I think most of us would agree that of the St. Pete area beaches, one of the standouts is Pass-a-Grille. From it’s slightly out of the way location south of St. Pete Beach, the slower paced, no-high-rise beach with a quaint and historic town makes the south end of Long Key appealing. But rather than wax poetic about the location, let’s dig a bit on one of the key founders and businessmen of Pass-a-Grille, George Lizotte. (If you are looking for info on the beach, go here)
I know what you are thinking. “Silas Dent!” “Zephaniah Phillips!” “The Spanish Fishermen!” Yes. Many people played important roles in the history of Pass-a-Grille. That said, I would assert that for putting the little idyllic location on the map at the dawn of the early 1900’s and into the golden era of St. Pete, Lizotte was may have been the most effective.
Bold and Adventurous
George Henri Lizotte, as his name suggests, was a French national who before discovering Tampa Bay and Pass-a-Grille had a very clear desire to travel and see the world. Born in 1861, Lizotte studied at the Sorbonne in Paris in the latter part of the 1800s, then became a tour guide and travel agent who ran excursions along the Nile River in Egypt, and also did the same at the Taj Mahal in India. In the late 1890s, Lizotte started working for the Thomas Cook Travel agency giving tours in the United States primarily to British tourists who were curious about the US and the new state of Florida. In the course of that business, he visited Port Tampa for the first time in 1896 and an excursion with his group brought him to Pass-a-Grille and he fell in love.
The first official homesteader of Pass-a-Grille was considered to be Zephaniah Phillips who settled in 1886, and by 1900 a few residents of Tampa Bay area had built cottages there as well, mainly due to the excellent fishing grounds in the area. In 1899, when Lizotte had returned once again to Tampa there was not a well-developed infrastructure, post office, or regular transportation to Pass-a-Grille; it was remote and only reachable by boat.
Within two years Lizotte had bought three lots from Roy Hannah (of early St. Pete fame), plus a cottage that he turned into a hotel that he called the Bonhomie, which translates from the French to “Good-Natured Man.” Room and board for a week was only $7.50. The early accommodations were not luxurious. Bathing was in the Gulf, and fresh water was from rain barrels was not always the cleanest. But that said, the Bonhomie became a success for a number of key reasons.
The first was that Lizotte caught the first tarpon by rod and reel in a rowboat off the shore of the island. Fishing was of course an immensely popular pastime, and Lizotte drove an influx of tourism to the remote island comprised of anglers interested in repeating the catch. Lizotte was more than happy to set and lead the excursions, and the hotel Bonhomie became a quick success. To spur even more business, Lizotte offered a guarantee that he would pay costs of any angler that came for a Tarpon excursion but didn’t make a catch. Lizotte also opened the little town’s first post office in the lobby of the Bonhomie. In 1905, Lizotte was asked about the population while applying to become the gulf beaches’ first postmaster. He counted two hogs, two pigs, two humans and 16 chickens. After answering 22, he received the position and held it for seven years.
Lizotte offered an extremely popular and novel “Shore Dinner” plan for visitors at the Bonhomie, serving a bountiful feast to those who made it to his establishment. This was important, perhaps, because it allowed non-anglers to visit, enjoy the beaches, and have a good meal. The seven-course meals cost 50 cents. With a cow horn Lizotte summoned fisherman, industrialists and politicians to feast on clam chowder and all the stone crabs they could eat when the meals were ready.
The other driver of visits to the island was supported by Lizotte strongly, but had more to do with the town of St. Pete. Gulfport (at the time called Veteran City) was to be a distant stop from St. Pete from the streetcar. But the streetcar company knew it couldn’t support running the train and simply terminating it there; there just wasn’t enough demand. So the city in partnership with ferry firms started coordinating the arrival of the streetcars with the boat to Pass-a-Grille in 1908. Remember, in these days there were no bridges for autos!
The ferry / streetcar line made getting to Pass-a-Grille a day’s outing, rather than a week long journey. The route was extremely popular and people started to come to Pass-a-Grille in droves.
The Bonhomie hotel had been outgrown, and Lizotte tore it down in 1910 to build the Hotel Lizotte, a wooden structure that had 60 rooms and a dining room large enough to accommodate 300! Business was booming. It was very much in large part due to Lizotte’s success that the mad rush to build a bridge to Long Key (called at the time Pass-a-Grille Island) began and development of the small town and island began in earnest.
Lizotte’s new hotel burnt in 1918, which he attributed to arson by World War I German sympathizers. This was a thing at the time, and he may have been right. Months before the fire, Lizotte had been offered $75,000 for the business; his insurance recovered him just $10,000. Ack!
He then leased a bathing pavilion on the Gulf, but the hurricane of 1921 caused flooding and other damage to Pass-a-grille, destroying his business, and Lizotte decided to move to the mainland. He owned a citrus grove in Lealman which he sold and ended up building a couple hotels in St. Pete.
Sadly, Lizotte’s troubles continued. He saw the end of the Florida land boom and business turn. He also suffered from chronic health conditions later in his life. But he kept a strong will and good nature, saying before he passed “I have lived a rich, full life. And I have contributed something, I think, to St. Petersburg. No, I am a rich man, my friends.” Lizotte lived a long and notable life. On Jan. 10, 1960, Lizotte died at the age of 98.