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Southside Saint Petersburg is Born on the

Pinellas Peninsula

When the first Spanish white men reached Tampa bay on April 4, 1528, three days later near present-day Pass-Grill they called their new discovery punta pinal, or pine point…coming to be known as Pinellas. In his 1924 book, The Story of Lower PinellasHistory of Lower Peninsula and the Sunshine City, Karl H. Grismer was intrigued by a map published in 1831 where entire point bears the name of the Fisherman’s Point. Now known as Pinellas Point. With time then other names were applied…. 

Health City in 1874 was then first suggested by Dr. B. W. Richardson, of London. Dr. W. C. Van Bibber, of Baltimore, Md., then later became an advocate of the establishment of this city brand.   With the idea of finding the best location for such a city, surveys were made of the climatic conditions in many parts of the world. After long investigation, physicians decided that Florida offered the best advantages and observers were stationed in various parts of the state to see which was the best. One of the observers stayed a year on Pinellas Point, keeping accurate records on the temperature, humidity, prevailing winds, amount of sunshine and other health factors.


During the thirty-sixth annual meeting of the American Medical Society held in New Orleans in April 1885, Dr. Van Bibber read a paper embodying the reports and conclusions of all the observers.


Where should such a Health City be built? Overlooking the deep Gulf of Mexico, with the broad waters of a beautiful bay nearly surrounding it; with but little now upon its soil but the primal forests there is a large sub-peninsula, Peninsula Point, waiting the hand of improvements.


No marsh surrounds its shores or rests upon its surface; the sweep of its beach is broad and graceful, stretching many miles, and may be improved to an imposing extent. Its average winter temperature is 72 degrees; that its climate is peculiar, its natural products show; that its air is healthy, the ruddy appearance of its few inhabitants attest. Those who have carefully surveyed the entire state and have personally investigated this sub-peninsula and its surroundings, think that it offers the best climate in Florida. p81 & 82 


In this century, deceased Tampa Bay Times outdoors-fitness editor, Terry Tomalin, often referred to Pinellas County as Pinellas Island as a result of his paddling his kayak completely around the peninsular except for a few stretches where he portaged to get to the next waterway.

When in the late 70’s and early 80’s I-275 (N-S), I-375 (E-W), and I-175(E-W) were all completed, Saint Petersburg East of I-275 was then effectively divided into a portion north from Central Avenue to the Gandy Bridge and south to Pinellas Point. The red line was thus emblazoned by upon the City and in some respects still exists in spite of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Even long before the arrival of these new Interstate additions, division of the City had occurred as the enlightened leaders of St. Petersburg set aside waterfront tracks north of City’s main divide, Central Avenue, to form a signature chain of parks. Waterfront north of Central Avenue became parks, Salt Creek [to the South]was zoned industrial. [This] zoning also created a recipe for abuse and marginalization. Economics, nature, and race would intersect at Salt Creek, often in unfortunate ways.


This should come as no surprise. Being a product of the Jim Crow era, the City of St. Petersburg carries a legacy of segregation in its DNA. Discrimination laws in the 1930’s forced the city’s African-Americans mostly into neighborhoods South of Central Avenue.  


Because Salt Creek cuts through the Southside, water quality has suffered. The lower part of the harbor has always been an easily overlooked space, and a haven for outliers of all kinds—crackpots, the homeless, chicken thieves, once a port of call for Colombian marijuana. Salt Creek Journal pp 15 & 16 


Not in any way justifying these past racial prejudices, but in the early 1900’s the average St. Petersburg voting residents, like those in 1923, 1974, or 2020, would have never explored deep enough into our tropical underbrush and forests with its many creeks and bayous to then fully appreciate just how our City’s outstanding natural assets could be maximized for our recreation, transportation, health, and economic benefits in a properly designed socially and environmental just plan.  City development plan. 


John Nolan, chosen in November 1921 to be Saint Petersburg’s City Planner, had, however, charted a plane and flew over the Pinellas Peninsular to get a feel for the region. He emerged from the plane ecstatic...


 What a site for a city!

With the peninsula's blend of land and water, there were few if any situations like it in the world....waterfront, almost endless in extent and variety, lakes  large [Lake Maggiore] and small. With unspoiled tracts of tropical jungle and miles and miles of good building land give one the thrill of the possibilities...Visions of Eden p51-52


A History of St. Petersburg


St. Petersburg still retains much of the resort-town flavor its founders cherished, a community of pelicans, porpoises, endless sunshine and sailboats.

In 1875, General John Williams came from Detroit and bought 2,500 acres of land on Tampa Bay. He envisioned a grand city with beautiful parks and broad streets, a trademark of today's St. Petersburg. The city's first hotel was named after his birthplace, Detroit.


Thirteen years later, Peter Demens, a noble Russian aristocrat, brought the Orange Belt Railway to St. Petersburg. On June 8, 1888, the first train arrived, carrying empty freight cars and one passenger, a shoe salesman from Savannah. Demens named the city after his birthplace, St. Petersburg, Russia.


St. Petersburg, Florida incorporated as a city in June 1903.

Three Firsts

The year 1914 brought two firsts to St. Petersburg. The rich history of spring training and Florida's love affair with baseball began that year when the city's former mayor, Al Lang, convinced Branch Rickey to move his St. Louis Browns to the Sunshine City for spring training.

Also that year, Tony Jannus flew his Benoist airplane across Tampa Bay in 23 minutes, skimming across the water at a height of 50 feet. The event is commonly hailed as the birth of commercial aviation.

The city’s first library, a Carnegie-funded library, was built along Mirror Lake and opened December 1, 1915. It remains in operation today.

The Roaring Twenties

In the 1920s, the state's first big growth boom brought new residents and tourists arriving by auto, railroad, and yacht. In 1924, the Gandy Bridge opened - cutting travel time to Tampa by more than half and positioning St. Petersburg to become Pinellas County's largest city.

The boom years in the 1920s brought notable architecture to St. Petersburg. The city's architecture reflected a Mediterranean Revival motif, fostered in large part by Perry Snell, who created a 275-acre subdivision, Snell Isle.

St. Petersburg's Mediterranean Revival makeover remains evident in several buildings including The Vinoy hotel, the Jungle Country Club Hotel (now the Admiral Farragut Academy), the Princess Martha (now a retirement community), and the Snell Arcade, and can be seen in the Spanish castles and homes along Coffee Pot Bayou and in the Jungle Prada neighborhood.

During the Great Depression, the real estate boom crashed. St. Petersburg recovered, though, with the help of large Public Works Administration projects in the 1930. St. Petersburg's City Hall was built with New Deal federal funds in 1939. The building, located at 175 5th Street N, received significant upgrades in 2019-2020 and remains in operation today.

During the 1940s, the city witnessed considerable growth. It was home to the U.S. Coast Guard Station on Bayboro Harbor as a training base for World War II troops. Nightly anti-submarine air patrols were made over the Gulf of Mexico, and the War Department later selected St. Petersburg as a major technical services training center for the Army Air Corps. More than 100,000 trainees filled every hotel in the city, swelling the population and creating a housing shortage as their families looked for a place to live. Post war, many of the servicemen and women stationed here returned to live with their families.

African American Influence

African Americans have been part of the St. Petersburg story since long before the railroad came in 1888. John Donaldson and his wife Anna Germain arrived in 1868 and created a homestead on what became 18th Avenue S and 31st Street S. African American men arrived in numbers in 1888 with the arrival of the Orange Belt Railway. They built the beds and laid the rails. Some went on to live in the village that began to emerge.

The new arrivals created the first of what would become several predominantly black neighborhoods. Peppertown is credited with being the first, near Third and Fourth Avenues S, just east of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Ninth) Street. Historians say the enclave was named for the abundance and variety of peppers grown in gardens and pots.


Next came Methodist Town (roughly between 9th and 14th Streets N and Burlington Avenue N and Fifth Avenue N) and what was first called Cooper’s Quarters (roughly First to Fifth Avenues S and 9th and 16th Streets S.). Cooper’s Quarters later became known as the Gas Plant neighborhood for the two tall cylinders that held the city’s natural gas supply.


As St. Petersburg established a reputation as a resort town, city business leaders didn’t want ‘people of color’ to be seen downtown unless they were working in service jobs. They encouraged African Americans to move to 22nd Street S, away from the city’s bustling streets. There, the busiest and most vibrant black community developed. Home to the iconic Manhattan Casino, which drew America’s finest African-American musicians, "The Deuces” thrived. At its peak in the 1960s, more than 100 black-owned or operated businesses, entertainment spots and professional offices served the neighborhood.


Integration soon began, and old neighborhoods gradually disappeared. But they – and the surviving landmarks within some of them – have left memories of a closely-knit society whose members respected and looked out for one another.


Building a City

The 1950s are notable for the advent of air conditioning, which spurred housing for retirees. Central Plaza and west St. Pete shopping centers began to draw commerce from the downtown core. The population peaked, and streetcar tracks were removed to make way for a society of automobiles. Later, new development included the municipal marina, the main library, a waterfront arena known as the Bayfront Center, and the Museum of Fine Arts.

In the 1970s, St. Petersburg looked to the future by developing reclaimed water, recycled wastewater used for irrigation. It developed the largest reclaimed water system in the United States. The 70s also saw the beginning of St. Petersburg's quest for a Major League Baseball franchise and construction of a multi-purpose domed stadium. The pursuit of baseball materialized 20 years later with the arrival of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 1998 to their permanent home at downtown's Tropicana Field. The Rays went to their first World Series in 2008.


The stately Vinoy on the downtown waterfront was restored to its circa-1925 grandeur, reopening in 1992. BayWalk (now known as Sundial), a dining, retail and entertainment destination, brought movie theaters and upscale shopping to downtown in 2000. With the continued expansion of USF St. Petersburg and the presence of a St. Petersburg College campus, downtown is also home to a growing number of students and the new Innovation District.

A New Millennium

As the 1990s drew to a close and a new millennium began, St. Petersburg began its emergence as a top destination for the arts. A relocated Salvador Dali Museum, Dale Chihuly’s world-renowned glass collection, an annual international mural festival, and several other major museums soon cemented St. Pete’s reputation as a City of the Arts.

The city’s notable ‘Inverted Pyramid’ pier, a successor to the popular Million Dollar Pier, was closed in 2013 to make way for the latest iteration of the St. Pete Pier, a 26-acre dynamic extension of our beloved waterfront park system. The new St. Pete Pier opened in 2020.


In the 2000s, St. Petersburg continues its renaissance, endured a recession, and rebounded to become, as the New York Times proclaimed in 2014, “one of the top places to go” in the world.


Today, St. Petersburg hosts hundreds of events, bringing millions of people to not only our downtown, but to each corner of our city. A clear vision and comprehensive economic development strategy have made our city competitive globally. While St. Pete’s profile has grown, our sense of community and the preservation of all that makes St. Pete unique and special remains resolute.


The Pinellas Frontier, 1848-1885

Lower Pinellas Peninsula’ First Black Settler-John Donaldson

Of course, very few Floridians actually experienced the Black Reconstruction that later dominated the mythology of the New South. To the dismay of the state's seventy thousand freedmen, Radical Reconstruction in Florida was never very radical. Although Florida's Reconstruction lasted for twelve years, far longer than in most areas of the South, the state's ruling coalition of white Republicans presided over a conservative program of limited social change and racial adjustment. When the era was finally brought to a close by the infamous Compromise of 1877—the backroom deal that put Rutherford B. Hayes in the White House in exchange for a formal end to the Reconstruction experiment— the freedmen of Florida were left with little but unfulfilled dreams and broken promises. While they generally retained the right to vote, Florida blacks were seldom able to acquire their own land, or to sidestep the social and educational restrictions of a white supremacist society.


One of the rare exceptions to this bleak reality was John Donaldson, the first black man to settle on the lower Pinellas Peninsula after the war. An ex-slave who had lived in Alabama, Donaldson migrated to the area in 1868 as an employee of Louis Bell, Jr., a white homesteader originally from the Florida panhandle. The Bell household also included Anna Germain, a mulatto housekeeper who later became John Donaldson's wife and the mother of his eleven children. The Donaldson’s lived and worked with the Bells for several years, but they eventually struck out on their own, purchasing a forty-acre farm located one-mile northwest of Lake Maggiore (then known as Salt Lake). Although illiterate, John Donaldson was a man of many talents and won the grudging admiration of almost everyone who knew him. Working as a truck farmer, drayman, timber cutter, and general jack-of-all-trades, he exercised considerable independence and earned a comfortable living for his large family.


Writing in 1914, John Bethell remembered Donaldson as a man universally respected and one who really kept pace with his white neighbors. Donaldson's success can be attributed, in part, to his own resourcefulness. But he also benefited from the physical isolation and racial homogeneity that characterized the Pinellas frontier: out on the fringes of settlement there was very little organized social life, and thus little reason for whites to be overly concerned with the dictates of caste and class—particularly when the local black community consisted of a single family. The tolerance and respect accorded John Donaldson would not be extended to later black settlers, no matter how talented or resourceful they were.


St. Petersburg's pioneer era was relatively brief, surviving little more than a generation, from the mid-1850s to the late 1880s. But while it lasted—before the coming of the railroad, and before the technological wizardry of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford seemingly changed everything, allowing metropolitan values and institutions to extend their reach into the remotest of areas—this special period spawned lives of quiet courage and rustic simplicity that later Americans would find unimaginable. The pioneers who migrated to the lower Pinellas Peninsula came for a variety of reasons. Some were drawn by the simple promise of cheap land, others were chasing extravagant dreams of wealth and upward mobility, and still others were responding to the lure of the wilderness. But, in one way or another, nearly all of them reflected the rest- less temperament and enterprising spirit that dominated late nineteenth-century America. As the moral enthusiasms of the Civil War and Reconstruction gave way to the expansive energies of the Gilded Age, the pioneering frontiersman loomed larger than ever in the American consciousness, especially in undeveloped areas like Florida, where the frontier experience had not yet been reduced to an historical artifact suitable for caricature in dime novels. p 41 St. Petersburg and Florida Dream by Raymond Arsenault

Additional St. Petersburg Historical Photos

Click here to view a beautiful photo history of St. Petersburg

Tampa Bay African American History Research Guide

Click here to view Tampa African American History Resources provided by USF

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Written by Vision 2020 Delegates for the St. Pete VISION 2020  

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