Every year, hundreds of thousands of people visit St. Pete’s waterfront parks. From Flora Wiley Park, to the recently built St. Pete Pier, to Albert Whitted Park, these open green spaces span the length of downtown’s view of Tampa Bay. But as they walk, bike, or ride along these spaces, few appreciate the effort it took in the city’s early years to achieve such a feat. Thanks to William Straub, St. Pete now boasts the 3rd largest waterfront park system in North America, with first and second being Chicago and Vancouver. Thus, it’s worth getting to know a little more about this man and his impact on St. Petersburg.
Straub’s Background and Influence
Born in 1867 in Michigan, William Straub had quite a career before relocating to St. Petersburg in 1901. He became editor of newspapers in his early twenties including a few in the Dakota Territory. He achieved these positions with only a high school education and despite being physically limited from a childhood accident. He decided to relocate to St. Pete due to health reasons, and he soon purchased the St. Pete Times within a year of settling in town. He would remain with the newspaper nearly 4 decades and serve as its editor most of those years until he passed away in 1939.
Not only was William Straub skilled in journalism, but he was actively involved in the community and its welfare. Straub is solely responsible for separating Pinellas County from Hillsborough County in 1912. He also organized and presided over the St. Pete Chamber of Commerce as well as the St. Pete Rotary Club. He even served as St. Pete’s postmaster from 1916 through 1922 and established the Board of Trade. But while all of these accomplishments represent major endeavors by Straub, his most notable one involved St. Pete’s waterfront parks. In this regard, he launched the “City Beautiful” movement in 1910 embarking on this crusade.
The Battle Over St. Pete’s Waterfront
In the first few years of St. Pete’s history, the only pier that existed was the railroad pier, which was located where Demens Landing is today. Being a fishing pier, fishing huts, warehouses, and smokestacks began to clutter the waterfront area. William Straub was quite upset by this, and as such, tried to convince City Council members to purchase waterfront land for parks. However, the city was young and had little money to do so. Plus, commercial developers opposed Straub’s plan for what is now today’s expansive St. Pete’s waterfront parks. It was going to be a tough sell for Straub and those part of the City Beautiful movement.
Fortunately for William Straub, some things worked in his favor. For one, railroad baron Henry Plant who wasn’t a fan of St. Pete began charging private boat owners $25 for using the railroad pier. This prompted local boat builder D.F.S. Brantley to build a recreation pier where the current St. Pete Pier sits today. This recreational pier stimulated tourism and supported the need for waterfront parks. Secondly, Straub used his newspaper to editorialize the need for expansive St. Pete waterfront parks. he even convinced his friends from the Northeast in town to start buying up waterfront property, publicizing that the “Yankees” were going to develop the waterfront. These strategies were enough to convince those in St. Pete to preserve the waterfront area for parks. And the rest is history.
Reaping the Benefits of Straub’s Vision
Today, all of St. Pete’s waterfront parks are active and bustling with crowds as event after event takes place. The green spaces that buffer the waterfront from Beach Drive provide aesthetic and serene views of the bay while providing a great place for runners, joggers, bikers and walkers to take it all in. Had it not been for the vision and influence of William Straub, we would not enjoy these things today in St. Petersburg. As such, we ow this man much to our city’s magnificence.
Of course, there is much more to learn about William Straub as well as the history of St. Petersburg. If you would like to hear more about St. Pete’s early years as well as its rich but unique heritage, the St. Pete History Biking Tour is a great way to see the city and learn about its past. And naturally, the biking tour takes a ride along the St. Pete Pier and St. Pete’s waterfront parks. You’ll gain an even better appreciation of these parks as well as William Straub’s impact as a result.