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How has Clearwater Beach evolved over the past century? Florida Wonders explores.

Photos old and new tell us how the landscape of the beloved beach has changed.
Published May 2
Updated May 16

Welcome to Florida Wonders, a series where Tampa Bay Times journalists tackle reader questions about the people and places in the Tampa Bay area and the state of Florida.

Have something you’ve been wondering about the Tampa Bay area or Florida? Ask Florida Wonders.

This week New Port Richey resident Patti Carney wanted to know: What are some of the biggest changes, positive and negative, that have occurred at Clearwater Beach?

Carney was curious to hear about the past 50 years, but we’re traveling back further in history in order to answer her question with enough context. After all, a lot has changed on Clearwater Beach since it first started being developed more than 100 years ago. It’s now a booming tourist attraction. It has been the setting of several movies. And it also receives consistent national praise, most recently being named the best beach in America by Trip Advisor for the second year in a row.

Aerials taken on the beach next to Pier 60 in Clearwater. Times (1999)

How did Clearwater Beach get to this point, and where did it all start? Grab your flip-flops — we’re headed to the beach.

Getting there

The first bridge to Clearwater Beach was completed in 1917. Courtesy of Clearwater Historical Society.

Ernest Tate first bought the island for just $200 back in the 1890s. It was only reachable by boat until 1917, when a 2-and-a-half mile bridge nicknamed “Old Rickety” was constructed. It started at the foot of Seminole Street and stretched down to where the Clearwater Recreation Center is now.

The bridge’s name comes from the noise that automobiles made as they came across the wood, said Susan Raineri of the Clearwater Historical Society. Workers at the island’s diner used to notify the kitchen when they heard the clacking of potential customers driving over the wooden bridge.

Old Rickety was scarred with burn marks from various fires. Smoking was popular in those days, and the ash flicked from lit cigarettes often caused blazes that required the bridge to close for repairs.

“There were times people got stuck out there and had to ferry back the next day because there had been a fire on the bridge,” said Jeanne Holmquist of the Clearwater Historical Society.

Despite its quirks, the bridge made it easier to bring building materials over to the beach.

Cars travel along the Memorial Causeway in 1935. This photo depicts a view looking west toward Clearwater Beach. Courtesy of Mike Sanders.

The Million Dollar Memorial Causeway replaced Old Rickety in 1926 and stuck around until 1962. It was a tourist attraction itself, covered in flowering bushes. Beachgoers could stroll on a sidewalk in the middle of the bridge that ran through the lush plants.

An old postcard shows the Million Dollar Bridge in Clearwater. Courtesy of the Clearwater Historical Society.

The city unveiled the Memorial Causeway in 1963. Over the years, the drawbridge caused traffic backups for miles on holidays and spring break, leaving cars idling. It also didn’t have enough room to accommodate pedestrians and cyclists.

In winter 1962, the city of Clearwater erected this sign at the west end of the bridge to assure departing visitors better things were coming. The sign gave the same assurance as vehicles still use the old bridge. Times (1963)

The drawbridge malfunctioned more and more as it aged, getting stuck opening and closing. In 1995, the Department of Transportation announced repairs to the bridge, but the city raised funds to construct a new bridge instead.

This photo shows the old Memorial Causeway. Times (1963)

It took about $70 million to build the current causeway. When the plan was first introduced in 1995, the estimate was just $17.6 million. The project was completed in 2005.

Aerial photo of the 2005 Memorial Causeway bridge being built alongside the old one. On the left is the Pierce 100 condo building. Times (2005)

Beach attractions

Contestants in the 1961 Tri-City Suncoast Fiesta, take a run on Clearwater Beach near the Palm Pavilion restaurant and bar in this publicity photo. Courtesy of Arcadia Publishing.

Pavilions

Soon after bridges were built connecting Clearwater Beach to the mainland, pavilions popped up. They provided a cool oasis for beachgoers, offering icy beverages and a place to change out of sand-crusted bathing suits.

In the early 1900s, tourists left the mainland in proper street clothes and didn’t strip down to their swim trunks until they reached the beach. They could leave their work slacks and dresses in lockers and change back into them after enjoying the sun.

Pavilions faded in popularity as society relaxed and exposed skin became the norm. By the 1980s, most had morphed into other kinds of businesses, including mini golf courses, restaurants and hotels. The Rockaway Pavilion, for example, became Frenchy’s Rockaway Grill:

The last remaining pavilion from the old days is the Palm Pavilion. Built in 1926, the original pavilion was open year-round and offered wool bathing suit rentals, according to the Palm Pavilion website. Beachgoers could also play skee-ball or dance to music they picked out on the jukebox.

Beachgoers used to be able to rent bathing suits from the Palm Pavilion. Courtesy of the Palm Pavilion Beachside Grill & Bar, Clearwater Beach, FL

The dance floor area became a beachwear store in the 1940s. As the decades passed, the business expanded its menu and eventually got rid of the changing rooms to become the bar and restaurant it is today. The former dance floor now houses the Palm Pavilion’s dining room.

Left: Ken Hamilton, owner of the Palm Pavilion, estimates this photo was taken during the 1980s, before the restaurant's kitchen was expanded in 1995. Courtesy of Palm Pavilion Beachside Grill & Bar, Clearwater Beach, FL Right: The Palm Pavilion is the last pavilion on Clearwater Beach, functioning as a restaurant and bar. Times (2010)

Pier 60

Pier 60 opened in June 1962 and soon became the focal point of the beach. The 609-foot extension of the Clearwater Municipal Pier was named for its location at the end of State Road 60. It cost $100,000 and took just 10 weeks to build.

Adults were charged $1 to go to the extended portion, or 50 cents after 5 p.m.

Miss Clearwater Cary Bobo smashed a symbolic bottle of champagne on the railing during the opening of Pier 60 as city officials look on. Times (1962)
This photo from the Times archives dates back before 1976. The original caption read: "What CAN you do on the pier?"

In 1990, the city discovered that the 40-year-old pier needed to be replaced or rebuilt. The city held a contest, inviting people to submit designs for a new pier. Here’s the plan that they chose, which can still be seen today:

Entries by Robert Gregg and Paul Mims were choses as the winners of the Beach Blue Ribbon Task Force's design contest for Pier 60. Times.

Sunsets at Pier 60 started in 1995. The evening fete, featuring artists and street performers, was modeled after the sunset festivals at Key West’s Mallory Square. While the original festival started with just a few nights each week, Sunsets at Pier 60 now happens 364 days out of the year.

From motels to high rises

An aerial photograph looking north of Clearwater Beach taken in 1928 shows no development at the southern end of the barrier island. The Clearwater Memorial Causeway is shown at the center. Courtesy of Mike Sanders.
An aerial photo shows development on the barrier island. Times (1979)

Motels started popping up in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

“It’s just amazing what was here when that causeway opened,” said Buddy Gross of the Clearwater Historical Society. “It was a thriving place.”

After World War II, soldiers who had been stationed nearby came back to live at the beach. Francis Skinner, a Dunedin developer, dredged up underwater land to build the Island Estates residential community. Mom and pop motels also blossomed during the ’50s and ’60s.

The main Sea Shell Motel building, as seen from the Gulf of Mexico. Times (1979)

The 1930s-era Joyland Silver Dome, which used to house a dance hall and water slide, became the Sea Shell Motel in 1948. The octagonal building was torn down in 1972 to make room for a Clearwater Beach Holiday Inn, which is now a Hilton.

The Holiday Inn Surfside on Clearwater Beach. Times (1987)

“Whenever the [Holiday Inn Surfside] was built, that was a marking point for the end of the mom and pop hotels and the beginning of whatever it is now ––places you can’t afford,” Holmquist said.

This happened across the beach over the years. The Clearwater Beach Hotel, which expanded from a beach cottage in 1917 to a popular seasonal resort in the 1920s, was rebuilt in the 1970s before being torn down to clear space for the Sandpearl Resort in 2005.

The Sandpearl Resort on Clearwater Beach. Times (2010)
The memory wall at the Sandpearl Resort features new and old photos from the Clearwater Beach Hotel. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times]

As insurance costs and property taxes rose, mom and pop motels began to shutter. Condos and hotels were built in their place.

Clearwater Beach. Times (2018)

Getting around

Warm temperatures and sunny skies drew big Easter Morning crowds to Clearwater Beach. The public beach parking lot just south of Pier 60 was reported filled to capacity by 11:30 a.m on the day this photo was taken. Times (1977)

As larger hotels and condos were built to fit more people on the beach, traffic jams and full parking lots became the norm.

“It’s always taken so long to get to the beach," Raineri said. “When I was a kid back in the ’60s, it was backed up to MLK.”

Holmquist grew up on the beach and said long lines at snack shacks didn’t bother her. She knew that when the tourists left, she’d have her chance then.

“It does not get that slow anymore,” she said. “When I was a kid, it would be dead.”

Though crowds surge during spring break season and the summer now, it’s lively at the beach year round.

While the traffic woes that plagued people decades ago still exist today, some initiatives have helped. The Jolley Trolley was introduced in 1980, providing another way to get around the beach. It expanded throughout the mainland and can now be rented for functions.

A ferry service was added after the city of Clearwater built the downtown dock on Drew Street in 1990, said Lynn Fuhler, former tourism director of the Greater Clearwater Chamber of Commerce. The Clearwater Ferry Water Taxi was also added in 2015.

The city council recently began looking at more futuristic solutions, including a driverless bus along Mandalay Avenue that could help pick up tourists.

The roundabout

The roundabout fountain at the entrance of Clearwater Beach from the Memorial Causeway. Times (2002)

Clearwater Beach’s roundabout project was supposed to help with the flow of traffic, but it created more problems than anticipated.

The project was approved in 1998, and the Howard Johnson and Memorial Civic Center were torn down to make room for the roundabout the next year.

The roundabout’s fountain –– which cost $2.1 million to install and $250,000 to maintain each year –– was the biggest hazard. Gusts of wind would cause the water to spray the cars. This blinded drivers, causing distress for many who were already unfamiliar with the territory or navigating that kind of traffic pattern.

“The water would blow everywhere,” Gross said. “People would need to use their wipers.”

The fountain also guzzled up almost one million gallons of potable water each month -- all during a record-breaking drought. Since it was not built to use reclaimed or salt water, the city had to shut it off about a year and a half after it was installed.

“Some called it an expensive bird bath," wrote the Tampa Tribune.

This photo shows the Clearwater Beach roundabout after the city had its geometry changed to reduce accidents. Times (2002)

It cost $163,000 to rip out the fountain in 2002, just three years after it was introduced. The edges of the roundabout were also smoothed to reduce accidents.

The cost of the project over the years? Between $12 and $13 million.

View of the roundabout in Clearwater Beach. Times (2015)

Clearwater Beach then and now

We sent Times photographer and drone extraordinaire Luis Santana to the beach to recreate old photos. First is an image of the old pier from the Times archives.

Raineri estimated that this image was taken in the mid-1950s. She noted the Australian pines on the beach that were used to help with erosion. The trees (and their tiny pinecones that tormented barefoot beachgoers) were torn out long ago. To the left of the causeway are the mangroves where the Island Estates neighborhood is located today.

Aerial photo of the pier at Clearwater Beach. Times (mid-1950s)

Here’s an aerial view of the pier today.

Aerial photo of Pier 60 at Clearwater Beach on Wednesday, May 1, 2019. [LUIS SANTANA | Times]

Here’s another view of the pier area. The first image was taken nearly 40 years ago.

Clearwater Beach in 1980. Times
Aerial photo of Pier 60 at Clearwater Beach on Wednesday, May 1, 2019. [LUIS SANTANA | Times]

What questions do you have about the Tampa Bay area or Florida? Fill out the form below or email your inquiries to floridawonders@tampabay.com.

Times senior researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. This report was compiled using Times archives.

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