icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

Downtown: Trains and Libraries

I spoke recently at Ocala’s main library and was so pleased with it! It seems that a new supermarket had gotten zoning near Marion County’s Veterans Memorial Park and then almost immediately went bankrupt. The county commission bought the big empty building and moved their antiquated downtown library, which offered little parking, to this relaxing space about a mile away. The result is just joyous. I sat in my car for a while after the speech and watched as people passed in and out of the library -- and there was no point when no one was in sight. This was late on a Sunday afternoon, and it was busier than my Publix parking lot is at any time. Most patrons were young families, and they were of all ethnicities. One darling little girl carried a book almost as big as she was as she trotted along with her Dad. There were older folks, too, including someone who appeared to be a grandfather walking into the library with a teenager who was slightly too young to drive. Modern librarians have lots of programming that attracts a variety of people, and on the day I was there, stamp collectors gathered.

The exterior of the former supermarket has been beautifully landscaped, including shade in the parking lot. The crowning glory is shining mosaics that depict references to the Dewey Decimal System. They eliminate any indication that this once was a big-box store. The Friends of the Library also intend to create a reading garden near the big section of the interior that is entirely for children – and closed off by soundproof glass. Plenty of comfortable seating in the main area encourages users to sit down and read, while the entire place was decorated with sculptures of horses, Ocala’s trademark industry. And lots of parking, free.

I got to thinking about the first time we took our daughter to the library here in Tampa. That would have been about 1975, and even then, there was no free parking. Instead, we used coin-operated parking meters in a lot that now is part of the Straz Center. I think the meters were free at night, when the National Organization for Women (NOW) had monthly meetings in a small auditorium at the back of the library, but it’s been decades since I knew of NOW or any other organization meeting there. It’s simply too hard and too expensive to park.

I’ve not done any research on this, and the plans for building a condo on the tiny bit of land between the library and the Hillsborough River may be too far down the road – but it strikes me that Tampa might do well to emulate Ocala and make its main library more user friendly by moving it out of downtown. Not far, but across the river and with a front door that doesn’t face busy Ashley Street. That was fine in the 1960s, when this library was new – having moved from the beautiful, but outdated, Carnegie Library that still is extant just north of today’s downtown on Henderson. I don’t know what that gem of a building is being used for today, but I do know that it opened in 1917 and thus will have its centennial soon. Someone should look into that.

But selling the Ashley Street parcel to the condo developers would give them a bigger space, and it could easily bring enough money for us to build a parking-and-people-friendly library on the west bank. Perhaps a new library could replace vacant buildings on Kennedy and thus showcase Tampa’s real main street. Or maybe it could be part of the soon-to-be renovated Riverfront Park, where it would be particularly accessible to low-income children. We even could come back to the east bank, with the library as an expansion of the very popular new Waterworks Park. It’s not my job, though, and I’ve not talked to any of my librarian friends about it. I hope city/county planners will do that. Ocala’s librarians are delighted with their new digs, and the idea is worthy of emulation.

* * *

This library thought is new, but I’ve thought about railroad tracks for decades. I can’t count the times that I’ve crossed the two major tracks in Brandon and thought about how trains should be stopping to pick up the many people who want to go downtown. Doubtless like you, I’ve driven along the tracks that parallel the Crosstown in South Tampa – and never once have seen a train using them. Ditto for the line that goes straight north from downtown through Belmont Heights and Seminole Heights and on to the USF area and Lutz. Never once have I seen a train in the inner-city portion of that line, something that its low-income residents could use. Nor have I ever seen a train on the tracks that I cross at Harney Road in Thonotosassa. Once in a blue moon, I’ll spot a few people on an Amtrak train speeding from Plant City through Dover, Seffner, and Mango – but even though Plant City still has a beautiful train station, the Amtrak riders didn’t get on there.

People used to use these trains. Most of them are dead now, but I remember the Tribune’s Leland Hawes talking about taking the train to Tampa from his family’s orange groves in Thonotosassa, in northeastern Hillsborough County. The first railroad was in the opposite part of the county, in the southwest at Port Tampa. Most ships disembarked at Port Tampa, where passengers could stay at Henry Plant’s Port Tampa Inn – which featured “honeymoon” fishing from its rooms – or they could take the train to downtown Tampa and his grand Tampa Bay Hotel.

And yes, Port Tampa was a separate city until well into the twentieth century, and no, Port Tampa is not the Port of Tampa. Port Tampa is down at the end of Westshore Boulevard, with a lovely little enclave of homes that date from its heyday in the 1880s. It also features a marble library, re-purposed from a bank. The Port of Tampa, after decades of dredging new channels, now runs from modern Channelside to old Hooker’s Point – named for a pioneer family, not for the profession -- and goes on through industrial areas as far as Apollo Beach. Back downtown, Davis Island was artificially created in the 1920s, and Harbour Island is so new that I can remember when it was Seddon Island.

I guess a fancier name was needed when developers sold homes on land that was literally the dredges of the bay. At the time it became “Harbour,” it was used as a phosphate depot, where the essential ingredient for fertilizer was loaded onto ships that went out to the world. Phosphate trains pulled into Tampa from Bartow and Plant City, and they were filled with the geological remnants of “Bone Valley,” where dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures saw their last days. Seddon Island, now Harbour, was named for W.L. Seddon, chief engineer of the Seaboard Air Line Railroad – in 1906, well before there were air lines as we think of them today. The world then was railroads and ships.

The mass production of cars in the 1920s began to change that, and when interstate highways began after World War II, cars and trucks replaced trains. Railroad companies didn’t seem to mind the loss of paying customers, as they closed passenger train depots all across the nation. My Minnesota family really mourned that. They had grown up using railroads, and my dad and every other man in Ihlen, Minnesota helped shovel out trains during historic blizzards in the 1930s. Even two decades later, my brother and I rode the train for a sixty-mile trip to visit family. We weren’t yet teenagers, but our parents knew the conductor would keep an eye on us. A generation earlier, our aunts sent garden produce on the train from North Dakota. My grandfather moved his entire farm, including machinery and livestock, by train. But the railroad companies came to see people as a bother compared with the profit to be made in freight, and except for the densely populated Northeast, passengers had to hit the road.

From Boston to Washington, though, passenger trains held on, and a half-century later, other routes now are revitalizing. The change is because of the soaring cost of driving a car and especially because of the frustration of wasting time in traffic. Our daughter has gone back to the future: like her Minnesota great-grandparents, she regularly rides the train. She and another of their descendants live in northern Virginia, and everyday, each of them takes different Amtrak routes to work in downtown Washington. While others deal with road rage, they sip their morning coffee and read.

That could happen here, as CSX has indicated that it is willing to sell some of its Tampa area rail lines to the public. CSX is the corporate descendant of the east coast rail line built by Henry Flagler, who bested Henry Plant in railroad rivalry. The Florida East Coast Railway had its headquarters in Jacksonville, where – to its credit – the railroad employed the state’s first female lawyer. Rebecca Louise Pinnell was admitted to the Florida Bar in 1898 and eventually rose to an executive position as assistant corporate secretary. She specialized in railroad law for more than a half-century, became a Jacksonville civic leader, and saw the evolution of the company now known as CSX.

I remember talking many years ago with former mayor Pam Iorio about CSX and using its unused tracks. She responded discouragingly, saying that its management was absolutely obtuse and won’t even talk about the possibility. Whatever made them change their collective mind doesn’t matter – let’s catch this train as soon as we can. Two-thirds of Hillsborough County’s population now lives east of Highway 301, and most of them try to drive I-4 and I-75, usually at the same time of day. They could ride the rails, and we could stop paving over paradise.

And to conclude, sculptor Steve Dickey, who created the bronze figures on the Riverwalk that honor Tampa historical leaders, has plans for a monument that would commemorate the importance of the port to Tampa’s history. I love the design, which would allow children to walk a map of rail lines that lead to shallow-water shipping lines. You can find out more about that by checking out Friends of the Riverwalk.


Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
Make a comment to the author