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Happy birthday, dear Tampa

Special correspondent
Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 08:45 PM

As regular readers of the History & Heritage page may have noticed, anniversary dates are a common theme. This week's column is devoted to the 125th anniversary of the incorporation of the City of Tampa.

Feel free to enjoy some cake and sing "Happy Birthday." Just be careful lighting 125 candles.

In a sense, we are celebrating Tampa's second set of birthdays. The original city of Tampa, incorporated on Dec. 15, 1855, was abolished in 1869 by then-mayor John T. Lesley.

It is not understood how he disbanded the city — either through an executive order or by simply not taking office — but his reasons for doing it are fairly clear. This occurred during the Reconstruction era following the Civil War, when the Republican-controlled Legislature passed a municipality reorganization law.

The law was not favorable to supporters of the old Confederacy, so Lesley (a former officer in the Confederate Army) ran for mayor promising to abolish the city, thus avoiding the reorganization law. Lesley overwhelmingly won the March 11, 1869, election, and the original city of Tampa ceased to exist.

In 1873, Tampa's leaders organized the Town of Tampa. The economic funk that the region endured in the late 1860s continued into the 1870s and even the early 1880s, but there a few things on the horizon soon changed things in Tampa forever.

The 1880s proved to be a watershed decade for the Tampa area. The 1880 census counted 720 people in the Town of Tampa and 5,814 in all of Hillsborough County — which included Pinellas County at the time. The situation would change dramatically over the next several years because of three momentous events: the discovery of phosphate in the region; the arrival of Henry Plant and his railroad and steamship lines; and the arrival of Ignacio Haya and Vicente Martinez Ybor and the founding of Ybor City. By the time the next federal census was taken, in 1890, the new city of Tampa had 5,532 residents and Hillsborough County (which still included Pinellas) had 14,941.

The phosphate industry has proved to be the most enduring of the three, greatly contributing to the Port of Tampa's No. 1 ranking, by tonnage, out of all of the ports in the state, placing it in the top 10 in the country. Plant and Ybor, though, still garner the bulk of the attention. And both were directly tied to the reincorporation of the city of Tampa and the expansion of the city's geographical boundaries.

Plant's decision to bring his transportation empire to Tampa caused the biggest initial stir. City leaders, realizing the great potential created by the railroad, founded the Tampa Board of Trade on May 7, 1885. The board's purpose was to attract new businesses to Tampa, and they did not have to wait long for the first prospects to arrive.

In 1886, after almost a year of negotiations and construction, cigar manufacturers Ignacio Haya and Vicente Martinez Ybor opened cigar factories in the new suburb known as Ybor City. Despite its name, Ybor City was never an incorporated city. It was, at the time of its founding, separate from the Town of Tampa.

Two other suburbs also trace their start to this time. Tampa Heights, located immediately north of today's downtown Tampa, owes its beginnings to Edward A. Clarke. His subdivision, known as "the Town of North Tampa," started the northward movement of people into what would become Tampa Heights. In 1883, the year of Clarke's plat, north Tampa meant the area north of Harrison Street.

Hyde Park also dates to this era. O.H. Platt is credited with naming the area, reflecting his roots in Hyde Park, Ill., on the south side of Chicago. Henry Plant also influenced the growth of Hyde Park when he constructed the Tampa Bay Hotel on the west side of the Hillsborough River from downtown Tampa — at the northern end of Platt's Hyde Park. The Lafayette Street Bridge (today's Kennedy Boulevard) provided the connection between Tampa and its western suburb.

Events had finally coalesced by 1887 to push the majority of the Legislature to pass an act re-chartering the City of Tampa. The act also officially abolished the towns of Tampa and North Tampa.

The new Tampa consisted of four wards, or districts: Ward 1 consisted of the original Tampa corporate limits, basically today's downtown; Ward 2 included North Tampa and the larger footprint of Tampa Heights; Hyde Park was Ward 3; and Ybor City was Ward 4. These ward designations are still carried today by the fire station numbers in each of those neighborhoods.


Rodney Kite-Powell is the Saunders Foundation Curator of History at the Tampa Bay History Center.
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