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Clearwater set to celebrate city's centennial

This undated photo shows a view of Fort Harrison Avenue, now a major downtown thoroughfare.
This undated photo shows a view of Fort Harrison Avenue, now a major downtown thoroughfare.
Published May 27, 2015

CLEARWATER — The first humans who lived in this place, the bronze-skinned Timucuan Indians, called it Pocotopaug, meaning "clear water."

The name stuck when white settlers arrived here in the 18th century, building pioneer homes along a bluff overseeing what they called Clear Water Harbor. They chartered a city government on May 27, 1915 — exactly a century ago today.

Happy 100th, Clearwater.

Tampa Bay's third-largest city is marking its centennial with a slate of events throughout the year, mainly with a parade and public celebration Saturday. Beginning at 6:30 p.m., the 100-entry parade starts at Drew Street and Highland Avenue and heads west, finishing at a block party with a fireworks finale at downtown's Coachman Park.

"I hope we get a good turnout," said Mayor George Cretekos. "You only turn 100 once."

The city is also marking the milestone with an event at Bright House Field tonight, a coffee-table book, a new entryway monument, and a concert this fall. (See box.)

Clearwater consists of 108,000 residents packed into 26 square miles. Today, it's best-known as a world-class sugar-sand beach, as a base for the Church of Scientology, as the birthplace of Hooters, as the spring home of the Philadelphia Phillies and as the home of Hulk Hogan and a movie star dolphin named Winter.

But going back to its roots, the area was settled by fishermen, cattle ranchers and citrus growers with names like McMullen, Booth, Coachman, Belcher and Turner — hearty souls who left their surnames on its roads, creeks and parks.

Why the name Clearwater?

"The clear waters of the harbor were the original thing that drew the Indians and the Spanish here. That and the high bluff," said local historian Mike Sanders, who published the 1983 book Clearwater: A Pictorial History. Fresh springs also bubbled up along the shoreline, providing a source of drinking water.

The town's population was boosted by two moneymaking industries — tourism and citrus. The two were intertwined, said Gary Mormino, history professor at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

"What Clearwater manufactured was a positive image — that this was a wholesome place, a God-fearing community," he said. The labels on its orange crates, featuring glowing sunsets and palm trees, were "the most romantic things you can imagine. No crop ever advertised Florida with such an image of health and vigor and vitality."

County seat: When Pinellas County split from Hillsborough in 1912, Clearwater and St. Petersburg wrangled over where to put the county courthouse. It was a fight for the prestige, control and economic benefits a county seat provides. So Clearwater's backers built a ramshackle wooden courthouse virtually overnight.

According to historian Ralph Reed's Story of Pinellas, "Torches blazed around the building as work went on through the night, and armed guards with shotguns patrolled the building night and day since rumors had been spread that St. Petersburg people planned to come up and burn it down."

Beach: The first bridge to Clearwater Beach came in 1917. It quickly gained a nickname, the rickety bridge, because the hot sun caused its wooden boards to warp and make an unsettling noise as cars drove over it.

War: During World War II, the downtown Fort Harrison Hotel housed soldiers in need of training. Sand Key, a strip of barrier island now known for its wall of beachfront condo towers, was a strafing and bombing range for the U.S. Army Air Corps.

Many GIs who trained here moved back after the war to raise families. Due to the population boom, subdivisions began replacing farms in the '50s and '60s.

Segregation: Like everywhere else, black families in Clearwater have their own history. For decades, they had to live in certain neighborhoods. They were barred from downtown restaurants, movie houses and the beach.

Schools weren't integrated until 1971. As a vestige of that era, housing patterns in Clearwater are still noticeably segregated. Due to an influx of Mexican immigrants, the city is roughly 75 percent white, 14 percent Hispanic and 11 percent black.

Countryside: Why is Clearwater shaped the way it is? After it grew from the east to the west, it then veered to the northeast thanks to builder Charles Rutenberg's vast Countryside development of thousands of suburban homes, which took off in the 1970s.

"They tried to get Dunedin to provide services for Countryside but they couldn't do it, so Clearwater stepped in and did it," said Bill Wallace, former president of the Clearwater Historical Society.

Countryside and Clearwater malls opened in the 1970s, pulling the city's commercial heart farther from downtown.

Scientology: In 1975, a secretive out-of-town company bought the landmark Fort Harrison Hotel. The real buyer was the Church of Scientology, founded by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard.

Their arrival was a turning point for Clearwater. The mayor at the time called Scientology a cult. In retaliation, church members staged a hit-and-run accident to try to discredit him.

Since then the church has become a dominating presence downtown, buying up nearly 70 properties. Relations between the city and the church have calmed down quite a bit, but for many residents, the controversies surrounding the Scientologists have never completely died.

Culture: Fifty years ago while in town for a concert, Keith Richards and Mick Jagger wrote (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction, possibly the greatest rock 'n' roll song of all time, while staying at the Fort Harrison Hotel.

A young Jim Morrison lived with his grandparents in downtown Clearwater in the early 1960s before he became lead singer of the Doors.

The city's signature event, Clearwater Jazz Holiday, began 35 years ago with bands playing on a flatbed truck.

Today: Clearwater has a thriving beach, a sleepy downtown, and a U.S. 19 business district that's in transition because the road has been reshaped into an elevated highway.

It also has more senior citizens per capita than any other American city with a population of 100,000 or more.

"It's a more conservative community," said longtime City Manager Bill Horne. "I think that's been in its DNA."

And if the centennial celebration goes well, Clearwater won't necessarily have to wait another 100 years to hold the next one — 2091 would work. Before it became a city in 1915, it was first incorporated as a town in 1891. But historians aren't making a big deal out of that little fact.

No one wants to spoil the party.

Contact Mike Brassfield at or (727) 445-4151. Follow @MikeBrassfield.