There are many areas of St. Pete that have interesting history attached to them, maybe due to the remnants of ancient tribes, Spanish explorations, Golden Age (1919 – 1926) development, a tie-in with bootleggers and mobsters, Jazz legends, sports heroes or some other interesting tale. But did you know that in St. Pete there is one unassuming spot that packs the biggest punch — a place that has left visible and significant clues encompassing all of these facets? Wow! This beautiful spot with immense historical significance is known today as the Jungle Prada, located on Park Street at roughly 17th Ave N (Elbow Ln). But really, all of these things coming together in one single site? Let’s explore and take a look!
Tocobaga Tribe Earliest Known Inhabitants
The Tocobaga Indians lived in small villages at the northern end of Tampa Bay and throughout the Pinellas Peninsula from about 900 AD to the 1500s. Each village was situated around a public area that was used as a meeting place, with houses that were commonly round and built with wooden poles that held up thatched roofs. Because the villages were built mainly with wood and materials that could decay, there aren’t any buildings left today. However, the Tocobaga Indians built mounds within their villages that were durable. But why? Well, mainly to dispose of shellfish waste. The cooks of the Tocobaga tribes added discarded shells to a garbage heap called a midden, which was located next to their kitchen. The midden mainly consisted of shells that eventually grew to a huge size, like any landfill. Over the centuries the land where the natives lived became studded with these large and impressive shell mounds. Across the Peninsula, many of the original middens were destroyed to create shell roads in the 1910s and 20s, including in this area. However, some mounds still remain if you know where to look! One place to find them is right at the Jungle Prada site, where the preserved enclave known as Sacred Lands, just across the parking lot from the Jungle Prada building, still offers near-daily tours and sports some large and well-preserved middens. But what happened to the Tocobagas? What caused them to disappear?
Panofilio de Narvaez & the Brutal Exploration of Tampa Bay
1528 began a terrible and final chapter for the Tocobagas. In the spring of 1528, an explorer named Panofilo de Narvaez sailed into Boca Ciega Bay. With five ships, 400 men and women, horses, dogs and supplies, the expedition sighted a Tocobaga village and landed. Experts believe the spot where they landed to be at or near where the Jungle Prada / Sacred Lands is today, and due to the heavy concentration of native activity as shown by the middens in the area this makes sense.
Narvaez came ashore and claimed the village, the bay, and all surrounding lands for Spain. The priests on the expedition then held the first officially documented Mass in Florida at the spot of the landing. The plaque shown here commemorates that Mass, and is found near the dock at Jungle Prada. In the next days and weeks, Narvaez and his expedition moved inland leaving a trail of death and destruction. The Spanish were merciless in their quest for gold and land, brutally butchering those they encountered. Countless more natives died by disease brought by the Spanish. In the end Narvaez got what was coming to him, and within a few years of the expedition only four people managed to make it back to civilization, one of those being Narvaez who promptly died from a wound he suffered in his ill fated and failed four-year expedition. Why Narvaez is celebrated today is a mystery to me — he was a brutal butcher with no regard for the people he encountered and subjugated. But that said, his name is deferentially mentioned on signs and plaques throughout the Jungle Prada site.
The Jungle is Developed
Let’s jump forward a couple hundred years. In the time just before the end of World War I (that’s around the mid-1910’s in case you’d forgotten) a notorious St. Pete developer named H. Walter Fuller came to have a significant interest in the land from roughly Bay Pines all the way to Gulfport along the Boca Ciega Coast. He thought that a development along the coastline would be a success. Due to the lush nature of the area, he called a part of the area the Jungle, which it is still called today. Fuller, and his son (Walter P. Fuller) continued to develop the land along north Park Street with limited success for some years, and eventually were able to get the development started. In 1923-24 the Fullers chose the historic spot to build what they called the Jungle Prado building. You know it as Jungle Prada today, but the name was misspelled along the way and it just stuck eventually. Anyway, they built the still-standing building that originally housed the notorious Gangplank, a speakeasy if there ever was one. The spot attracted Jazz musicians, sports figures, and perhaps members of Al Capone’s gang. Rum was brought in by boat from the bay, and it is an accepted urban legend that tunnels existed, and may still exist, between the shore and building so the juice could be brought in without being seen.
The Gangplank Speakeasy & Jazz Joint
Let’s unpack this a bit, because wow is there a lot of history in the building. Was it really a gin joint? Heck yeah. The younger Walter Fuller, in his own words, admitted to such in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times in 1970. “I, a nondrinker at the advent of Prohibition became a lawbreaker, a habitual evader of authority, and a steady customer of alcoholic beverages,” he said. “The first bootlegger I ever saw was me. In such an atmosphere, even the most righteous lacked the courage to speak out, and law enforcers became a lonely and ostracized group.”
The Gangplank was a very popular spot for St. Pete’s star-studded visitors in the 1920s Golden Era. In the later 20s, none other than Babe Ruth spent quite a lot of time at the Jungle CC Hotel (now Admiral Farragut) where he stayed frequently when in town for Spring Training. Just up the street, the Jungle Prado and the Gangplank speakeasy was a frequent stop for Ruth. On April 17, 1929, Babe Ruth married Claire Hodgson, his second wife, in New York City. Upon the happy couple’s return to St. Petersburg, they threw a lavish wedding reception at the Gangplank.
One of the famous Jazz singers getting his start in St. Pete was named Earl Gresh. Gangplank patrons danced as Gresh, backed by Luther E. Atkins and the Southerners, sang Row, Row Rosie and She Was Just a Sailor’s Sweetheart. The music was often broadcast over the county’s first radio station, WSUN. Interested in a bit of Earl Gresh’s sound and what the patrons were dancing to in the 1920s? Take a quick listen to Earl and his Gangplank Orchestra!
Early Picture of the Jungle Pier
One of the other very important constructions at this very site was the Jungle Pier. In the early days and into the Golden Era of St. Pete the Gulf beaches weren’t quite as popular for just visiting and sunbathing as they are today; the majority of visitors came to do some fishing. One of the points where a fishing charter could be had was at the dock Fuller constructed on the site. Eager anglers were able to get a charter from this spot for years.
I was able to dig up a really cool and extremely rare photo from 1923 of the pier, and it really tells the story of 100 years. If you visit today, the pier has been replaced, but it looks to be using the exact footprint as that original. This is still a fantastic place to watch a sunset in an area completely steeped in history. Take a look, 1923 and today!
Jungle Prado vs Jungle Prada
I’ll finish up with the comparison photo of the Jungle Prado building with its Arabesque architecture taken shortly after its construction in the 1920s, and a picture from the same spot taken today. Yes, its changed, but a lot of the original building is still intact. A spot in St. Pete worth a visit for any history buff, the building is a reasonably well preserved reminder of the early days of St. Pete. Coupled with a walk out on the pier, you can almost hear Earl Gresh belting out tunes to some tipsy flappers and Charleston dancers.
While this unassuming little spot in West St. Pete doesn’t seem like much, it is an area steeped in history. In the picture above from present day, you can see the Sacred Lands property to the left, the Prado building to the right, and straight ahead an infamous pier. Go check it out!
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