Florida Waterfront Communities' Commercial Fishing Heritage
St. Petersburg and Clearwater
The history of St. Petersburg and Clearwater are intertwined in the overall history of Pinellas Peninsula. Fishing and farming sustained the early residents of Pinellas and water was their only link to other civilizations. There is archaeological evidence, oysters and other shellfish were an important food source for inhabitants as early as 2500 BC. People survived by harvesting what was readily available from the land and sea of the lower Gulf coast. Many of the Indian Mounds discovered in later years were made entirely of shells.
Clear Water Harbor was the first point on the Pinellas Peninsula to become a community. It was to be known in a few years as Clearwater when Harbor was dropped from the name and it became one word. It incorporated in 1891.
The first known long-term settler of St. Petersburg was Antonio Maximo. In 1843 Maximo was able to get a land grant from the United States government for services he had performed during the Seminole War. He created a "fish ranche" at the lower end of Pinellas Peninsula which is now called Maximo Point. William Bunce joined him three years later. Their business flourished by supplying fish to Cuba. In 1848 a hurricane often referred to as the "Gale of '48" blew all their possessions out to sea so they left the area. . This hurricane also carved a channel at Johns Pass, separating the Sand Key islands into what became the communities of Treasure Island and Madeira Beach in the early 20th century.
St. Petersburg is said to have had its beginning in 1875 when General John C. Williams of Detroit, Michigan, first visited the peninsula. He immediately began acquiring property and was able to purchase 1,600 acres from the State at an average of one dollar per acre. He went back to Michigan to get his family and returned in 1879. It was slow going as he traveled by train to Gainesville and from there to by covered wagon to St. Petersburg. It took him a month to make the trip. He first tried farming but was not successful. He then decided to try to make a town of the area.
At about the same time, Peter Demens came to Florida from Russia He built the Orange Belt railroad which first went from Lake Monroe to Lake Apopka where the headquarters was established. Demens wanted to extend his railroad to the Gulf. With the help of his broker he obtained 500 acres from General Williams. Due to lack of financial backing and natural calamities, it was 1888, before the railroad reached St. Petersburg.
Many different stories regarding the naming of St. Petersburg have been told. The most widely told is General Williams and Peter Demens drew straws to decide which one of them would name it. Demens won and he named it St. Petersburg after Saint Petersburg, Russia where he spent his youth. It was agreed that Williams could name the first commercial building so he named the Detroit Hotel after his birthplace
During these years, commercial fishing was the driving force of the local economy in Clearwater and St. Petersburg. Although there was always an abundance of fish, fishermen found it difficult to earn a living from Tampa Bay and the Gulf. Pinellas fishermen had to sell their catches on the wharves of Tampa. This was very inconvenient and rarely profitable. The opening of the railroad made a world of difference.
Henry W. Hibbs, a North Carolina native, is the man considered most responsible for the development of the local fish trade in the area. When Hibbs opened a fish house on the Orange Belt Pier, many fishermen stop making the trip across the bay. It was no time before Hibbs was processing more than a thousand pounds of fish a day. Soon, other fish house entrepreneurs decided to get take advantage of the opportunities created by the Orange Belt railroad. With local plants providing ice for packing, St. Petersburg’s fish houses were soon shipping huge quantities of mackerel and snapper to cities along the eastern seaboard. By the late 1890s, more than two hundred fishermen and scores of middlemen were involved in a trade that produced as much as three million pounds of fish a year.
Other industries began to surface. In 1885, Dr. W.C. Van Bibber of Baltimore presented a report to the American Medical Society convention in New Orleans, lauding the healthy climate of the Pinellas Peninsula. The tourist industry began to take off as the area was promoted as a naturally beautiful and healthful destination. The Orange Belt line sponsored seaside tours highlighting the Detroit Hotel and Dr. Van Bibber’s Health City endorsement. The local citrus industry took off after the winter freeze of 1894-95 when the citrus industry in north Florida was forced to relocate to warmer temperatures to survive.
During the 1890s, emphasis was placed on developing St. Petersburg as a commercial port because it was believed that it would stimulate industrial growth. A three-thousand foot long Orange Belt Railroad terminal lined with loading docks and warehouses was built. Local boaters could dock for free and it served as the center of the downtown waterfront. However, in 1895 when Henry Plant took control of the railroad the boaters had to start paying twenty-five dollar docking fee. These actions put a damper on developing a commercial harbor and eventually it transitioned into an attractive waterfront environment conducive to attracting more tourists to this subtropical seaside resort.
However, Hibbs Fish Company continued to grow. Reportedly, his schooners returned with 125,000 pounds of mullet in one day in 1907. It was a state-record catch. Despite several setbacks over the years, Hibbs still boasted the state’s largest fleet of schooners in 1930. When he died in 1942, his son Walter assumed control and with assistance from his brother Henry Jr., the business thrived. In the mid-1950s, Walter retired and his grandson, Charles G. Rosso took over the operation. Rosso closed the business after a few years.
During this time, Pinellas became a county separate from Hillsborough County. Clearwater was named as the county seat.
The construction and opening of the Gandy Bridge over the Tampa Bay in 1924 was one of the greatest milestones that made the city accessible to residents and tourists alike. Real estate sales began to take off. The commercial fishing industry continued to grow and prosper.
In 1945, Leon S. Kenney established Pinellas Seafood Co. in St. Petersburg. In a little over a decade, he was handling 4.5 million pounds of fish annually. In the 1960s Kenney’s enterprise operated in five Florida cities and at one time had 125 vessels. In the 1970s shrimp was nearly 80 per cent of Pinellas Seafood’s revenues. When he sold his family run empire in 1980 to Red Lobster for an undisclosed sum, it was the largest fishery in the Southeast. Red Lobster later sold to Bama Seafood, Inc.
St. Petersburg was nicknamed the "Sunshine City" because locals claimed it had an average of 360 days of sunshine each year. A few years later the grand opening of the Million Dollar Pier gave tourists more reasons to visit the Sunshine City. It had a swimming area known as Spa Beach, a solarium, a bait house for fishermen and a two-lane roadway lined with parking spaces. A streetcar line transported passengers to and from the Mediterranean Revival Casino building at the head of the pier.
Clearwater’s population expanded and tourists flocked to enjoy the balmy temperatures and beautiful white sand beaches.
1843 -- Antonio Maximo established a "fish ranche" at the lower end of Pinellas Peninsula.
1859 -- A post office is established at Clearwater (then called Clear Water Harbor). Clear Water Harbor was the first point on the Pinellas Peninsula to become a community.
1875 -- St. Petersburg had its beginning when General John C. Williams of Detroit, Michigan, first visited the peninsula.
1887 -- Peter Demens opened the Orange Belt Railroad on the Pinellas Peninsula. He is also believed to have been the one to name St. Petersburg after Saint Petersburg, Russia where he spent his youth.
1889 -- Henry W. Hibbs, a North Carolina native, opened Hibbs fish house on the Orange Belt Pier in St. Petersburg. Very quickly he was processing more than a thousand pounds of fish a day.
1895 -- Henry B. Plant buys Orange Belt Railroad
1912 -- Pinellas becomes a county separate from Hillsborough County.
1914 -- Tony Jannus pilots the first scheduled airline flight from St. Petersburg to Tampa.
1921 -- Severe hurricane hits Pinellas, causing significant destruction throughout the county and carves Hurricane Pass.
1924 -- The Gandy Bridge opens, significantly shortening the traveling distance between St, Petersburg and Tampa from 43 to 19 miles.
1929 -- The Great depression devastates nation and local economy.
1945 -- Leon S. Kenney established Pinellas Seafood Co. in St. Petersburg. In a little over a decade, he was handling 4.5 million pounds of fish annually.
1954 -- The first span of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge opens, linking Pinellas and Manatee Counties.
1955 -- U.S. Highway 19 opens in St. Petersburg.
Late 1950s -- Increasing numbers of tourists and retirees come to Pinellas County.
1960s -- University of South Florida's College of Marine Science had its beginnings as a Marine Institute.
1987 -- Sunshine Skyway is completed giving residents and tourists quicker access to beaches and other attractions.
1998 -- The Tampa Bay Devil Rays, a major league baseball team, open their first season at the Thunderdome in St. Petersburg.
Today, St. Petersburg and Clearwater, Pinellas are two of the most nationally recognized cities in the Tampa Bay area. The Tampa Bay area encompasses Hernando, Hillsborough, Manatee, Pasco, Pinellas, Polk and Sarasota Counties. Tourism is the area’s main industry.
St. Petersburg still boasts itself as the "Sunshine City" with an average temperature of 73.7 degrees. The waterfront along downtown St. Petersburg is filled with parks. The St. Petersburg downtown experienced a renaissance in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Tropicana Field, a 37,000 seat, climate-controlled domed ballpark is the home of the major-league baseball team the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, currently referred to as simply the Rays.
It is estimated that more than 5 million visitors come to Pinellas County beaches each year. The residential population of the county is nearly one million. Retirees continue to be attracted to St. Petersburg and Clearwater due to the climate and beautiful beaches.
Pinellas County remains one of Florida’s top seafood producing waterfronts with a commercial harvest of over five million pounds of seafood in 2009 with an estimated dockside value of over $10.6 million. It also draws scores of recreational fishermen.
Arsenault, Raymond. "St. Petersburg and the Florida Dream 1888-1950," 1988, University Press of Florida.
Dunn, Hampton. "Yesterday’s St. Petersburg," 1973, E.A. Seemann Publishing, Inc.
Dunn, Hampton. "Yesterday’s Clearwater," 1973 E.A. Seemann Publishing, Inc.
Hartzell, Scott Taylor. "Fishing Business Brought a Sea Change to Young City," St. Petersburg Times April 14 2004.
Hartzell, Scott Taylor. "Fishery Empire Launched by Supplying Cafeterias," St. Petersburg Times Sept. 8 2004.
Photos provided by "Florida Memory" collection, State Library and Archives of Florida.
"Pinellas County Historical Background," 3rd edition, December 2008, Pinellas County Planning Department.
Pinellas County Historical Society.
St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce.
University of South Florida, St. Petersburg, Nelson Poynter Memorial Library, Special Collections and Archives. James A. Schnur, Associate University Librarian.
- Museum of Florida History
- Pinellas County Historical Society
- St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce