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A History of St. Petersburg, Florida

a history of st petersburg florida

Nestled along the picturesque Gulf Coast, St. Petersburg, Florida, boasts a rich and vibrant history that has shaped the city into the captivating destination it is today. From its origins in citrus, cattle, and fishing, to its transformation into a cultural hub today, the story of St. Petersburg is a fascinating tapestry of innovation, resilience, and diverse influences.

Early Settlement

In the 1830s and 1840s, settlers like Odet Phillippe, the McMullen family from Quitman, Georgia and the British Richard Booth family established citrus groves and cattle ranches in the region. Following the Civil War, the growth of the area further accelerated.

Odet Phillippe

Odet Phillippe

Odet Phillippe. Image via floridastories

Odet Phillippe, a French Huguenot originally from Charleston, SC, played a significant role in the early settlement of the region. He introduced cigar making and citrus cultivation to the Tampa Bay area, leaving a lasting impact on the local economy.

His descendants, including the McMullen and Booth families (for whom McMullen-Booth Road is named), are among the county’s most well-known pioneer clans. Odet Phillippe was laid to rest in Philippe Park, his former plantation, in 1869, although the exact location of his gravesite remains unknown.

McMullen Family Reunion, 1895. Image via Pinellas Memory

The Founding of St. Petersburg, FL

John C. Williams, formerly of Detroit, purchased the land in 1876, while Peter Demens played a crucial role in bringing the Orange Belt Railway terminus to St. Petersburg in 1888.

 On February 29, 1892, St. Petersburg was officially incorporated, with a modest population of around 300 people.

The city was named after Saint Petersburg, Russia, where Peter Demens had spent part of his youth.

Legend has it that Williams and Demens flipped a coin to decide who would name the city. Demens won, and St. Petersburg was born.

In return, Williams named the first hotel (built by Demens) the Detroit Hotel, honoring his birthplace.

John C. Williams

john c williams st petersburg

John C. Williams. Image via findagrave

John C. Williams purchased 250 acres of waterfront land in Pinellas County, Florida. He played a pivotal role in the city’s early development by providing the land where St. Petersburg would eventually emerge. Williams was deeply connected to Detroit, as his father had been the first mayor of the city.

Peter Demens

Peter Demens. Image via myfloridahistory

Peter Demens, a Russian-born aristocrat turned railroad builder, brought the Orange Belt Railway to the edge of Williams’ property in 1888. The railway’s terminus was initially located at 1st Avenue South and 9th Street (now part of St. Petersburg). Demens had ambitious plans: extending the railway all the way to Tampa Bay and constructing a wharf.

Growth and Milestones:

F. A. Davis introduced electrical service in 1897, and the first trolley service began in 1904. Henry W. Hibbs established a successful wholesale fish business in 1899, shipping over 1,000 pounds of fish daily.

The city’s population quadrupled by 1910, and in 1914, the first scheduled commercial airline flight connected St. Petersburg and Tampa, piloted by Tony Jannus.

Throughout the 20th century, the population continued to grow, especially as it became a popular retirement destination for Americans from the Midwest due to its warm, sunny climate.

F.A. Davis

F.A. Davis. Image via Pinellas Park

In 1879, Frank Allston Davis founded his own publishing company, the F. A. Davis Company, specializing in medical material, including medical studies. In 1885, Davis attended an American Medical Association meeting that discussed the benefits of the Pinellas peninsula.

Intrigued, he published the study and later traveled to Tarpon Springs, Florida. There, he experienced relief from his muscular rheumatism and began promoting Florida in his medical journals.

His path intersected with Jacob Disston, brother of Florida land baron Hamilton Disston. Together, they brought electricity to Tarpon Springs in 1895 and then brought the first wood-powered electrical service to St. Petersburg, Florida in 1897.

Tony Jannus

Tony Jannus. Image via simpleflying

Born on July 22, 1889, in Washington, D.C., Tony Jannus hailed from a family with a penchant for innovation. His father, Frankland Jannus, was a patent attorney, and his great-grandfather had even served as the mayor of the city.

In 1910, at the age of 21, Tony worked as a boat engine mechanic but found his true passion when he witnessed an airshow in Baltimore. Inspired, he began flight training at College Park Airport in Maryland.

Tony Jannus etched his name in history on January 1, 1914, when he piloted the inaugural flight of the St. Petersburg–Tampa Airboat Line. This groundbreaking journey marked the world’s first scheduled commercial airline flight using heavier-than-air aircraft.

Tragically, Jannus’s life was cut short. On October 12, 1916, at the age of 27, he died in a seaplane crash in the Black Sea, while serving as a pilot during World War I. 

Notable Historical Landmarks:

The historic Cordova Inn (built in 1921) and The Heritage Hotel (built in 1926) are among the oldest running hotels.

Jannus Live, a highly popular local music venue, is named after pioneering pilot Tony Jannus.

Cordova Inn

The Cordova Inn. Image via Cordova Inn

The Cordova Inn, with its European Art Deco style, graced the scene in 1921. Owned by the Cordova family for over three decades, this elegant establishment became synonymous with service excellence. Local legend whispers that the spirit of their commitment still lingers within the foyer and hallways.

In the early 1950s, the Cordova Family sold the hotel, but its name endured. Over the next 50 years, the property changed hands multiple times. In 1999, the hotel closed, awaiting its revival. Downtown St. Petersburg underwent a transformation, and a local investor stepped in to save the aging beauty from the wrecking ball. The Cordova Inn was meticulously restored to its original 1921 splendor, arches, spacious rooms, elegant verandah, and all.

Jannus Live

Originally known as Jannus Landing, this iconic venue has been a cultural hub since its inception. The courtyard setting, nestled within the Downtown St. Petersburg Historic District, has witnessed countless performance, from local talents to mainstream artists.

Jannus Live hosts an eclectic array of touring talent. Whether you’re into rock, indie, electronic beats, or soulful melodies, there’s something for everyone. 

St. Petersburg’s rich history continues to shape the foundation of it’s thriving present.

The St. Petersburg Pier. Image via Forbes

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