- Harry Tage
How St. Petersburg Got Its Name – It Might Not Be What You Heard
When the Orange Belt Railway finally arrived into Pinellas County, the town of St. Petersburg didn’t exist. Based on an agreement with John C. Williams, who owned 250 acre of waterfront land in the county, Peter Demens had brought the railway to the edge of Williams property. That terminal at the time was located at 1st avenue south and 9th street based on today’s map of St. Petersburg. And there was nothing there except a small general store named Ward’s.
Peter Demens, the Russian-born aristocrat turned railroad builder, had not yet finished the job. He had agreed to bring the railway all the way to Tampa Bay as well as construct a wharf. Though he eventually did so, additional negotiations with John Williams had to take place. Florida brush had to be cleared, roads created, and a formal depot and hotel constructed. But before this was finalized, the new town had to be named. And naturally, there was some debate.
As folklore suggests, Williams and Demens flipped a coin with the winner receiving the rights to name the new city. If Williams won, he was going to call the town Williamsville. If Demens won, he would name the town after his childhood home, St. Petersburg, Russia. The loser of the coin toss would then be able to name the town’s first hotel. Supposedly, Demens won the toss, named the town, and let Williams name the Detroit Hotel after his place of birth. But no coin flip ever took place. The real story was a little less dramatic but all the same interesting.
The Wards, owners of the general story, wanted to actually name the town Wardsville. So, they approached Peter Demens’ partner, Josef Henschen, about their preference. It was Henschen who refused and insisted that the town be called St. Petersburg as Demens wanted. Immediately afterwards, Henschen contacted the federal postal service and submitted the formal name of St. Petersburg for the town. It was accepted, and no coin toss was needed. Because Henschen took charge of the situation, neither the name of Wardsville or Williamsville were ever in contention.
It is true that the Detroit Hotel was named after John Williams’ home town. His father had been the first mayor of Detroit, and therefore, it’s understandable why he had an affection for the city. Such tidbits of history surrounding the origins of St. Petersburg are incredibly intriguing and show just how rich its heritage is. The St Pete History and Heritage Biking Tour around the downtown area offers many opportunities to reflect on St. Petersburg’s past. It’s quite amazing just how unique and intriguing our town truly is, including the origins of its namesake.