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Pinellas County
Jan. 1, 1912
A county is born in controversy
Editors’ note: A series of stories and photos about the county’s centennial begins today. Watch for additional stories online and in Tampa Bay Newspapers in the coming months.
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[Image]
Photo courtesy HERITAGE VILLAGE
County officials pose for a photo in front of the county’s first courthouse in 1912. Pictured, from left, are Pinellas County Commissioner Soloman S. Coachman, Mr. Caruthers, County Commissioner Levin D. Vinson, unidentified, Tax Assessor John N. Brown, Tax Collector Eli McMullen, County Commissioner Frank A. Wood, unidentified, Commission Attorney George Rowland, County Commissioner Oliver T. Railsback, Sheriff Marvel Whitehurst, Clerk of Court C.W. Wiecking, Mr. McClung, County Surveyor George Merril, County School Superintendent Dixie M. Hollins.
[Image]
Photo courtesy STATE ARCHIVES OF FLORIDA, FLORIDA MEMORY
A large crowd turns out in 1918 for the cornerstone placing ceremony for a new Pinellas County Courthouse to replace the one hastily built in 1912.
[Image]
Photo courtesy STATE ARCHIVES OF FLORIDA, FLORIDA MEMORY
Soloman Smith Coachman and his sons in their grocery store in downtown Clearwater about 10 years prior to Coachman’s appointment to the first-ever Pinellas County Board of Commissioners.
[Image]
Photo courtesy STATE ARCHIVES OF FLORIDA, FLORIDA MEMORY
Paved roads are not to be found in Pinellas County in 1912. Most weren’t in near as good of condition as Tarpon Avenue is as shown in this postcard postmarked March 12, 1912.
[Image]
Photo courtesy STATE ARCHIVES OF FLORIDA, FLORIDA MEMORY
Gandy Boulevard, which linked Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, as it existed in 1922 is little more than a cleared area filled with ruts and standing water. Pinellas County seceded from Hillsborough in 1912, due to its isolation from the county seat in Tampa.
[Image]
Photo courtesy STATE ARCHIVES OF FLORIDA, FLORIDA MEMORY
Robert L. McMullen, Louis Johnson, Joel Morris, Aunt Polly Lewis, Blanch McMullen, Margaret Nancy McMullen, Florida Morris stand on a railroad state platform in Largo in the late 1880s. The railroad is responsible for Pinellas County’s earliest population boom.
Pinellas County was a very different place 100 years ago.

In 1912, there were no paved roads. No bridges across Tampa Bay. Automobiles were few. Electricity was a new convenience, making its way to the local area in 1897. Telephone service began in 1898.

Thanks to the arrival of the Orange Belt Railroad in 1887-88, the tiny peninsula located between the Gulf of Mexico and Tampa Bay was growing fast. The population in 1912 was 13,193 – an increase of 10,621 from the 2,572 reported by the U.S. Census Bureau in 1900. The county’s earliest census count in 1890 shows a population of 601.

The peninsula named from the Spanish Punta Piñal ("Point of Pines" or "Piney Point") was part of Hillsborough County. Formed in 1834, Hillsborough was a huge county, encompassing land that would later be divided into Polk, Manatee, Sarasota, Charlotte, De Soto, Hardee, Highlands and lastly, Pinellas counties.

The 280 square-mile area that would become Pinellas was known as Western Hillsborough.

The county seat was in Tampa – a land trip of at least a couple days depending on the weather. The easiest way to get there was by boat or ferry. Historical accounts of road conditions are dismal with a consensus that travel was difficult by team or automobile.

According to Karl H. Grismer, “they had to follow a trail which zigzagged around swamps and swales and through the pine lands. In places, the sand was deep; in other places, wheels sank hub deep in the mud. During the rainy season, the travel was often impossible for months at a time.”

The historian relates a story about a group of motorists who left Tampa for St. Petersburg in 1907 on a journey that would take three and one-half days.

Western Hillsborough citizens were cut off from the seat of government and rarely had representation in how taxpayer money was spent. People became resentful because the money they sent to Tampa stayed in Tampa. Rapid growth on the peninsula required better infrastructure, in particular roads and bridges.

The coming of the automobile is credited with paving the way towards Western Hillsborough’s independence. As more automobiles made it to the peninsula, the need for better roads became paramount.

When Hillsborough County failed to meet the needs of its western-most citizens, talk of secession began. County leaders tried to show their willingness to provide by building a graded shell road from Tampa to Ozona in 1906, but that move only incited the anger of the bulk of the county’s population located further south.

Hillsborough also built a bridge across Long Bayou, but according to one historian, the bridge collapsed as soon as it was finished and was never rebuilt, which added more fuel to the secessionists’ fire.

W.L. Straub, editor of the St. Petersburg Times, wrote an editorial on Feb. 23, 1907, which was referred to at the time as the “Pinellas Declaration of Independence.” Straub urged newspaper readers and state legislators to support a plan to grant Pinellas County its freedom.

Four years later, on May 23, 1911, Gov. Albert Gilchrist signed the Pinellas Independence Bill, which allowed Pinellas County to become the state’s 48th county. Six months after, on Nov. 4, 1911, the peninsula’s voters approved the plan, 1,379 to 505, and on Jan. 1, 1912, Pinellas County was a reality.

Constitutional officers appointed

Gilchrist appointed all the constitutional officers as well as the county commissioners.

He picked C.W. Wiecking of St. Petersburg to serve as clerk of the court. Marvel Whitehurst of Ozona was appointed the county’s first sheriff.

Thomas J. Northrup of St. Petersburg became the tax assessor, and Eli B. McMullen of Largo was appointed the tax collector.

The county’s treasurer was A.C. Turner of Clearwater. Supervisor of elections was Albert S. Meares of Anona.

First Pinellas County Commission

The county’s first five-man commission included some of the county’s most notable leaders. Soloman Smith Coachman, Jefferson T. Lowe, Oliver T. Railsback, Levin D. Vinson and Frank A. Wood first met in the Citrus Exchange Building on Cleveland Street in Clearwater on Jan. 2, 1912.

Coachman, who moved to the area in 1886 and an active member of the secessionist movement, was elected chair. His was in the lumber business, and after purchasing the McMullen homestead in 1902 expanded into citrus. He started a mercantile business in downtown Clearwater and constructed the city’s first brick building on the southeast corner of Fort Harrison Avenue and Cleveland Street. He founded the S.S. Coachman and Sons Packing Company. When news arrived that the legislature had approved a bill to give Pinellas its freedom, Coachman sponsored a street dance in Clearwater.

Lowe’s family had been part of the peninsula’s history since about 1847. The Lowe and Meares families are credited with establishing the community of Anona, now a part of the city of Largo. John Lowe, Jefferson’s father, and his sons ran a cargo route from Cedar Key to Key West and Cuba and transported fish, seafood, citrus and the mail. Jefferson Lowe took over the post office in Anona and was postmaster until 1922.

Railsback’s parents moved to the area from Indiana in 1880 and bought 40 acres of land in St. Petersburg where they grew citrus. Oliver served as a St. Petersburg city councilman in 1902 and 1903. In addition to growing citrus, he brought the first Coca-Cola bottling company to the peninsula.

Vinson moved to Tarpon Springs, the county’s first incorporated city, from Georgia in 1890 to join his brother who had moved to the area 10 years prior. They founded a mercantile business and made cigars. Their store sold dry goods, buggies and furniture along with caskets, and the family prepared bodies for burials as needed. Levin founded a funeral home in the 1890s, which is still in operation. He purchased an American Cup winning schooner, which he used to harvest sponges.

Wood was born in Canada. He was a teacher, bookkeeper and lumberman, and managed a mining company in British Columbia before moving to St. Petersburg in 1900. He founded the Central National Bank in 1905, constructing that city’s first brick building. He served one term as Pinellas County Commissioner before he was elected to the Florida House of Representatives in 1914.

Near the end of the commissioners’ two-year appointed term, in September 1914, a grand jury was convened due to accusations of mismanagement of road bonds. There were charges of nepotism and favoritism and awarding of contracts without advertisement. Commissioners were said to have formed individual control over the districts they represented. The grand jury found insufficient evidence and the charges were dropped.

However, changes were made to lengthen commissioners’ terms to four years and the next round of commissioners were elected countywide.

The courthouse controversy

Historical accounts show little evidence that there was much spirit of cooperation amongst the appointed leaders of the fledgling county with dissention from the get-go over where the county seat should be located.

The legislative bill designated Clearwater as the county seat. Commissioners from St. Petersburg, Wood and Railsback, wanted it located in St. Petersburg. However, the three commissioners representing what was referred to as Upper Pinellas were able to out-vote the two from the lower half.

Soon after, the city of Clearwater offered the new county land on which to build its courthouse. But the controversy over the courthouse’s location continued into March. In April, St. Petersburg residents presented a petition calling for a referendum to decide the matter. The motion was voted down, 3-2, with commissioners from north county again outvoting their southern counterparts.

Meanwhile, the St. Petersburg commissioners decided to take their case to the state Supreme Court. In May, a bid for $3,750 was accepted, 3-2, to build the two-story courthouse on the land offered by the city of Clearwater.

About a month later, the courthouse was complete. Undoubtedly, construction was a rush job with reports of bon fires lighting up the night around the construction area so work could continue 24-hours a day. The result was a building with no restrooms and a jail too small for the number of inmates. The courthouse was guarded day and night after rumors circulated that St. Petersburg residents planned to burn the building down.

In 1913, the major of St. Petersburg, Noel Mitchell, offered land at 45th Street and First Avenue North as a site for the courthouse. He called the area Mitchell’s Courthouse Subdivision. But his efforts came too late. In February 1916, voters approved a referendum, 485-439, to spend $160,000 for a new courthouse and jail.

The matter was put to rest in March 1917, when the state Supreme Court ruled that a city with a courthouse and ample railroads could remain the county seat 20 years after the county’s inception.

History shows that the fighting didn’t end with the courthouse, roads were the next sticking point and Lower Pinellas residents complained that Upper Pinellas was no better than Hillsborough County in meeting their needs.

Voters approved a $370,000 bond issue in 1912 to construct a system of roads made from rock and semi-hard surfaced roads. But the road system wasn’t continuous and didn’t link the major cities and towns. Many existing roads were in need of major maintenance.

In 1913, the Pinellas County Board of Trade formed and was charged with the job of taking care of county building interests. The board’s road committee soon began work on a plan to solve the county’s transportation problems. The result was the county’s first system of paved roads, when voters approved a $715,000 bond issue for construction of 75 miles of brick roads. The project was finished in 1917.

Clearwater voters approved a $10,000 bond issue in 1916 to build a wooden bridge connecting it to Clearwater Beach. That same election gave women the right to vote, making the city the first in the state to do so. The bridge was completed in 1917, giving rise to development activities on the barrier islands.

The first bridge to Pass-a-Grille was completed in 1919. It was a toll bridge constructed by W.G. McAdoo, who developed his property into a resort on the northern part of the island about five miles north of Pass-a-Grille. McAdoo called his resort St. Petersburg Beach.

The first bridge to span Tampa Bay was the Gandy Causeway in 1924. It shortened the traveling distance between St. Petersburg and Tampa from 43 to 19 miles. The Sunshine Skyway Bridge opened in 1954 providing a link with Manatee County.

One other notable transportation accomplishment of the time was the first scheduled airline flight from St. Petersburg to Tampa by aviator Tony Jannus, who made the 23-minute trip in his 26-foot seaplane Jan. 1, 1914. In the first three months, about 1,200 passengers flew on the St. Petersburg Tampa Airport Line. Soon after, business declined and the service was halted.

The makeup of the county

At the time Pinellas became a county, it consisted of several communities, mostly along the railroad line, and huge areas of undeveloped land. Several towns were already incorporated, including Tarpon Springs in 1887, Clearwater in 1891, St. Petersburg in 1892, Dunedin in 1899, Largo in 1905, Gulfport in 1910, Pass-a-Grille in 1911 and Pinellas Park slightly after in 1913 and Safety Harbor in 1917.

Unincorporated communities included Oldsmar, Sutherland (Palm Harbor), Ozona, Crystal Beach-Wall Springs, Seminole-Oakhurst, mainland Indian Rocks, Harbor Bluffs and Anclote.

The area continued its rapid growth and expansion with St. Petersburg leading the way via an 804 percent population increase, from 1,575 to 14,237, in 10 years’ time. Clearwater grew by 608 percent from 343 to 2,427. The county itself gained just over 20,000 residents in the 10-year period from 1910 to 1920, growing in population from 8,057 to 28,265.

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