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Tampa Steel Erecting Co., which built Spaceship Earth, celebrates 75th year

The company’s founder was a boxer and Depression-era “hobo” before settling in Tampa.
Tampa Steel Erecting Co. President Bob Clark Jr. poses by the section of a bridge being built on site in Tampa.
Tampa Steel Erecting Co. President Bob Clark Jr. poses by the section of a bridge being built on site in Tampa. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Dec. 15, 2021
Updated Dec. 26, 2021

TAMPA — The story of Tampa’s connection to an iconic Florida tourist attraction begins with a German boxer’s 67th win.

That fighter’s right hook in the fifth round ended Bob Clark Sr.’s boxing career in 1932.

Clark Sr. hung up his gloves and lived as what was then called a hobo.

His travels brought him to Tampa, where he founded Tampa Steel Erecting Co., which fabricated Spaceship Earth — the giant golf ball-like attraction that has been the symbol of Disney World’s Epcot since the theme park opened in 1982.

Tampa Steel Erecting has also helped to build launch towers at Cape Canaveral, Shamu Stadium in Orlando and the 39-story One Tampa City Center in downtown Tampa.

Now, the company founded near the end of 1945 is celebrating its 75th “full year” in business, making it “the oldest steel fabricating business in the state,” said Bob Clark Jr., who has run the family business since the 1980s.

Today, the company name is a misnomer.

Tampa Steel Erecting has not performed onsite erecting since the early 1990s, when they worked on the Florida Aquarium in downtown Tampa, Clark Jr. said.

Instead, they focus on fabricating bridges.

They create every steel part on their 35-acre campus at 5127 Bloomingdale Ave.

“We then put it together like a giant tinker toy set to make sure it is right, then take it apart and ship it out” to be erected by another company onsite, Clark Jr. said.

Bridges the company has fabricated include the 4,700-foot-long Casco Bay Bridge in Portland, Maine, and the Margaret McDermott Bridge in Dallas, which features 328-foot arches.

Bridge fabrication has been a successful specialty, Clark Jr. said, and a fitting one, considering his father’s desire to travel the nation as a young man.

From left: John Clark, Bob Clark Sr. and Bob Clark Jr. in 1996.
From left: John Clark, Bob Clark Sr. and Bob Clark Jr. in 1996. [ Times (1996) ]

According to Clark Sr.’s memoir:

Raised in South Georgia, as a child Clark Sr. helped support his family of 12 by hunting and selling rabbits and possums, working local farms and chopping the wood that fed wood-burning locomotives. But he believed boxing was his ticket to financial success.

Training by William Stribling Jr. — who amassed 256 wins, 129 by knockout, against only 16 losses — Clark Sr. was 18 when he competed in and won his first professional fight.

After also knocking out his next two opponents, he considered making boxing his full-time career.

Then the German fighter knocked sense into him.

Boxing had earned Clark Sr. $7.50 to that point, which he realized was not worth the physical toll.

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So, he retired from the sport to become a hobo during The Great Depression.

Related: Tampa’s St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church celebrates 150 years

Hoboing, Clark Sr. explained, was honorable. Hobos worked and were willing to travel to find jobs. But there were rules and tricks to it, he said.

When looking for a freight car in which to sleep on a rainy night, Clark Sr. said, they would pick one that was partially loaded. A freight car that was full or empty was usually slated to be shipped out in the morning, and sound sleepers sometimes woke miles away.

In 1933, Clark Sr. hitched a ride on trains and made his way to Texas, where he worked 10-hour days digging ditches for oil field pipelines. Pay was $20 a week and he slept at a “hobo jungle,” a makeshift community of traveling workers living in boxes or on the ground. Dinners were cooked over fires. Ponds were bathtubs.

He later came to Florida for work dredging Lake Okeechobee. He recalled hitchhiking the final leg of that journey with a Baptist preacher driving a car without headlights. Clark Sr. said he was not a religious man but prayed through the night with that preacher.

He met his wife, Mary, while dredging in South Bay.

They later moved to Tampa, where Clark Sr. worked the shipyards during World War II.

Tired of traveling and seeing potential in the developing city of Tampa, in October 1945, Clark Sr. founded Tampa Steel Erecting Co., buying equipment with $1,500 he had saved.

He bid $190 for his first job, erecting steel structures for an estuary project. His expenses were $45.

Early jobs included erecting steel structures for Ybor City’s Florida Brewing Company and juice concentrators for Minute Maid in Orlando.

Clark Jr. joined the business in the 1960s.

They expanded into the fabrication business in the 1970s, and the son took over as president of the company around a decade later.

Still, Clark Jr. said, “My dad came to work until he died in 2005.”

Clark Jr., meanwhile, has also branched into other ventures.

He’s been president of the Miss Tampa pageant since 1993 and, since 2001, has hosted weekly networking lunches at the Columbia Restaurant.

But Tampa Steel Erecting Co. remains his focus, he said.

The company continues to “thrive,” Clark Jr. said, but he prefers a different word.

“We’ve survived,” he laughed.

What does it take to survive?

“Luck,” Clark Jr. said, “and a lot of hard work. That’s what my dad founded us on — hard work.”