The Oddly Unsuccessful History of Madeira Beach

I’ve always kind of wondered about the history of Madeira Beach. Traveling the beach road and going up the chain, you’ll find that each of the island towns has its own feel and often charm, each unique in its own way. While the beachfront at Madeira is lovely, driving onto the island across John’s Pass can be a little shocking; it’s difficult to divert attention from the mega-tourist-shopping-mecca that is somehow still called a village. But that said the island community finally began to achieve commercial success after after a string of decades-long failures, thanks to some bridges and great fishing. But what came before it? What was the turning point? Let’s investigate.

One of the Last Named Keys

I suppose you may know I am a bit of a map geek, and I love to check out the old maps to see what what things were called when. The interesting thing about this particular island is that it really didn’t seem to have a name until 1913. John’s Pass at the time was a well-known fishing ground, and farther to the North another pass called Indian Pass were often referred to. Pass-a-Grille, even Coney Island (later Treasure Island, read more about Treasure Island’s name here), Indian Rocks, names for many of the Keys existed. But not for what would eventually become Madeira Beach. The very detailed survey map that you see here was from 1912, about a year before our story really begins. So why no name? Well, what I’ve noticed is that the islands seemed to often receive their names as they became developed, and the developers decided what they’d be called.

J.G. Foley, The Fishing Real Estate Man, and Maybe Olive Fan

An early, successful real estate brokerage owner and developer, James G. Foley, was often mentioned in the papers from the 1910s due to his fishing prowess. He fished for Tarpon near John’s Pass where one day he must have had a great idea… to build a community on the vacant island near where he loved to fish. So that’s what he did. He purchased the land and divided it up in 1912. He called the development Olive Island, and therefore that was the first name given to the key. You can check out the very first ad for the new community below; it was marketed toward people who loved fishing. The thing is though, the spot he chose wasn’t really the greatest section of land. What we see in the ad below implies quite a bit of dredging would be required to turn what appeared to be a small pond and stream into a “bayou” and then presumably using the fill to help turn the sandy point into buildable land. That didn’t appear to happen – there is a dredged basin there now but it doesn’t conform to the “Bayou” below.

I am guessing the mosquitos were also biting.

There’s a couple interesting little known facts I found in looking at the laid out plat for the Olive Island development. The name of one of the main streets, Roberts Ave, appears to have been coined after his favorite fishing guide’s name. And then of course we see Tarpon Ave, named after his favorite game fish. Where the names “Gulf Ave” and “Palm Ave” came from I have no idea. Ok, I do. I was testing you. So how did Mr. Foley’s development do? Well, let’s just say that it could have worked out better. As all of you undoubtedly recall, World War I began in 1914, and Foley had just started marketing the island development in the latter part of 1912. His development had no road access, no bridges, and would require a ride on the streetcar to the Jungle terminus and then a ferry ride to get to. Whether any improvements were even built there is hard to say. So while he might have otherwise been able to sell a few lots, the war was probably the nail in the coffin for the little development. Foley’s half-hearted and ill-timed attempt ended abruptly and he sold the development.

Here Comes Noel Mitchell, Because Of Course

I love to write about Noel Mitchell, recalled Mayor and serial career surfer of early St. Pete. You can read all about Mitchell in this this post, but let’s stick with this story and just call him a real estate agent who decided at the time that he needed to build his own beachfront community. Foley’s lack of success must’ve looked to be an opportunity for Mitchell who purchased the development from Foley, and very quickly. Only about one year after Olive Island was being advertised, a new plat and development was promoted where the Olive Island development had languished.

It’s Mitchell’s Now, Beaches!

Let’s just say that Noel Mitchell was not one to shy away from self promotion. His first act in the newly purchased development was to change the name, and to likely no one’s surprise he called it Mitchell’s Beach. Gone was Olive Island, a name that stood only briefly. Let’s take a look at the new, beefier plat and a few updates to the more modest Olive Island Development above.

Mitchell was going to maximize his investment with some mysteriously appearing land.

Several of the road names were retained, and a couple were added since Mitchell at least theoretically dredged up a little land. Note that the northernmost street is called “Olive Ave,” a nod to the development’s precursor which I think was nice of Mitchell. On the other hand, Olive Island had been reduced to Olive Avenue. So you decide.

The First Step: Build a Hotel

Mitchell had a little better business model than Foley did, and while he re-platted the development his first actual project on Mitchell’s Beach was to build a hotel. This was fairly good practice, and is the way that many developments along the Gulf islands were funded including the Don CeSar, much of Pass-a-Grille, the Jungle Golf and Country Club and numerous others. The hotel’s operation was set up to attract buyers who would want to build a cottage after they had a great vacation. In a shocking case of totally meeting expectations, the future mayor’s new hostelry was called Mitchell’s Beach Hotel. It was located, according to the map above, right on John’s Pass where the dock is shown. Mitchell did a fairly good job of starting small, and he was a good promoter. He heavily advertised the development in many ways, even giving himself the title of “The Sand Man” and showing off big fish caught near his fledgling development. Take a look!

Mitchell’s office in downtown St. Pete. When you understand what he was selling, it all makes sense.

A Larger Development

The Mitchell Beach development loped along for a few years, and there are many accounts of outings from various groups to the hotel. Copying the “shore dinner” and fish broil concepts made popular in Pass-a-Grille, Mitchell managed to attract his share of crowds. Some lots were sold, and a modest number of cottages appear to have been built. Mitchell pulled out all the stops to sell his lots… and I can’t pass up sharing this particularly ludicrous ad from 1916.

Whether Mitchell’s development managed to make any money in its few years of operation is hard to say. He reported significant sales figures, but take them with a grain of salt. By 1916 he was advertising heavily, talking about the value of the investment. It is likely that people were buying the inexpensive lots but not building on them; these people were more likely buying and holding for a return on a lot flip.

Mitchell is mixing facts of the Davista (Jungle) subdivision and his beach development. Probably not an accident.

It was very difficult to compete with Pass-a-Grille and it’s developed town and amenities. The main selling points were lower prices than Pass-a-Grille, and somewhat shorter travel times if coming by boat. But the lack of roads and bridges meant it was a full day if not an overnight to visit the fledgling and remote development. No one would buy here to live permanently, it was a vacation cottage proposition. Treasure Island, previously referred to as Coney Island, had a similar development that suffered from the same remote location problems.

And… Things Go a Bit Wonky, Legally Speaking.

Naughty Naughty.

So to wrap things up about Mitchell, he seemed to have not had the easy time selling lots that he was reporting. And those he did sell… well let’s take a look at this article snippet from a few years later in 1919.

When you sell a lot, you generally need to provide said lot. Or give the person their money back. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you future Mayor Mitchell, who at best had a little kerfuffle and and at worst “did with felonious intent obtain said money under false pretense and by false representation” regarding a transaction for one of his beachfront bargains. Otherwise, a warrant just may be issued for your arrest.

But by this time few ads were being printed for Mitchell Beach anyway; it seems that the future mayor had moved on or was in the process of doing so and little happened in he next few years.

Moving On

This is a snippet of many “island sales” in 1924. It was a feeding frenzy!

Let’s skip forward to 1924. St. Pete’s development was in its heyday, but not much had happened at the beaches. The transportation issue was a sticky one with many beach visitors still coming by ferry, but suddenly the dam broke. Pinellas county announced a number of road project improvements, and these would open the Gulf Beaches to cars. The bridges to be built were what we would call the Corey Causeway from (today’s) South Pasadena to St. Pete Beach, The Blind Pass Causeway from Long Key to Treasure Island, and the John’s Pass bridge, and finally the Welch Causeway from (today’s) Madeira Beach to Seminole. This made what was referred to as a “grand driving loop” that would connect the lower Gulf beaches together and tie in with St. Pete roadways. If you happen to recall my shockingly wonderful article on the Don CeSar, you will remember that Rowe decided to build the hotel to coincide with the opening of the bridges. But that wasn’t all the new roadway improvements would bring, it spurred a ton of island buying by several developers who saw the primary cause for limited development success was going to be solved.

Finally…. The Big Reveal!

The island on which Mitchell’s Beach development existed was sold, mostly in entirety, to a development corporation that was going to follow the resort business model. The overall plan was to build a hotel, casino, amenities and everything one might desire for a life by the sea. The development was called… you guessed it… Madeira Island!

Planned to follow the wildly popular Mediterranean architectural style, the resort was named after a string of islands off the coast of Portugal. Linen from there was very popular at the time, and the islands were also known for wine and other fine imported goods. This fit well with the Spanish theme that was seen as the highest style of development in Roaring 20s Florida. So, there we go… another name change by a developer, but this one finally stuck. And I think everyone today still likes the name. I mean, it has to be better than Mitchell’s Beach, right?

I’ll be honest. This doesn’t look the Madeira Island we know today. Maybe it does to you.

So What the Heck Happened?

In short, the development hit the stumbling block that we see across St. Pete and Florida more broadly with the collapse of the real estate market at the end of 1926, really just a year after this project was announced. Some things got built, not really very quickly, and the full vision of the promised development never came to full fruition because the money evaporated. Nobody was buying. That said, a beach pavilion, casino, and pool were built, but the scale was not the grand Venetian vision that was promised. You can see below the general scope of what was built, a little meager compared to the marketing.

I’d still take it over what’s built there today. Just saying.

This One Crazy Guy Though

So the story up to this point has been interesting, but let’s add a local Florida flair. While researching my article, I found two stories about this one fellow that were so diametrically opposed that I couldn’t resist writing about him. The guy in question is E.L. Hensel, gas station owner at Madeira Beach. Apparently in March of ’28, it appears that our momentary hero rescued two people from a burning building that consumed the bath house at Madeira, and a cottage next door. He rushed in and saved the two older people residing inside. Definitely got some street cred. You know?

But then, perhaps due to being a little irritated by being turned in, Hensel manged to shoot someone for reporting that he sold liquor during Prohibition. That was a big no no. You could do some time for that. But apparently, no police had jurisdiction, so it was sort of…. glossed over. Maybe it was because of the earlier rescue? Well anyway, you decide what to think about it.

Good Hensel, March.
Bad Hensel, September.

Wrapping Up

The Great Depression starting in 1929 really fouled up the continued development of Madeira and pretty much all of the big development projects in the greater St. Pete area. Finally, after World War II development picked up again and the beach became desirable. But the standards for what was built had a low bar. Development, redevelopment, and shady Florida stuff all happened. But in regard to this key, once Olive Island, then Mitchell’s Beach, finally had a more permanent name that has stuck and still sounds dreamy. Madeira Beach.

Briefly, I’d also like to note that John’s Pass became especially popular since fishing was such a huge part of life in the area, and continues to be so today. The causeway at John’s Pass was first a popular fishing spot, with hundreds of people fishing from the bridge as soon as it was built, and then the “Village” just sort of became a commercial Mecca. Following WWII, hordes of deep sea fishing tourists would meet their captains at the Pass, and they still do so today. So while I’m not a huge fan of most of John’s Pass, the fishing boats that depart from there daily have been doing so for nearly a hundred years. That’s pretty cool! If you’d like, I did a lengthy post about John’s Pass and it’s namesake. You can find it here. And below, enjoy the slightly more recent shot, but not too recent, of John’s Pass.

John's Pass vintage retouched postcard photo
Before it became… you know.

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