Planes, Trains, Boats & Cars – Part I

Researching early St. Pete from it’s inception through the 1940s has shown me, perhaps in a roundabout way, that transportation options in getting to St. Petersburg and getting around once you were here changed very quickly in a short period of years. Think about it – If you look at the city today and think back 50 years you’ll inevitably conclude that cars have been the primary way of tooling around the city. Getting here in recent times? If you didn’t drive you probably took a plane. But what about, say, the same number of years from 1890 to 1940? Oh boy, that a much different story – Things changed quickly!

RR Pier from Hotel Detroit Tower
Early picture of the RR Pier from the Hotel Detroit Tower. Probably 1890’s.

A little taste of everything

In doing research for other stories I’ve amassed a bit of a library of pictures from here and there and I had a few extra pictures floating around. So I am not presenting in-depth research on a particular mode of transportation or specific time period in this 2-part series, but a little survey with a few fun facts and some nicely retouched photos to give a little context on what you might have expected in each decade from 1887 to around 1940.

Let’s talk 1887 through 1900-ish.

Ok, you guys all know why I picked 1887. Because the rickety Orange Belt didn’t show up til 1888. Travel to St. Pete was hard, and getting around once you were here was no picnic. Its likely that you came in a wagon with mules, and not across the Howard Frankland. No bridges, and no roads save for some sandy ruts in our rude little village. The trip from Tampa was over 50 miles and took at least two days. Take a boat? Well, that was also, let’s say, no bueno. Roy Hanna, the village’s first postmaster (as an incorporated town) had some insights when interviewed about the early days.

Hertz? Nah, Mattingly’s Rent-A-Horse was the way to go in 1880’s.
Boats: So romantic. Amirite?
Just going to stay in the cabin today I think.

But then like magic in 1888 here comes the Orange Belt. It was honestly not the most amazing train system you have ever envisioned. It was built quickly and cheaply with second-rate used engines. If you want to know more about it, here is a post on Peter Demens. The train was narrow gauge, which made it uncomfortable for passengers. The rail beds were not graded before laying the track, so there were dips and waves. Lots of them. This caused the train to derail frequently, but no one was ever injured to the credit of the slow speed of the train, which was often roughly about the speed of a quick walk. The train was also never on time, so timetables were more like guidelines. Very general guidelines.

But the Orange Belt did start to help the town grow. From little village to a little village with a hotel and five saloons, here’s where we were in roughly 1898.

Central Looking Toward the Water 1898. Fact: Visionary Guy in the Street is 120 Years Early Waiting for His Uber.

Things Got Better around 1900. Kind of.

Were there parking spots? I dunno.

Ok, so truthfully roads still weren’t a thing in 1900. In fact, the first car, owned by Edwin Tomlinson didn’t enter the scene until 1905. He was often stuck in the sand, and needed frequent assistance. The novelty seemed to wear off pretty quickly too, 12 cars seemed totally crazy within a short time, according to Roy Hanna.

I have a more lengthy 2-piece write up on the eccentric and pretty awesome benefactor of St. Pete, Edwin Tomlinson (first car owner in town) that you can read here.

Anyway… The Plant System of rails and boats eventually bought and upgraded the rail system that started out as the Orange Belt. With the railroad pier built, it was possible to bring steamships and wind-powered sloops to the end of the deep-water pier. Take a look!

Plant System Steamer Caloosa c. 1900 departing Tampa for St. Pete.
Sail-powered Cargo Vessel on end of RR Pier.

Now We’re Cooking With Gas

From 1900 and into the 1910s transportation improved dramatically. In fact, the first streetcar was run in St. Pete in 1905, the same year the first car showed up. Horses were of course still a thing, so the roads must have seemed so odd at the time. Horses. Cars. Trains. Streetcars. Everybody arguing about which was the better style of locomotion. Here is a retouched photo from probably 1905-ish, a streetcar sharing Central Ave. with horse and buggies (and I see a bike to the right). I am certain that this is what might be considered a dilemma for hipsters who would have trouble deciding which ironic mode of transportation to use first. But you can see the town was starting to grow rapidly but the modern and the traditional methods of travel melted together for a few years.

Picture of Central Avenue, roughly 1905. Streetcars and Horses!

But thing changed, and they changed quickly. Streets got bricked. Roads got improved. And I think some guy decided to open an airplane thing around here somewhere. But we’ll explore that in part 2. Stay tuned!

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