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All eyes were on Tampa in 1898

Special correspondent
Published:   |   Updated: March 19, 2013 at 01:15 AM

Transportation problems, national and international attention, and, possibly, a future president all converging on Tampa in the summertime? The year is 2012, but it could very well be 1898.

Commentators have been grasping for comparisons to describe the people and attention headed toward Tampa for the Republican National Convention. Super Bowls, college bowl games, Gasparilla, presidential visits, even hurricanes do not quite reach the level of anticipated chaos associated with the convention.

One needs to reach further back in our history to find an apt example. During the summer of 1898, close to 30,000 soldiers, journalists, and yes, even politicians, came to Tampa during the build-up to the Spanish-American War. They completely overwhelmed the city and its 15,000 residents.

The tide of humanity began to rise in April 1898, when the first trainloads of troops arrived along Henry Plant's railroad tracks. It was Plant who, through his political connections, convinced government and military leaders to select the small port city of Tampa as the main point of embarkation. Though Plant's political will and might was great, his railroad line and Tampa's port facilities were less so. The main deep water port was eight miles from Tampa in another city — Port Tampa City. A single set of railroad tracks connected Tampa and Port Tampa, and it was stretched to its limits.

If Tampa was a hurricane of confusion in the summer of 1898, then Port Tampa was its disorganized eye. The quartermaster assigned to Port Tampa, Col. Charles Frederic Humphrey, was overwhelmed by the mountain of materials, mail, animals and people laid at his feet in late May and early June. Most of the problems at Port Tampa were the result of poor planning on the part of the army, but inadequate facilities were also a constant source of irritation and concern.

Further aggravating the situation, the army failed to secure enough transport ships for the journey to Cuba, prompting some regiments to take up the task of ship assignment themselves. The lack of space also meant that many of the horses and mules, sorely needed by the soldiers, would have to be left behind. By the time the transports were loaded — June 8, 1898 — they contained almost 17,000 soldiers, 1,000 horses, 1,300 mules, 34 artillery pieces and four Gatling guns.

During the early months of the war, dubbed the "Rocking Chair Period" because of the incredible lack of military activity, Tampa's social life flourished with gala events held by the military officers. Army bands played and dances were held. Plant Park was a favorite gathering place for the hotel's guests.

War correspondents also spent time in Tampa, living at the Tampa Bay Hotel or in other, smaller, accommodations. Among the famous people who came to Tampa to report the scene to the rest of the country were Richard Harding Davis, George Kennan and Frederic Remington. Women also participated in the reporting frenzy. Two in particular, Kathleen Blake Watkins, who wrote for the Toronto Mail and Express and 24-year-old Anna Northend Benjamin, who worked for Leslie's and Outlook magazines, stayed in Tampa before the war to cover the military build-up.

Journalists, army officers and their wives — among them Theodore Roosevelt, at the time the second in command of the Rough Riders — stayed at the Tampa Bay Hotel. Tampa provided a field day for correspondents, who showered praise on the hotel but found little good to say about the small city. It seemed that every description of the town in northern papers included the words "insignificant" and "sand."

Summer in Tampa was uncomfortable for most of the out-of-towners, to say the least. A reporter for the Plattsburg (Pa.) Press noted that "the climate is torrid … at mid-day the thermometer hovers in the nineties but the nights are cool and pleasant. There has been no rain in this vicinity in eight months and the black, grimy dust is enough to choke you. It gets in your eyes, your nose, your food, and were it not for ample bathing facilities in the vicinity, it would be unbearable."

Another correspondent, writing for the Denver Republican, was not impressed with what he saw in the young city. "We do not call Tampa much of a place in the North or West where our eyes are accustomed to well paved streets and fine business blocks." He went on to describe Franklin Street as paved with uneven wooden blocks, and where it wasn't paved the sand was a foot deep. He did note that "there are some fine residences," likely referring to some of the homes in Tampa Heights and Hyde Park.

By the end of the summer, the city had returned to normal. About half of the soldiers stationed in Tampa departed for Cuba in mid-June, and with them went all of the war correspondents. The troops that were left caused a good deal of mischief in the city, but they also spent most of their pay at Tampa businesses. By late September, they had moved on, too. The long-term effect of the war on Tampa is debatable, but there were a number of improvements made to the area — including the development of the Port of Tampa — that can be traced to this time.

It is difficult not to wonder what present-day journalists will write about Tampa and the bay area. Undoubtedly some will enjoy their time here, while others will look for every unfavorable comparison to where they themselves are from. Looking back on the Tampa of 114 years ago illustrates how far we have come as a city. By 1910, many of the deficiencies noted by war correspondents were distant memories. It will be interesting, 10 or 15 years from now, to read the reports from 2012 Tampa and think how much is the same and how much has changed since the convention came to town.


Rodney Kite-Powell is the Saunders Foundation Curator of History at the Tampa Bay History Center. He welcomes your comments and questions and can be reached via email, rkp@tampabayhistorycenter.org, or by phone, (813) 228-0097.
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