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.
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.
How did Clearwater Beach get to this point, and where did it all start? Grab your flip-flops — we’re headed to the beach.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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
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 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.
“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.
As insurance costs and property taxes rose, mom and pop motels began to shutter. Condos and hotels were built in their place.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Here’s an aerial view of the pier today.
Here’s another view of the pier area. The first image was taken nearly 40 years ago.
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Times senior researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. This report was compiled using Times archives.