If you are like me, you often contemplate the difficult questions, like “What street, exactly, is the oldest in St. Pete?” And you are jumping to wild conclusions — “Central Ave!” “9th Street!” “I Dunno!” All good guesses.
To answer the question, we are going to need to go back in time. So now you might be thinking to yourself “Aha, I am going to consult John Williams’ initial plat map of 1888 that was laid out in conjunction with Peter Demens of the Orange Belt Railroad!” I mean, that would have been my first thought as well. But let’s dig a little tiny bit farther back to get a glimpse of the peninsula before the Orange Belt came to town.
The Early Peninsula
In the 1800s, Pinellas peninsula was part of Hillsborough county. A handful of small small fishing and farming villages existed on the Peninsula primarily to supply agricultural goods to Tampa but the land was not well settled. The area that would become St. Petersburg was loosely known as Wardsville after the owner of Ward’s General Store, one of the only businesses in the immediate area. Wardsville was really only a reference, not an official name.
Ok, now let’s talk about a town that did get formed near Wardsville. Following the Civil War, a fellow named John Bethell, who had served as a confederate lieutenant during the war, returned to the area with a plan to found a town. He had before the war occupied some land on Small Bayou, but when he came back in 1868, he bought about 112 acres of two combined properties on Big Bayou. And there he established a village that he named “Pinellis.”
Now let’s take a peek at a couple maps. The first is from way back in 1882, and shows the towns of “Bonafacio” (later Gulfport), and “Pinellis.” What you don’t see is Wardsville, St. Pete, or anything except the initials of the land owners in the area (Which is very interesting on its own, stay tuned for another article!). The second map shows the plat of Pinellis drawn in 1886, two years before the not-yet-town of St. Pete was platted.
Annexed by St. Pete
So now we are getting to the brass tacks. As St. Pete grew and became a town, then city, it annexed “Pinellis” village but left the roads laid out as they were, which was at a 45 degree angle to the E/W N/S grid set out by St. Pete. While many of the original roads (named after J. Bethell’s family members for the most part) were renamed, one still remains, named after it’s founder — Bethel Ave. (Someone along the way decided two “L’s” was one too many, as it was Bethell Ave, but ok). It still counts!
Take a look at two maps laid side-by-side. Several of the angled streets exist but are renamed. Bethell Ave., though, is right there surrounded by the changes made over the years. This street existed before St. Pete, and is now part of the city.
Now Known As Driftwood
The area today is known as Driftwood. A quirky little community with a lot of pride and history remains there, and if you manage to find your way to the neighborhood, you can tell the kids that you are at the oldest settlement and platted roads in all St. Pete!