Hurricanes of the Pinellas Peninsula

The city of St. Petersburg has been fortunate to have avoided a direct hit by a hurricane for over a century. If you talk with locals about it, there are many theories, the most urban-legendish being that a Tocobaga blessing protects the area from those damaging storms. But has the Peninsula always been so lucky? What has kept us safe? And what were the past storms like?

There Have Been Hurricanes

The Peninsula has been hit by two major hurricanes in the last 175-ish years. These hurricanes brought fierce winds, flooding, coastal changes, and loss of property along with a limited loss of life. Perhaps most interestingly, though, is that one of fierce storms also ushered in the first land boom in St. Pete; a surprise opposite of what logic might otherwise suggest. Let’s take a look at some history to find out what happened and what impacts are still felt today.

Image from Post-Hurricane St. Pete Waterfront, Oct 1921

The Hurricane of 1848

In 1848 the population of Pinellas of low. There were no large settlements. Imagine a more or less untamed wilderness that had been settled only by some intrepid farmers and fisherman who traded mainly with Tampa and Havana. However, there are two notable outcomes of a hurricane that swept through in that year that have left an impact on the area to this day.

The 1848 hurricane, which came ashore on September 23, was the most powerful storm to have hit the area. While there wasn’t much technology to track the storm or even measure its winds, there was one verifiable way to measure the storm after it passed: storm surge. The hurricane of 1848 pressed into Tampa Bay bringing a 15-foot surge into the area that is now downtown Tampa. Based on that measurement, the consensus is that it the storm was either a strong Category 3 or Category 4 storm. It landed near present-day Clearwater but affected the entire region.

Egmont Key & Lighthouse

The first impact that this storm had was in undermining the strength of the newly-built lighthouse at Egmont Key. Finished in April of 1848, the storm hit just a few months later. The island, like most of the barrier islands, was completely covered with water. The lighthouse keeper and his family rode out the storm in a small boat tethered to a Palmetto, fearing the tower would collapse.

The still-standing 1850s lighthouse.

The family survived the storm, but the stability of the lighthouse was likely undermined. A day or two later, the keeper rowed his family back to the mainland and resigned his position. That was enough for them! As for the lighthouse, a number of unfortunate events and structural problems occurred over the next several years; a lightning strike, an odd freeze, and perhaps other events necessitated the tower be replaced in the 1850s. That second tower erected in the 1850s still stands on the island today!

John’s Pass Created

The second impact, and perhaps more notable, is the creation of John’s Pass. Jean Levique, as the story goes, is strikingly similar to that of The Dread Pirate Roberts in the Princess Bride. (OMG if you don’t know what I am talking about go watch now!)

Levique supposedly started his life as French peasant that worked as a cabin boy on a Spanish sailing vessel around 1836. After the ship was ambushed by pirates, Levique was given the choice of death or joining the pirate crew. He chose to join the pirates and he eventually worked his way to the top, becoming the captain of his own ship.

Unlike most pirates, Levique did not like to kill those he captured or hold them for ransom. Because of this, Levique and his crew did not acquire much treasure, but he managed to gather a small chest of gold which he buried on an island off the West Coast of Florida. After retiring from piracy, Levique staked land near the site of his treasure and became a simple turtle farmer.

So we do know the true part of the tale is that this: Levique had his homestead at or near Ambercrombie Park on Boca Ciega Bay. He had been away selling turtles in New Orleans, and returned shortly after the hurricane had passed. What he found was a newly created pass, perhaps exactly where he had previously buried his treasure. Levique sailed through the inlet near his homestead. From that point on, the location has been called John’s Pass.

Fairly certain this is not Levique’s Pirate Ship. But it is John’s Pass!

The Hurricane of 1921

In October of 1921 another notable storm hit the Peninsula. The quick-moving storm came ashore near Tarpon Springs as a Category 3, bringing with it a 10-12 foot storm surge and a bit of destruction. Winds were measure in St. Pete at around 75 mph.

This storm left many interesting outcomes and tales, some quite unexpected. In the aftermath and before any real damage assessments were completed, newspapers and media outlets assumed the worst – Pass-a-grille wiped off the map. St. Petersburg destroyed. Immense loss of life and property. Most of this turned out to be untrue but the ensuing drama and interesting tales are worthy of exploration.

Storm Surge was the Problem

The storm’s winds were relatively mild by today’s standards, but the rising tide is what sunk all boats. One of the better photos I’ve found is of the Favorite Line steamer that was moored in Tampa at the time. The boat floated ashore in the storm and was initially thought to be badly damaged. But it was re-floated and put back into service fairly quickly. Here is a fab picture of the grounded Favorite that you may not have seen before!

The Favorite docking in St. Pete
Oops. Luckily it wasn’t too bad.

Pass-a-Grille: High Water But Ok!

The popular island community was reachable at the time by the McAdoo Bridge, the sole bridge to the lower Pinellas keys. The bridge itself lost its deck in the storm, and it took a little time to get a boat over there. But not before the newspapers jumped to their own conclusions. While the expectation was death and destruction, what was finally found was a bunch of hardy waterlogged people that got along just fine. Honestly, I think people may have been a little tougher back then.

Oh No! Could it be true?
The People of PAG “were perturbed” by the report.

Chief Loses Pants

Well it seems that there were a few amusing stories to come out of the hurricane as well. Not exactly sure what happened here, but it may raise an eyebrow or two even 100 years later. Davista, which became Pasadena some months later apparently had its own little police force. What exactly was going on at the time of the hurricane I am not sure, but this is the real local legend in my opinion.

Beginning of the Great Land Boom

The thing is, St. Pete was supposedly decimated as we saw above, but a few days later it was found that the town was actually ok. You would think that even the report of the hurricane would have caused people to shy away from the area, but just the opposite happened.

People read with interest in the newspapers up North that the city had survived a major hurricane with little to no damage. Some docks swept away, some flooding that quickly receded, and they thought instead — here is an idyllic town in the sun that can easily survive even a hurricane. And all the sudden the land rush was on in full force.

“and (when) the great blow ended there stood in the midst of it all, Gibraltar like, the indomitable will, spirit and energy that had made St. Petersburg the queen of the West Coast of Florida, whose right to reign supreme remains undisputed.”

The boosters of St. Pete were out in full force, changed public opinion, and drove a mad land rush that lasted another six years.

Protective Spirits, Luck, or Geography?

People in St. Pete are often quick to say that the area has been protected by an old Tocobaga blessing of their mounds which is why we haven’t been hit. But memory and knowledge of history is short; two hurricanes, the last in 1921, did come ashore here. If the area had been built up in either instance like it is today, there would have undoubtedly been much bigger problems.

More likely, weather experts note, is that for a direct hit on the area storms that usually come through the Florida Straights or out of the Caribbean would need to make a very sharp turn to come ashore here, and that coupled with a little luck has probably kept us somewhat protected geographically. The recent storm Ian which caused so much damage to Ft. Meyers really came from near South America and moved almost due north in an unusual pattern that nearly mirrored that of the 1921 storm. We here in St. Pete were very lucky the storm didn’t repeat the exact same path, suffering the fate of the tragedy unfolding in Ft. Meyers. Below, take a look at the comparison of the track of the two storms, almost exactly 100 years apart. Pinellas definitely dodged another bullet, whether by geography, luck, or an old blessing.

1921 Hurricane vs 2022 Ian

1921 – Look familiar?
A flatter, slightly easterly track probably saved St. Pete.

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