If you ask people in St. Pete what their favorite beach is, more often than not you’ll hear the phrase Pass-a-Grille. The undeniably lovely bit of gulf beach and charming little town founded way back in the 1890s by Zephaniah Phillips has been a popular spot for fishermen, beach-goers, and escapists for over 100 years.
Invariably, the question of “How did Pass-a-Grille get that interesting and exotic name?” is asked by, well, everybody that hears the name. And there are many theories, stories, and somewhat sketchy urban myths about how the name came to, um, pass.
So it is without a doubt that I am going to stir the pot with this post a little bit. Urban legends are popular and fun, and familiar stories handed down are comfortably repeated. What I would like to do here is speak to some of those tales, and then show some research I’ve done, tying in some verifiable history to come up with a very plausible theory on the naming of the area.
Before Pass-a-Grille, there was Pass-a-Grille
So let’s break down the term and what it first referred to. Pass-a-Grille, it is most certain, comes from one of two phrases in French: “pass aux grilleurs,” or “Passe aux Grillard”. Respectively, these translate to “Pass to the Grills” or “Go to the Grill.” Ok, so there is a bit to unpack here. Let’s start with Pass, and our first little “aha.”
Pass-a-Grille was not the name of a town, or a beach spot… The name referenced the channel that flows between the south end of Long Key and up around Pine Key, now sort of part of a dredged area we’d call Tierra Verde today. And that pass, just like Blind Pass or John’s Pass to the north, is still called Pass-a-Grille but with “channel” added to it to distinguish from the town which came second. We know this because looking at old charts from the 1800s, the name Pass-a-Grille begins to appear on maps around 1873, and it is clearly in reference to a pass, not an area of land. Take a look at this piece of nautical chart from 1881. Pine Key is right across from the south tip of Long Key, where the town is today. “Pass a Grille” appears starting out in the Gulf – the name is strictly referencing the channel.
Further up on this map, Blind Pass and John’s Pass are referenced in the same way and with the italicized script, further indicating this is a label for a water feature, unlike Pine Key which is a land feature using a straight script.
So let’s accept that Pass-a-Grille was the name for the pass itself, an entrance between the two islands. It was clearly not referencing a town or land of any sort, but the narrow channel.
But…. Zephaniah Phillips Founded It!
The town of Pass-a-Grille was founded, let’s say homesteaded, by the person with the first land grant to the area – Zephaniah Phillips. Mr. Phillips was a northern transplant who officially acquired the land from the Federal Government in 1890 after building his small home on the island in 1886. So while that is an interesting historical tidbit, (and check out that original land grant I uncovered!) what it tells us is that the Pass was there before the town was founded / named – We see the Pass name on maps in 1873. So, the ‘town’ of Pass-a-Grille was named after the Pass itself.
A little tidbit, or detour, about Phillips and his arrival in Florida. Phillips was a successful businessman and inventor. He actually patented the first time-lock safe, was mechanically adept, and his career took him across the Midwest from Ohio and into West Virginia. In the census records and in his pension applications Zephaniah is listed as an inventor, mechanic, wagon / carriage maker, cabinet maker, and real estate agent. The reason he ended up in Florida, and likely specifically here, is that he suffered from some chronic illnesses and relocated to the Peninsula for his health and hopeful recovery. Point Pinellas was widely advertised as a restorative land where a unique climate could aid recovery of those who were ill. Phillips passed in 1903, more than a decade after moving to the area.
Let’s Smoke Some Fish
Ok, back to our story. In the days before refrigeration, fish needed to be smoked to be preserved. And as we all know, you need to do something with them – quickly! One popular theory is that the pass was where fishermen would come to smoke their fish on the way to – where? Hang on just a minute. Has anyone thought about this from a business perspective?
You see it makes no sense at all for fishermen to smoke their own fish. Their job is fishing. Smoking takes time and materials. The idea that they would go out and fish all day then pull over on some sandy shore to smoke their own fish over a campfire is neither efficient or realistic. They would have had to carry wood, salt, smoking supplies of all sort. The picture here is a typical fish smoking camp in the 1800s, and while primitive by today’s standards, it isn’t something that you just popped up in an hour. Smoking their own fish would also be cutting into the time that they could operate their business, which was fishing. And finally – Why would a fisherman pull over and smoke the fish at the mouth of Tampa Bay when the new village of St. Pete, and Big Bayou, a known fishing port, were both right around the corner, less than a couple hours sail when smoking the fish would take at least a day? It makes no sense! Unless…
Whoomp, There It Is!
OK, well, hold on to your seat. Here we go. I have a bit of a discovery, made when I dredged up an old map from 1879 — and this map may be the holy grail to uncovering the “Grille” mystery. You see, the map has a very unusual hand-written note on it. And a line. And a spot marked with an “X”. And that spot… located at the top edge of Pine Key, is marked as Pass-a-Grille Fishery.
OK, you’re thinking… give me the “For Dummies” version please! Well, this is very interesting. A fishery is a commercial operation meant to prep fish for commercial sale, both by harvesting and preserving. And as we noted above, fish needed to be smoked for preservation. So right there, in black and white, is the exact spot where the smoking was taking place. But it wouldn’t have been the fishermen themselves doing this, it would have been the fishery’s business. This was likely a small commercial fish processing location set up in a protected area near where fisherman unloaded their catch and could then head right back out to the Gulf. The fishery would process and smoke the fish for sale and transport them, probably to Tampa or wherever they could be sold. This is efficient business – and we see the fishery’s exact location above! Wow!!!
But who owned this fishery? And could it lead to the French name?
Enter John Levique
You have undoubtedly heard of John’s Pass, and it is likely that you know the story of the illiterate French guy that had placed his homestead on Boca Ciega Bay where the Pass bearing his name was opened by a powerful hurricane in 1848. But that event, and the Pass bearing his name is not our point of interest today. What is more interesting is that Jean Levique was a turtle farmer and fishery operator. After he settled at Boca Ciega Bay, he started farming turtles that he sold in New Orleans. They too would have been preserved by smoking. So we know he lived on the north end of Boca Ciega Bay, and had his turtle ranch located there in a spot called “Turtle Crawl” on many old maps.
The other interesting thing about Jean Levique is that he was French, or of French descent. He traded in New Orleans, which at the time would have still been very French-speaking. It is likely his native tongue was French, or he spoke fluent French.
So here we have a guy, who owns a turtle farm a few miles by water from the Pass, speaks French, and is clearly fishing / smoking business minded. So you are seeing where I am going, amirite?
Let’s revisit the map above. But I kept one ‘smoking’ gun tidbit until right now. On the map showing the annotation for the Pass-a-Grille fishery listed, there is one more sole hand-written annotation. It is John Levique’s Turtle Farm.
Turtle Crawl Point Fishery was owned by Levique – this is a well known fact about him. The other fishery, just about three miles to the south on the same Boca Ciega Bay has a French name and is basically the same business – smoking / processing. Let’s ask ourselves the question, why would these two fisheries be the only two points listed on an annotated map from the 1880s?
Here It Is: Levique Accidentally Named Pass-a-Grille
I purport that John Levique, a French speaker who owned a fishery to the north of the area we called Pass-a-Grille likely expanded his business to cater to the fishing boats coming in and out of the Gulf fishing grounds. Levique’s presumed fishery was processing the fish, which at the time meant that they were being smoked. So the name of the pass was likely derived as an aid to the fisherman, so they could more easily find the spot to offload their fish. Levique, being French, probably saw the name as quite obvious – “Pass to the Grills.” And this is, based on the solid evidence I’ve presented, is how Pass-a-Grille likely got its name. The name was then borrowed when the little village got it’s start.
“Spanish Fishermen Theory” — So we know now that the fish grilling legend is irrefutable, but not in a Spanish-Fleet-From-The-17th-Century kind of way. That is a romantic vision that doesn’t fit the timeline, or the language. There would have been no compelling reason for fishermen to stop on this spit of land in the sailing age to smoke fish. There weren’t trees for wood, and there wasn’t a market for the fish nearby. Furthermore, the name Pass-a-Grille appears on no maps whatsoever until the 1870s (prove me wrong, I’ve seen ’em all!). As noted, this pass was probably named because it led to Levique’s processing camp, plain and simple.
“Old French Guide Theory” — It’s also said that possibly a French guide, who was leading a British survey crew in the 1840s or 50s, referred to the pass as Pass-a-Grille. But this doesn’t make sense either. If a guide that was helping with charting pointed out a spot by name that was being charted, why doesn’t the name show up anywhere until about 1871? There were many maps made in the 1850s and 1860s. None have the name, although Blind Pass and John’s Pass are labeled. People don’t suddenly start writing something on a map that was hearsay from 20 years prior. The map here is from that era, 1882 (but compiled from maps just a little older), and while you see “John’s Pass” and “Blind Pass” both labeled, this very detailed map shows nothing of the name “Pass-a-Grille.” The only way this makes any sense at all is if that guide was French speaking Levique himself, but once again this is just lore with no evidence.
So the theory that a nameless French guide a couple decades prior helped surveyors, pointing out a pass that was informally named but didn’t appear on a map of any sort until decades later is not something one would consider legitimate. There is no concrete evidence, and the name would have appeared on the earlier maps.
This research was some work for me that had it’s watershed moment with the discovery of the map labeling the Pass-a-Grille Fishery. That same map shows only one other annotated point, being another fishery owned by a French speaker at the very same time as the Pass-a-Grille name starts to show on maps. These are very compelling pieces of evidence, close to ironclad in this author’s opinion.
Other theories have also pointed to ideas that put these pieces together, but in ways that aren’t logical, even though aspects of them are right. Yes, people grilled fish near Pass-A-Grille. It’s right there and now irrefutably proven on this map! But probably not prepped by the swashbuckling seafarers of the early days. There would have been more evidence.
So take it for what it is worth, but I have at the very least given you the irrefutable fact that there was a smokehouse / fishery at the top of Pine Key, and the location of the “grille” is now known. And perhaps at most I have just given you the answer to the mystery of a name that has eluded people for 150 years!
Thanks for reading this article. It may be one of the more interesting I’ve written – uncovering a mystery is like opening a treasure chest. If you did like it, please repost on the social site of your preference using the convenient buttons below. It keeps us writing!
Featured aerial photo of Pass-a-Grille courtesy Visit St. Pete/Clearwater and photographer Jimmy Fashner.