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As his 200th birthday nears, the father of Florida tourism remains a mystery

Historians are learning new facts about Henry Plant, the railroad magnate who built the Tampa Bay Hotel.
The view of University of Tampa and the surrounding area from the top of a minaret on Plant Hall at the University of Tampa. That building was initially the Tampa Bay Hotel built by Henry Plant. [ALLIE GOULDING | Tampa Bay Times]
Published Oct. 24

TAMPA — Happy 200th birthday to Henry Plant, the man who extended the rail system to Tampa and created this area’s first luxury hotel.

To honor him, the Henry B. Plant Museum on the University of Tampa campus will host a special lecture and book signing, and, of course, serve birthday cake on October 27 at 2 p.m.

The event is free and open to the public.

As for presents — those go to the local history buffs in attendance. Each will be gifted with new knowledge.

More than a century after Plant died, historians are still uncovering information about the man who was instrumental in Tampa’s development.

“We’re bringing to light a lot of things that people still don’t know about Henry Plant,” said Lindsay Huban, the Plant Museum’s operations manager. “It’s pretty exciting.”

Henry Plant. Photo from the Florida Photographic Collection, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Florida Photographic Collection [Florida Photographic Collection]

One example: Plant provided health care to those building his railroad system.

“He offered insurance to all of his employees in the 1880s,” Huban said. “That was very rare. Men, women, people of color, could get health insurance working in the Plant system."

Plant also had four employee hospitals along his rail system: in Waycross, Ga., Montgomery, Ala. and in Florida at Sanford and High Springs.

What’s more, he had boxcar surgery rooms in his trains where staff doctors provided emergency care to injured employees.

“If someone was severely injured, like a crushed leg while working on the track, the doctor could operate immediately in a clean environment,” Huban said. “That gave a much greater chance of success.”

A photo of a hospital car that was part of Henry Plant's passenger railway system is on display at the Henry B. Plant Museum. There were 8 hotels located along Henry Plant's railroad system through north and central Florida at the Henry B. Plant Museum in Tampa, Florida on Monday, October 14, 2019. The Plant Museum is celebrating Henry Plant's 200th birthday. Henry Plant is credited with bringing the railroad to Tampa, which helped turn the small village into a city. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]

Heather Trubee, the museum’s curator of education, said the digitization of archives enabled these discoveries.

She read digitized journals from the 1890s that detailed railway surgery systems.

“We have more information than ever at our fingerprints,” Trubee said. “Expect to continue learning more about Plant.”

The popular nutshell story of Plant according to the museum’s website is as follows:

The Plant Museum is celebrating Henry Plant's 200th birthday. Henry Plant is credited with bringing the railroad to Tampa, which helped turn the small village into a city. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]

Born in Branford, Conn. on Oct. 27, 1819, Plant started as captain’s boy for the New Haven Steamboat Company. He later worked for and was promoted to vice president of the Adams Express Company.

Plant eventually established his own Southern Express Company in 1861. It amassed 5,000 miles of rail and steamship lines under his watch, museum manager Huban said.

A cornet that belonged to the orchestra conductor is on display at the Henry B. Plant Museum in Tampa, Florida on Monday, October 14, 2019. The Plant Museum is celebrating Henry Plant's 200th birthday. Henry Plant is credited with bringing the railroad to Tampa, which helped turn the small village into a city. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]

“In the 1860s, it took 11 days to get to Florida from Philadelphia,” Huban said. “You had to take steamships and paddle boats and ride horses and maybe take a train 50 miles at a time. By the time Plant built his empire, you could get to Tampa from New York in four days.”

He also built eight hotels in Florida. But his exotic Tampa Bay Hotel, boasting Russian-style minarets that today houses both the Plant Museum and Plant Hall at the University of Tampa, was by far his most luxurious, Huban said.

“It had 511 rooms, an 18-hole golf course, a casino, a spa,” she said. “He opened up Florida. There were 700 people in Tampa before the hotel. Then he built the hotel and a rail line to here and the population boomed. He made this the place to be."

A map of the 8 hotels located along Henry Plant's commuter railway system through north and central Florida is on display at the Henry B. Plant Museum in Tampa, Florida on Monday, October 14, 2019. The Plant Museum is celebrating Henry Plant's 200th birthday. Henry Plant is credited with bringing the railroad to Tampa, which helped turn the small village into a city. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]

Author Cantor Brown will discuss his new book, Henry Bradley Plant: Gilded Age Dreams for Florida and a New South at the birthday celebration.

“I’d say that, up until now, we’ve known very little about him," Brown said. "I’d also argue that Henry had planned it that way.”

Plant carefully crafted his public image, Brown said. His autobiography read more like an advertisement for the Plant company than a deep dive into his life.

“Always secretive in his personal and business affairs,” Brown said, “he ensured the destruction of his private papers up until his death” on June 23, 1899.

By scouring digital archives for book research, including “newspapers from all over the world,” Brown learned new details about Plant.

Plant’s autobiography claims his first wife died of tuberculosis, for example. "Her physicians, however, treated hysteria in women, which is to say mental illness, including depression,” Brown said.

And while it has long been said that his Tampa Bay Hotel was Plant’s favorite vacationing locale, Brown said his dream was “never to create a great resort city at Tampa. He wanted to build a great resort in Havana."

Tampa was his fallback when Cuba didn’t pan out.

But, “once the Tampa Bay Hotel opened” in 1891," Brown said, “he loved it. He delighted serving as host, personally welcoming guests on the back steps located in proximity to the rail siding. The experience offered him great joy in his last years.”



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