In addition to the material I initially sought, Heather unearthed several other gems about Plant’s influence on Tampa and Florida. I had a preconceived notion he was just another savvy businessman of his time, but he was much more. Although his formal education ceased after the eighth grade, he was a visionary whose many successes demonstrate literacy and mastery across many subject matters: trade, economics, culture, architecture, horticulture, social services, and civics.
Plant's Hefty Footprint
Plant left a massive footprint on Florida, especially in Tampa, and he can easily step into lesson plans across K-12 subject areas:
The Tampa Bay Hotel was the U.S. Army’s headquarters during the Cuban Campaign of the Spanish-American War. As a result, many historic personalities, including Theodore Roosevelt, who stayed at the hotel while his wife, Edith, was in town. His cavalry, the Rough Riders, camped in nearby East Tampa. Journalists Stephen Crane (of Red Badge of Courage fame) and Richard Harding Davis (mostly known for his war correspondence, but also some novels and plays) stayed at the hotel at the same time as Roosevelt. Although Crane and Roosevelt had previously known each other during less favorable circumstances in New York, professional relationships between Roosevelt and the journalists developed during their stay at the hotel. Some speculate that one of the writers helped with Roosevelt’s rise in politics. While the men were busy preparing to go to Cuba, Clara Barton organized the Red Cross’s efforts for the Cuban Campaign in the hotel’s casino during her several visits to Tampa. Barton was in Tampa several times traveling between Washington, D.C., and Cuba. Her typical route would be by train from Washington to Jacksonville, Florida, to Tampa, arriving at the Tampa Bay Hotel. Then she would depart from Plant's port to Cuba via Key West. During her stays in Tampa, Barton had several meetings at the hotel and picnicked in Plant Park, the large gardens between the hotel and the Hillsborough River.
Plant’s railroads brought commerce and trade from the north and east to Tampa and beyond. The railroads connected with the port, which Plant also built, creating a regular trade route from Tampa to Cuba under Plant’s direction. Tampa’s beginnings are firmly rooted in Plant’s efforts to bring trade, commerce, and tourism to Tampa. In addition to the railroads and the port, the Tampa Bay Hotel and its sister hotels in Florida helped build tourism and provided visiting businessmen luxury accommodations. Plant also traveled to various World Fairs to promote all Florida had to offer.
Plant’s railroad legacy included the Savannah, Florida and Western Railway. The railway’s expansion headquarters were in Savannah, Georgia and it became clear new housing would be needed for the growing number of wharf workers. In the mid- and late-1880s, slavery had been abolished, but segregation and Jim Crow laws hadn’t. Robert LePage, Superintendent of the Wharf, envisioned an all-black town with affordable rent near Savannah so workers could live close to the wharf. Plant supported LePage’s vision by providing ten acres of land, and the town of LePageville was built.
Perhaps this is a stretch, but the gardens along the Hillsborough River in front of the Tampa Bay Hotel grew a vast array of plants, including orange trees (which sadly are no longer there). The head gardener, Anton Fiehe, published a book to promote proper garden care.
As mentioned earlier, Theodore Roosevelt stayed at the hotel before sailing south for the Cuban Campaign of the Spanish-American War. Two journalists/authors, Richard Harding Davis and Stephen Crane, also stayed at the hotel during the same time waiting to cover the brief campaign. I imagine these three men sitting in the Reading and Writing room (see 360-degree photo below) penning their thoughts, reading newspapers, and then strolling along the veranda or through the gardens discussing politics and the war. Other authors and celebrities, such as Marjorie Stoneman Douglass and Gloria Swanson, mention the hotel in their memoirs.
Plant himself supported literature as well as musical arts. Throughout the hotel, statues of various literary characters gazed upon the guests. Several are still on display in the museum and in the main lobby area of The University of Tampa’s administration building. The statues’ artists varied, but more than a few were cast by Maurice Denonvilliers in France. Images of the sculptures portraying Shakespeare’s Rosalind from As You Like It and Victor Hugo’s Esmeralda from The Hunchback of Notre Dame are shared below.
Henry Plant Exceeds Expectations
From this partial list of Plant’s achievements, I walked away with more than I bargained for! I can only imagine that this was typical of anyone who crossed paths with Henry Plant, and he was well-connected. He and Henry Flagler, Plant’s counterpart on Florida’s east coast, were competitors on many levels but were also friends (ah, the Victorian code of ethics and social behavior: be civil!).
The celebrities mentioned and others were in Tampa because of Plant’s efforts with the railroad, port, and hotels. Yet, his “lack” of education makes me rethink the word “literacy.” Our limited definition of “literacy” focuses on reading and writing, potentially restricting our visions of current and future literacies. Plant could read and write, but more importantly, he understood people. His vision went beyond rails, boats, and bricks. His dreams were to develop and advance communities. As a dear friend and mentor would say, he left the world a little better because he was in it. I suspect his contemporaries would say he did. I know I walked away feeling inspired by a man born two hundred years ago.
I'm a Chicago-born baby raised in Connecticut with a two-year diversion in Beirut, Lebanon. As an adult, I'm a nomad having lived in New York; Connecticut; London, England; (back to) Connecticut; Ohio; and now Florida. I have traveled by foot, by bike, by air, by car, by motorcycle, by boat, and by train. I remain constantly curious about the world.