Saturday, February 02, 2008

Rainy Day at Tampa Bay Hotel

Even in a February drizzle, the historic Tampa Bay Hotel impresses me. I find it so easy to imagine the past here, ladies and gentlemen promendading on the veranda, waiting for the showers to pass. The leaves of the banana plant show the effects of a winter freeze, although it's warmer in Tampa today than it is in Philadelphia or Long Island. But as fancy as the iced gingerbread is on this building, what lingers in my mind is what went into making the walls.

The Tampa Bay Hotel was a major construction project in the 1880s. To say it was ambitious is putting it mildly. The new was barely worn off the railroad tracks to Tampa, and just hundreds of people lived here when Henry Plant thought of building a resort hotel on the banks of the Hillsborough River. Just where did he think they would find the men and materials for such an undertaking? Well, the men came from all over the country, but the logistics of was finding construction materials in a new frontier town was more difficult.

One need was shell for the concrete, and the builders found what they required where the Alafia River met Tampa Bay in the form of prehistoric shell mounds. Eating oyster and clam and mussells creates some trash. Shell mounds and shell middens are places where shellfish remains are discarded and accummulate, at times forming small hills. Often, other trash or refuse would get mixed in with the shell, such as bones from last night's dinner, or a broken bowl. If the mounds got big enough, they were useful as high pieces of ground, either a vantage point or somewhere out of the water. Today, archaeologists study and protect shell mounds, but in the lat 19th century, people all over Florida mined these hills for shell. The shell was used for road construction, or as in the case of the Tampa Bay Hotel, for making concrete. I wonder what was mixed into those walls along with the shell....

(Photo: Shell mound at New Smyrna, Florida State Archives, PR07602)

In another instance of resourcefullness, the Tampa Bay Hotel builders salvaged old submarine cable, selling the copper, but using the fiber and metal as construction materials. While I suppose you could look for comparisons to modern considerations of green construction or sustainability, they were really just making do with what they had at hand.

Transoceanic cable came to Florida shortly after the Civil War, through the efforts of the International Ocean Telegraph Company. The installation of telegraph cable was very important for south Florida, which in the 1860s was barely explored, much less settled, by the United States. Cable lines and railroads went as far south as Cedar Key, and that was it. South Florida was quite isolated from the world, and from knowledge of world events or markets that might provide needed capital. In 1867, the IOTC put up poles and telgraph wire from Cedar Key to Gainesville, and on to Lake City. The wire raced southward from Ocala to Dade City, then to Polk County and along the Peace River. Following the Caloosahatchee River, the wire reached Punta Rassa, where it connected with submarine cable from Key West. Another submarine cable connected Key West and Cuba.

Telegraph service in Florida began in 1867, and in following years IOTC added connection from Florida and Cuba to Jamaice, Panama, Puerto Rico, and Trinidad. The Florida - Cuba cable stayed in operation into the 1940s, and in the 1950s IOTC became part of Western Union.

In a 1989 journal article, Canter Brown, Jr., considered the impact of the IOTC cable on Florida, noting that while non-Florida contractors supplied materials, the company did created much sought-after jobs in south Florida. On a less positive note, Brown pointed out that the IOTC's early impact was limited by high prices it charged to send a cable -- "$4.00 in gold for transmitting a ten-word message from Lake city to Cuba" -- which was out of reach for the average Floridian. Brown considered the cable company's most significant impact to be from the roads it built along the wire's route. "Wire Road" became a major north/south corridor for pioneers settling south Florida in the late nineteenth century.

So when I look at the Tampa Bay Hotel, I think of both the historic events that took place within its walls and the history that went into its walls.

If you'd like to visit the Tampa Bay Hotel, your best option is the Henry Plant Museum. The museum now offers handheld audio tours, and an exhibit about Gasparilla's history.


Plant's Palace: Henry B. Plant and the Tampa Bay Hotel, by James Covington (Harmony House, 1990)

"The International Ocean Telegraph" by Canter Brown, Jr. (Florida Historical Quarterly, 1989, Volume 68, Number 2, Pages 135-159).


  1. Anonymous6:24 PM

    I stumbled onto your site today and was pleasantly surprised with your photos of the Tampa Bay Hotel. As a native of St. Augustine, I'm very familiar with the rivalry of Henry Plant and Henry Flagler, but do appreciate each one's contribution to Florida's heritage.

  2. Thank you conchscooter and moultrie creek!


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