Tampa’s transformation from a small, swampy, barely-there village to a major, multi-cultural metropolis owes a great deal to a colorful cast of characters who helped shape this city’s fortunes and future.
First to call this Central Florida West Coast area home were American Indians likely drawn by the abundance of game, semi-tropical climate, fertile soil and waterfront brimming with fish. It is believed Caloosa Indians dubbed the village they inhabited Tanpa, a word meaning “stick of fire,” possibly inspired by the dramatic lightning displays that light up the sky. However, when the name was recorded, it was officially written as Tampa.
European explorers later followed, making their way into Tampa Bay, coming ashore and trekking into the Florida wilderness, many driven by a desire to find gold while others began life in a new land.
Eventually other settlers followed as Tampa transitioned into an area teeming with troops, traders and pioneers drawn by the area’s lively port and military fort. It officially became a U.S. territory in 1845.
By the late 1800s, a railroad baron named Henry B. Plant greatly impacted the area’s growth when he extended his rail system here, creating a vital link for travelers and trade. Over the next few years, the city’s population reportedly exploded from several hundred to more than 3,000.
A bridge across the Hillsborough River proved to be key not only to connecting the downtown district with the rest of the city but also to prompting Plant to build a lavish resort on the west banks of the river. The Tampa Bay Hotel opened to great fanfare in 1891, welcoming visitors who flocked here to enjoy Florida’s warm, winter weather as well as celebrities, athletes and politicians who graced its grounds over the years. The original building still stands with its signature silver minarets creating a striking silhouette against the downtown skyline. No longer a hotel, the building is now home to the University of Tampa.
Meanwhile, just east of downtown, Vicente Martinez Ybor was purchasing land and building the first of many factories that produced hand-rolled cigars. The industry would eventually employ nearly 12,000 workers and bring what became known as Ybor City global fame as the “Cigar Capital of the World.”
When the combined impact of mechanization, the rising popularity of cigarettes and the Depression decimated the labor-intensive industry, many of the immigrants who worked in the factories found new livelihoods and stayed. Generations later, their descendants continue to enrich the diversity and cultural heritage that is a vital characteristic of this area.
Waterways have always played a role in Tampa’s past, from the time pirates plied its coast until shiploads of phosphate set sail from its docks. Port Tampa continues to fuel economic development as cargo ships and passenger cruise lines drop continuously anchor at its terminals, generating enough activity and revenue to rank it among the nation’s largest ports.
Aviation has also been critical to boosting Tampa’s profile for commerce and travel, both nationally as well as internationally. Tampa Bay’s milestone contribution to aviation history dates back to 1914, when the world’s first scheduled commercial airline service was successfully launched by the St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line and piloted by Tony Jannus.
No history of Tampa would be complete without mention of its military presence and personnel. When the U.S. declared war on Spain in 1898, Tampa was the port of embarkation for troops headed to Cuba. And it was here that a colorful colonel named Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt organized the first volunteer cavalry in the Spanish-American War, the “Rough Riders.”
Because of its strategic location during that war, Tampa was selected as the site where troops gathered before shipping off for Spain. A camp established to accommodate the thousands of personnel amassed here was located in what was then known as Port Tampa City. That former encampment now borders what has become a major military installation, MacDill Air Force Base.
MacDill Air Force Base, perched on the southwestern tip of Tampa, is also headquarters for U.S. Central Command (USCENTCOM) and U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM).
Today, Tampa is far from a fishing village. The city and its surrounding communities represent a diverse mix of industries that include agriculture, tourism, technology, health care, financial services and transportation.
It has successfully hosted Super Bowls and a major political event, the Republican National Convention. It remains an area of growth and opportunity and retains many of the original features that first attracted inhabitants to its shore.