TREASURE ISLAND – Each year, countless visitors flock to Treasure Island to enjoy miles of beautiful beaches, trendy bars, popular restaurants, shops catering to tourists and a variety of motels and hotels.
Few think of the hearty settlers, pirates, fishermen, explorers and land developers who braved stifling heat, hordes of mosquitoes and the potential for disease to carve a beach city from this barrier island of 840 acres in the early and mid-1900s.
Many visitors and residents do not realize the city got its name as a result of a clever marketing hoax concocted by a friend of its first hotelier. Many do not know the city might never have been incorporated if it were not for the need to acquire funding to build the Treasure Island Causeway Bridge or that its main popular beach area is actually owned by St. Petersburg.
The Treasure Island Historical Society is working to change all that, pay homage to its early settlers and let people explore its adventure-filled past.
Historical Society President Carol Coward said the society hopes to raise enough funds to open a storefront museum, where artifacts, hundreds of photos and numerous newspaper clippings can be displayed.
She added they also want to recognize those who have had a significant role in helping the city grow and prosper.
The latest version of the Historical Society, formed in May 2005, currently has its memorabilia in storage, with some photos on display in various tourist shops around the city. The society has also produced DVDs containing interviews with residents whose families lived on the island for generations.
Coward said a few years ago the Historical Society was offered a cottage to set up an exhibition hall but didn’t have the funds or location to relocate the building. So, they had to let the opportunity slip through their fingers.
The city has not asked the Historical Society if it is willing to be part of a proposed new City Hall municipal complex. She said she understands municipal facilities are cramped for space and the city is busy with other issues.
She noted if given a chance there is a lot of history to tell and display.
For example, few know that prior to becoming a city in 1955, the barrier island now known as Treasure Island was comprised of four separate incorporated towns: Sunset Beach, Boca Ciega, Treasure Island and Sunshine Beach.
Before developers were on the scene, early settlers of the barrier islands were fishermen and turtle hunters, who lived in shacks or on boats. The only way to get to the island was by boat.
According to historical society records, one of the earliest settlers was a man named Tom Sawyer, a fisherman who homesteaded in the Sunset Beach-Boca Ciega area.
The first Treasure Island land owner was Thomas F. Pierce, who purchased Treasure Island from the state for $1.25 per acre in 1908.
Later, real estate developer Walter Fuller purchased Treasure Island for $800 and formed a development company.
In her book called “The Treasure Island Story,” Bonnie L. Williams, former Historical Society president and longtime former city clerk, said the town got its name as a result of a hotel guest looking to attract investors to the area.
In 1915, Whitey Harrell built the city’s first hotel called, Coney Island, on the east side of Gulf Boulevard, then called Surf Avenue and 100 Street. It was three stories high and could accommodate 25 guests, with a beach bathhouse across the street.
In 1918, one of Harrell’s guests, real estate developer Bill McAdoo, sought to purchase a large piece of property on what is now known as St. Pete Beach. To attract interest of investors, he and a few friends concocted a hoax and announced they dug up a treasure chest near the Coney Island hotel; publicity about the treasure find spread and the area became known as “that Treasure Island.”
Coward said, in addition, few people realize that the beach access area at 112th and Gulf Boulevard actually belongs to the city of St. Petersburg. It was as part of a land swap deal to build the Causeway Bridge, which was eventually constructed in 1939.
In 1937, the city of Treasure Island had to be formed to receive federal funding to build the bridge from St. Petersburg to Treasure Island. In summer of 1938, 20 residents approved a city bond issue referendum to pay for the 1.8-mile bridge which cost a little more than $1 million.
It wasn’t until several years later, on May 3, 1955, the towns of Sunset Beach, Sunshine Beach and Boca Ciega agreed to merge into the city of Treasure Island.
“They decided to form onto one city to provide all the services that could support the area’s growth,” Coward said.
According to Williams’ book, the city grew during the 1940s. Gulf Boulevard was a two-lane brick road.
“Fishing was good and mosquitoes were bad,” Williams noted. “Mosquitoes were so bad that door and window screens were painted with motor oil and kerosene.”
In 1952, Williams’ book recalls, the city hired its first police chief, Eugene Marshall, to patrol a town with 34 residents, a bottle club, one motel and a few bars.
Until 1955, he was a police force of one, with no radio system or officers to back him up. If someone had an emergency they would call the chief’s home and give a message to his wife. She would call a service station and clubs along the beach to turn on their lights, as signal for Marshall to go home and get a message from his wife. Williams wrote the system worked so well the maximum response time was 10 minutes.
By 1955, the police department had eight officers, two police cruisers and a radio dispatch system. The fire department was also established at that time with volunteers who paid $1 a month. They returned the dollar to the city to pay for insurance.
Coward said the Historical Society has a few chairs from the old Penguin Restaurant, which was owned by the city’s first female commissioner, Clara Girard, who was elected in 1964. The restaurant, which was a popular fine dining establishment, was destroyed during a storm.
Coward said someday the chairs will be part of an exhibit of memorabilia and photographs.
She said Treasure Island’s history has been one that is more “of a residential than tourist town, with every beach city being unique.”
The Historical Society, which is accepting new members and donations, has its own Facebook page and website. It is also planning a fundraiser for next spring.