From time immemorial Tampa Bay and its surroundings were known only to local Indian tribes and the occasional explorer. Ponce de Leon passed this way in 1513, and de Soto arrived in 1539. Eventually Cuban and Spanish fishermen settled the area, to be joined after a while by U.S. Army officers, defenders of a string of coastal fortifications raised in the mid-nineteenth century. The modem history of the town of Tampa itself doesn’t begin until 1883, when a railroad tycoon, Henry Bradley Plant, arrived with big plans to blaze the South Florida Railroad across the Florida peninsula and link Tampa to the Atlantic port city of Jacksonville. In 1888 he threw the first bridge across the Hillsborough River, seen in the foreground of both of the pictures below. Before that, the only way to cross the river had been by ferry. The man who ran the ferry also owned the land stretching west from the river. By building the bridge, Plant put him out of business; then he bought up the land.
By 1891, when Tampa’s population had grown to nearly six thousand, Plant was ready to build a palace in the form of a grand hotel modeled after visions of The Arabian Nights . Plant’s Tampa Bay Hotel was constructed with railroad steel in its beams at a cost of $2.5 million. It was crowned with thirteen silvery minarets and three huge domes. From the first these dominated the city’s western skyline. They still do, even though the city’s population is now 235,000 and the oak and hickory trees of the hotel’s vast gardens have grown to partially screen them. Among those flourishing trees in the garden is the de Soto oak, named by Plant and under which, he claimed, the explorer had met with the Timucua Indians in the sixteenth century. As intended, the hotel drew tourists, who arrived on Plant’s trains, but it was just as popular with the locals, to whom it became a symbol of their city. Today the towers are pictured on Tampa’s tourist literature.
Despite the affection in which it was held, the hotel’s days of splendor were few. Several years after Plant’s death in 1899, the city seized it for back taxes. It leased it out at various times and finally, in 1933, turned it over to the newly established University of Tampa, where it stands as the jewel of the campus. Recently a million-dollar restoration of the towers and domes took place, and the city also found itself engaged in the largest tented fumigation job ever attempted in the state to rid the rafters and walls of termites. Its timbers steadied, plans for the structure’s centennial celebration in 1991 are now under way.
Some changes on the scene: The shacks that lined the river in the 1920s have been cleared for parking space, with the probably unintended effect of revealing the handsome classical lines of the old First Baptist Church at the left of the recent photograph. And rising now between the minarets, at center, is the former Embassy Apartment Hotel, dating from the 1930s and turned into a university residence hall. The bridge in the foreground, adorned with the marks of triumphant collegiate rowing teams, replaced Plant’s first span in 1913. Originally called the Lafayette Boulevard Bridge, it was renamed the Kennedy Boulevard Bridge after the slain President, who had visited Tampa only three days before his death.