfolk’s Langley Field Air Station.
Mabry’s tragic death happened on Feb. 21, 1922 during a test flight. Mabry was piloting a 45-minute flight when the controls of the Roma stoped working. The airship, which had been slowly descending from an altitude of 1,000 feet, started to plummet to the ground.
As passengers tried to slow the descent by tossing out heavy items like sandbags, the hydrogen-filled blimp collided with high voltage power lines. Flames exploded from the ship, shooting up to 800 feet in the air.
“The fire burned so intensely that emergency crews initially would not get close enough to douse them,” wrote Rodney Kite-Powell in a 2012 Tampa Tribune profile on Dale Mabry.
The tragedy killed 34 of the 45 people on board. Those who survived only did so by jumping out of the Roma from 30 feet in the air.
At the time, it was the worst aviation crash in American history. It happened just 15 years before the Hindenburg tragedy. There aren’t any images of the Roma in Times archives, but these historic video clips show what the dirigible looked like before and after the crash. (Note — this video states that 33 were killed, but the number is actually 34.)
Mabry’s remains were found on the Roma after the flames died down. His hands were still on the wheel of the airship. He was just 30 years old.
His bravery has been honored with several landmarks: Dale Mabry Highway (which opened in 1943) and Tampa’s Mabry Elementary School (which opened in 1949). Dale Mabry Field in Tallahassee was named for him, although that was replaced in the 1960s.
This story was written using Times archives. Facts also came from “Florida’s Past: People and Events that Shaped the State, Volume 1″ by Gene M. Burnett, “St. Petersburg: An Oral History” by Scott Taylor Hartzell and “A Brief History of Safety Harbor, Florida” by Warren Firschein and Laura Kepne.
Are there other places around Tampa Bay that you want to learn the history of? Let me know in the comments!