Nestled on the picturesque Gulf Coast of Florida is the city of St. Petersburg, or St. Pete as it's affectionately known. From its early days as a pioneer settlement to its evolution into a thriving cultural hub, the history of St Pete is both fascinating and rich.
History of St Pete: A Patchwork of Pioneers
In the 1830s and 1840s, the Pinellas Peninsula saw its first settlers. Dr. James Sarvent Hackney, with his visionary spirit, bought acres of land for a mere twenty-five cents an acre. His home, situated at what is now Fourth Street and Fifth Avenue, became the cornerstone of the budding community. The Perry brothers, Judge William H. Perry and Oliver, joined the narrative, cultivating sweet potatoes, corn, and melons. W.F. Sperling later acquired their land, heralding the arrival of a new era.
The Birth of St. Petersburg: Williams, Demens, and a Coin Toss
In 1875, General John C. Williams of Detroit, Michigan, visited the peninsula, captivated by its potential. A coin toss with Peter Demens decided the city's name, with Demens winning the honor and choosing "St. Petersburg" in homage to his Russian hometown. Williams reciprocated by naming the first hotel after his birthplace – Detroit. In 1892, with a population of around 300, St. Petersburg was officially incorporated as a city, laying the foundation for its future growth.
For a journey back in time to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Heritage Village is a must-visit. This living history museum features historic buildings relocated from different parts of Pinellas County, offering a glimpse into the region's architectural evolution.
Railroads, Race Tracks, and Lovers' Lanes
The late 19th century saw significant developments. The Orange Belt Railway, extended by Demens, brought the first train to St. Pete in 1888. A unique pebble road, known as the "race track," snaked through the city, hosting bicycle races and moonlit buggy rides – St. Pete's first Lovers' Lane.
For those with a penchant for vintage automobiles and technological evolution, the Tampa Bay Automobile Museum is a must-visit. Though located just a short drive from St. Pete, this museum provides a unique perspective on the history of transportation. The collection showcases automobiles from the early 20th century to the present, highlighting the innovation and craftsmanship that have shaped the automotive landscape.
Aviation Milestones: The World's First Commercial Flight
In 1914, Tony Jannus piloted the world's first commercial flight across Tampa Bay from St. Petersburg to Tampa. The historic flight ushered in a new era of transportation, connecting the two cities and marking St. Pete as a pioneering hub in aviation history.
Get up close and personal with the world’s first airliner and experience the birth of commercial aviation by visiting the St. Petersburg History Museum. The panoramic Flight One Gallery is only yards from where aviation history was made on January 1, 1914. It's a unique opportunity to witness artifacts and exhibits that bring to life the momentous journey that paved the way for the future of air travel.
The History of St Pete's Green Benches
In the mid-20th century, St. Pete adorned its streets with iconic green benches. These communal seats became a symbol of hospitality, encouraging locals and visitors alike to engage in conversation.
Visit Green Bench Brewery in downtown St. Pete to engage in conversation and enjoy a locally brewed craft beer on a reproduction of these historic benches.
Prohibition, Depression, and Residentism
Navigating through Prohibition and the Great Depression, St. Petersburg emerged as a hub for "residentism" in the late 1940s. The city actively promoted itself as an ideal retirement destination, setting the stage for its future as a haven for sun-seeking retirees.
Experience the clandestine allure of the Prohibition era by visiting a speakeasy in St. Pete, such as The Saint. Immerse yourself in the ambiance of the Roaring Twenties and savor handcrafted cocktails in an intimate setting. To gain access, be sure to know the password – an authentic touch that transports you back to the days when indulging in a drink required a bit of secrecy.
Economic Resurgence and the Sunshine Skyway
The post-war period witnessed an economic resurgence, and St. Pete continued to evolve. The Sunshine Skyway Bridge opened in 1987, becoming the world's highest and longest cable-stayed bridge, offering breathtaking views of Tampa Bay.
St Pete Historical Walking Tours
With the free walking tour app from the Florida Humanities Council called Florida Stories, enjoy a personal walking tour guide to a variety of Florida towns, big & small. The growing list of tours contains audio narration and synchronized photos, giving one a unique “behind the scenes” view of the town one has selected to tour.
In addition to the audio tour, St. Petersburg Preservation offers an extensive guided walking tour program with tours offered each Saturday from October thru April, as well as additional tour dates. The guided tours include not only downtown but also many of the city’s special historic neighborhoods. The tour schedule is available at www.stpetepreservation.org.
St. Petersburg's history is a vibrant tapestry, and exploring it through its historical museums provides a deep appreciation for the journey that has shaped the city into the dynamic and beloved place it is today. Whether strolling through the St. Pete History Museum, stepping back in time at Heritage Village, marveling at the engineering feats in the Tampa Bay Automobile Museum, or experiencing the clandestine charm of a speakeasy at The Saint, each venue offers a unique lens through which to view the chapters of St. Pete's fascinating history.