The seventh largest port in the nation is a cultural estuary with plenty of fascinating history. Compromised of many towns surrounding the sizable watershed area, Tampa Bay is populated by several million residents that call Tampa their home. Originally known as “Tampa Town,” its modern roots trace back over 500 years ago.  

Ignored by Spain 

Conquistadors arrived in the area in the 1520s, reporting Tocobaga and Calusa Indian villages. Notable Spaniard explorers included Ponce de Leon, Hernando de Soto, and Panfile de Narvaez. When they failed to find gold, all shifted their attention to the Eastern most region of the state, leaving the west essentially untouched — a sparsely settled area that remained in its native state for the next two centuries.  

Early Development 

After the Floridian territory become part of the United States in 1821, the area grew steadily, including numerous constructed forts and trading posts. Most notable was Fort Brooke at the mouth of the Hillsborough River, created to protect the strategic harbor in both the Seminole Wars and the Civil War. During the latter, residents slipped past the Fort to trade needed supplies with Spanish-Cuba. The city was also outfitted for U.S. troops fighting in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. In current times, MacDill Air Force Base still fields special operations. 

Fort Brooke became the first real settlement in our city’s history. Now, the Tampa Convention Center sits nearby the original location.  

Railroad Line Reaches the City 

The Reconstruction period effectively annihilated industry and roadways. In 1845, Florida officially became part of America as the 27th state. 

Henry B. Plant’s 1884 railroad extension made its way to the Hillsborough River.  Additionally, a luxurious hotel was built along the rail line. At a price tag of $2.5 million, the Tampa Bay Hotel stretched across 150 landscaped acres, and became a must-see location at the time. Guests included Winston Churchill, Thomas Edison, Teddy Roosevelt, Babe Ruth, and many others.   

Phosphates were unearthed in the late 1880s, resulting in a boom at the level of the California gold rush. The newly established railway enabled these exports to the north, as well as bringing new products to the market.  Mining and shipping industries rose; to this day, phosphates are still shipped from the port. 

The railroad link attracted Ybor’s cigar manufacturing operations to the area from Key West. Located in the factory, Jose Marti, a revolutionist of Cuba, utilized the facility as a network to get cigar workers to take up arms against Spain. The factories were permitted as a safe refuge for Cubans fleeing the war. 

Ybor City Immigration Revolution 

Soon, other cigar factories moved into the area, turning Ybor City into a major production center, earning the nickname the “Cigar Capital of the World”. During its peak industrial years, the district contained more than 950 historic buildings and structures. An influx of immigration occurred after Vicente Martinez Ybor established his original cigar factory. Though many residents were Hispanic, the diverse ethnic concentration also brought Italian, German, Jewish, and Chinese immigrants. As well as working in the factories, workers also produced crafted boxes that held the cigars, operated their own businesses, and supported service industries. Tens of thousands lived in the area during its peak years. 

Now, Ybor City is a designated National Historic Landmark District, housing several structures listed in the National Register of Historic Places. According to Nation’s Restaurant News magazine, Columbia Restaurant — the oldest in the state — was named a “Top 50 All-American icon”. 

The Ybor complex is now one of the most visited destinations in our entire city.  

Flying High Over the City 

In 1914, a decade after the Wright Brothers flew the world’s first planes, entrepreneur Percival Ellicot Fansler introduced the world’s first scheduled commercial airline service with a St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat line. The publicized event attracted over 3,000 spectators and was honored by a grand parade. A plane was purchased, and an auction ran for the lone passenger on the inaugural flight. The winning bid was made by former St. Petersburg mayor Abram Pheil. 

Piloting the airline’s flying boat was Tony Jannus; he is the namesake of the Tony Jannus Award presented each year by the Tampa Chamber of Commerce for achievement in commercial aviation. Numerous subdivisions were founded during this airline service, in particular, Davis Island. Most elegant homes still intact were built by D.P. Davis in this period — aesthetic attractions seen throughout our city. 

Beware Plundering Pirates 

At the turn of the 20th century, a local civic association of local businessmen staged an invasion of the city followed by a parade. The festival was named for a fictional pirate Jose Gaspar, who allegedly terrorized the coastal waters off the coast during the late 18th century. 

The annual Gasparilla Pirate Festival has been held every year since, leading a motley crew down a four-mile long Parade of Pirates, traveling from Hillsborough Bay to Seddon Channel. It remains the third-largest parade in the country and is attended by over 300,000 onlookers, many roleplaying as pirates themselves. 

Sports in the City

The area was long associated with spring training baseball, dating all the way back to 1913. Numerous attempts at attracting a professional team finally landed one franchise tenant in nearby St. Petersburg. As well as the popular Grapefruit League, the Tampa Bay Rays currently compete in the nearby city. 

The year 1926 fielded the first Buccaneers iteration with the Tampa Cardinals. An exhibition game against the Chicago Bears transpired on New Year’s Day in front of a crowd of 10,000 spectators. For the next five decades, there were several versions, before the Buccaneers made their debut in 1976. Surprisingly, they were the second-ever professional team in our city; the first was the Tampa Bay Rowdies soccer team that took the pitch the year before. 

Through the three professional squads, the Buccaneers and NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightening have split five championships. 

To learn more about Tampa, this short video gives good information about the Hillsborough River and Downtown Tampa: