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The West Coast's First Beach Community
Historical Pass-a-Grille
By LA Fiore
Published/Print 2006
Copyright 2006-2008 All Rights Reserved
 
The West Coast’s First Beach Community
Historical Pass-a-Grille
By LA Fiore

Located at 27.696 N and longitude 82.737 W is nautical Long Key, or Pass-a-Grille, St. Pete Beach. Some call this community a throwback destination, with bohemian charm, and others simply call it “home.” The West Coast’s first beach community, Pass-a-Grille, is two blocks wide and 31 blocks long, and is located at the southernmost tip of St. Pete Beach. It is one of the small municipalities on a group
of outlying barrier islands that run from the inlet to Tampa Bay, northward to Honeymoon Island State Park. It is thought to have gotten its name from the Cuban fisherman, known as "Grillers." While camping along the waters’ edge of the island, the fishermen would dig wells to smoke their fish in, before returning home. Those who traveled thru the pass could see the campfires on the beach, now known as Pass-a-Grille. In 1967, Pass-a-Grille, Belle Vista, The Don Cesar and St. Petersburg Beach merged together as one -- St. Petersburg Beach. In 1994, the name was changed to St. Pete Beach. Keeping aligned with its rich history, Pass-a-Grille has its own unique charm and warmth. Residents call living on the island “a way of life.” If “laid back” had its own town, this would be it.


Fishermen, homesteaders, and lumber men, such as Zephaniah Phillips, called the island home in the late 1700's to the early 1800's. The island opened up to change in the 1880's when Roy S. Hanna and Tampa cigar magnate, Selwyn Morey, started to develop lots for houses and hotels. James H. Forquer, the manager of St. Petersburg's Detroit Hotel, set up a floating hotel for pleasure excursions. And in 1898, the first permanent hotel was opened by George Henri Lizotte,a French travel agent for the Thomas Cook Company.


Detroit Hotel, St. Petersburg, Florida
M. C. Bob Leonard, Professor of History, Hillsborough Community College

In 1902, the first store was built on Long Key Island, and in 1906, Pass-a-Grille opened a post office. State Legislation declared Pass-a-Grille a town in 1911, and twenty -one residents voted at the first election. In 1914, electricity came to Long Key Island (St. Pete Beach), and in 1922, the island's first fire station was established--Pass-a-Grille Engine Company Number One.


Sixth Avenue, Pass-a-Grille
State Library and Archives of Florida

Many people still associate Pass-a-Grille with The Don Cesar Hotel, which in the late 1920's and the 1930's was a renowned, luxury resort that entertained many distinctive guests, as it does today. Thomas J. Rowe, a land developer, conceived of the establishment in the mid-20's. Land sales boomed, as tourists and investors congregated to the area. This boom quickly diminished before the Don CeSar was completed in 1928. The Don remained open throughout the depression of the 1930's and World War II created suffering for many Florida hotels, some being forced to convert for wartime uses. In 1942, the Don was purchased by the U.S. Government for use as a rest and rehabilitation center. The Don served as a federal office building from 1946 to 1967 until it was vacated. In 1972, the efforts of a committee of local citizens, along with hotel developer, William Bowman, Jr., who purchased the property, began to work towards its restoration. The Don Cesar reopened in all of its elegance in 1973, and restoration was completed in 1976. It is listed on the National Register of Historic places.


The Don CeSar
M. C. Bob Leonard, Professor of History, Hillsborough Community College

In fact, much of Pass-a-Grille is listed as a National Registered Historic District. Victorian architecture and beautiful gardens encompass the two-block-wide district, which includes two city parks and twenty eight designated historic structures. Visitors can enjoy the antiques stores, boutiques, and award winning art galleries.


Downtown Pass-a-Grille Today
M. C. Bob Leonard, Professor of History, Hillsborough Community College

Many people believe that the real charm of this town comes from the less apparent rituals, which occur daily at sunset. Those who live on Pass-a-Grille truly appreciate the serenity, memories, and history of days long past. Since 1977, many residents, snowbirds and vacationers gather each day to give thanks for the day by the ringing of “the bell.” If you have never experienced it, I highly suggest it. Maybe there’s a lesson we can all learn from this sweet ceremony and the folks that keep the tradition alive--Give thanks for the day and the history behind us. If you find yourself in need of a small reminder, you surely will find one on this barrier island…Historic Pass-a-Grille (St. Pete Beach).

Much of the history of Pass-a-Grille has been preserved, and can be visited at The Gulf Beaches Historical Museum, located in the heart of St. Pete Beach’s National Historic District at 116-10th Avenue. The Museum is located in what was the first church built on Pinellas County’s barrier islands.


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