The Eccentric Works of Edwin Tomlinson, Part I

Background

Edwin H. Tomlinson was a northern industrialist from Connecticut who had made a significant fortune in Pennsylvania oil and mining in the late 1800s following his service to the Union Army during the Civil War. Having traveled extensively, he opted to retire from business to St. Pete in 1896 at the age of 52. Tomlinson visited the town in its early days as a snowbird, one of the first intrepid visitors to the nascent village of only 1,500. It seems somewhat odd that a world traveler, a person who could have gone anywhere and done anything, decided to finally return and settle in the newly created village of St. Pete, but I am throwing out a couple theories.

Tomlinson in his later years

Tomlinson was a bachelor who never married, and at the time of his retirement wanted his father, who was in his 80s, to stay with him. At the time, St. Pete and “Point Pinellas” were considered to be among the healthiest places in the nation. Perhaps this healthy promise and love for his father lured him here. Another thought is that wealthy Tomlinson may have wanted to create a mark in a growing community. He became an early, significant benefactor and philanthropist in St. Petersburg, leaving a legacy that persists, maybe somewhat anonymously, through the current days. But let’s investigate his amazing works.

The Fountain of Youth

As noted, Tomlinson loved his dad and his dad loved fishing. Tampa Bay at St. Pete was very shallow before the days of dredging, so Tomlinson built a 2,000′ long pier to deep water with a little hut on the end for his dad and friends to fish from. Tomlinson decided to also drill a well at the head of the pier for fresh water for dad. Unbeknownst to Tomlinson, the sulpher-ish water contained high levels of Lithium. Lithium is a mood stabilizer and resulted in drinkers feeling… much better. Within a short time a “Doctor” by the name of Joseph Conrad who was intrigued by the mystical waters fountain purchased the pier and well from Tomlinson.

St. Pete’s First Tourist Trap!

He quickly built a wooden branch arch at the head of the pier, naming it the “Fountain of Youth Pier.” Conrad enclosed the well and opened what instantaneously became St. Pete’s first, notable, and quite busy roadside attraction.

The pier existed until the hurricane of 1921 destroyed it, and the well was also lost. The city eventually decided that the Fountain of Youth was worth preserving, but the Lithium water was perhaps best left underground. A glorified “Fountain of Youth” water fountain / memorial still exists in St. Pete near the location of the original (Which was roughly at the end of 3rd Ave S). Don’t get your hopes up though, it is now connected to city water.

The FOY memorial

Tomlinson didn’t invent the FOY, he was just helping out pops. But he unwittingly created an attraction that is still memorialized today.

The Tomlinson Tower

Tomlinson’s interest was piqued when he heard of the works of Guglielmo Marconi, who is considered the inventor of the first practical means of wireless communication using radio waves. Tomlinson and Marconi became friends, perhaps mainly pen pals, and Tomlinson wanted to help Marconi in testing his endeavors.

Tomlinson Home and Tower c. 1902
The tower in it’s glory

In a “why the heck not” moment, Tomlinson conspicuously erected a 14-story, 140-ish foot tall tower behind his house in St. Pete in 1901 (and what Florida Man doesn’t want a 140 foot tower in his backyard anyway?). The structure literally “towered” over the Sunshine City at a time when there was barely a brick street to be found. He then promptly sent a letter to Marconi, inviting him to come to St. Pete to conduct his continued radio experiments, which required a tall tower.

Below, take a look at the most amazing and rare colorized photo I found from 1902-ish. The tower is seen near the horizon to the left. The rest of early Central Avenue is here in its dirty, dusty, and unpaved glory.

Early View of St Pete Central Ave c. 1902
Rare retouched early photo of St. Petersburg, roughly 1902. Tower at top left.

Long story short, Marconi never made it to St. Pete, but Tomlinson built another tower at his cottage at Pass-a-Grille anyway (because you never know). Interestingly, there was no way to communicate with St. Pete from Pass-a-Grille at the time, but it was found that the towers were indeed tall enough to see one another, and communication was established using flags, as ships would use at the time. So in 1900-ish, here is Tomlinson in his backyard tower, signalling to someone in his other backyard tower at the beach.

Unfortunately, two years after the St. Pete tower was built, it was struck by lightning (you know, this is Tampa Bay), and the tower was damaged. Tomlinson removed the top floors, lowering the tower by half, but still maintained a rather impressive structure for some time. Fishermen often used the tower as a visible landmark when navigating Tampa Bay.

The tower, after successive owners, was further lowered, and eventually removed altogether. But Tomlinson did happen to see his dream of wireless finally come to St. Pete 20 years later, when the US government established a wireless station at Bayboro.

Stay tuned for the continued, and arguably more important works of EH Tomlinson in part 2!

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Sharon Centanne
1 year ago

Thank you for helping preserve the legacy of Edwin Hyde Tomlinson. I worked as a media specialist at Tomlinson Adult Learning Center almost 20 years ago and did some research on him for the school I put his genealogy profile on wikitree.com a few years ago also. It is sad to know the building has been torn down. Did you know he donated instruments for the band at St Petersburg Graded School which sat where City Hall sits today? It was the first St. Petersburg School Band!

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