THE NEW FLORIDA: 1876-1919


The return to political power of the Bourbon Democrats did not mean the overnight destruction of reforms of Reconstruction. Governor George F. Drew was an old-timer Whig, a native of New Hampshire, and a lumber man with Northern contacts. Drew supported closer contact with Northern investors and a new diverse economy.

Florida's backwardness and the need to rebuild the state economy were major considerations which even the agrarian interests could not overlook. The cotton kingdom was declining as new cotton fields opened in Texas. The Bourbon Democrats were still politically conservative, but they weren't ignorant of the realities of Gilded America.

They were also the major party in Florida as their Black Codes systematically eliminated most of the African-American vote, essential to the survival of a statewide Republican Party. Only in Jacksonville and Pensacola were blacks still in public office by 1880, thanks to Democratic gerrymandering. The Bourbon plan for a new state constitution in 1885 to oust the Reconstruction Constitution was the final legal nail on the coffin of politics.

The Civil War had not ended the status of the agrarian classes. Most rural African-Americans and poor whites found sharecropping and tenant farming the only routes to survival in much of Panhandle Florida. Others choose to vote with their feet by leaving rural Florida. However, until most of the Deep South, many Floridians headed southward rather than to the North due to the development of peninsular Florida. Florida was the only Southern state in the South who gained black people in the migration between states.


Florida politics in the 1870's and 1880's remained on the rim of the Solid South. sharing many of the serious problems facing the South after Reconstruction, but other areas of Florida resembled the Western frontier boom, complete with pioneer farmers, cattlemen, conflicts with the Indians, and railroad tycoons. Racism was still a factor in Florida, but did not dominate the dogma of Florida politics as it did in other Southern areas.

Florida leaders accepted the notion that Northern moneys were essential to develop South Florida and were reasonably hospitable to the needs of Northern investors and visitors. The danger of Populist radicalism, influential in some Southern states by 1885, was treated as another force of change entering Florida.

The Constitution of 1885 and the Black Codes had disfranchised minority opposition. By participating and regulating the Northern investment into Florida, most Bourbon Democrats felt a careful alliance with these newcomers would establish "a new Florida", a blend of Northern technology and old Southern ways. They thought they would convinced Northerners of the merits of their goals. In any case, material progress could bridge a lot of differences.



Rapid changes and a greatly restrictive political system were bound to create a good many critics. The Constitution of 1885, which would last well into the twentieth century, may have made Cabinet posts, Supreme Court judges, and regulators elected officials for the first time, but it was not a document for reform. The agrarian aristocracy soon allied with the new wealth of railroad men, lumber men, and citrus growers.

A leading spokesman for the small farmers against the railroads was Wilkinson Call, a colorful Populist who got the State of Florida to establish a Florida Railroad Commission to stop unfair rate practices. Henry Flagler and Henry Plant couldn't silence Call.

Small farmers joined the National Farmers Alliance in large numbers by 1885 and even convinced leaders to hold the National Convention in a large barn in Ocala in 1890. Farmers demanded the regulation of interstate railroads, a creation of money backed by silver as well as gold, and the direct election of U.S. Senators. The Ocala Platform was a good example of Gilded Age Populism, but the inability of Southern white farmers in the Southern Farmers Alliance to ally with the Colored Farmers Alliance doomed their movement.

Less easily understood by many urban Floridians was the intense development of Nativism in Florida. The continued growth of the Klu Klux Klan and other militant groups was due not just to the demise of black political influence, but due to a fear of the waves of change entering Florida. Northerners were changing old institutions.

By the late 1890's this emotional nativism was also directed at the Roman Catholic Church in Florida. Under the demagoguery of Tom Watson and the Guardians of Liberty, many rural Floridians believed that Catholics were loyal only to the Pope. By 1916, anti-Catholic sentiment helped bolster an obscure Defuniak Springs minister Sydney Catts into the Florida Governorship. Catts never enacted his most serious attempts to close down monasteries and nunneries and a counterattack led by Father Michael Curley changed public opinion in the large cities.


While the development of huge railroad lines in the 1890's would forever end the glamour of riverboat transportation, the Gilded Era was a time of wonderful steamboat transportation for visitors and Floridians alike. The Yulee rail line from Jacksonville to Cedar Key offered an eighteen hour excursion where the engineer often stopped the train to check his game traps along the rail bed.

For thirty short years, steam boating down the St. Johns River and along the Atlantic Coast became the winter activity for thousands of Northerners. These Gilded Age travelers started the first regular tourist industry in Florida and helped establish dozens of hotels and restaurants that catered to vacationing tastes. 


Steamboats were floating palaces, offering personal service. Fernandina Beach was the major port for many coastal steamers, although Jacksonville was the major departure point for the St. Johns River steamboat industry, which in its peak offered one hundred boats.  Towns like Palatka shifted from agriculture to tourism. Everyone seemed to be riding the steamboats. Robert E. Lee and U. S. Grant took farewell voyages down the St. Johns River. Harriet Beecher Stowe waving on the front porch of her winter home in Mandarin was a popular tourist sight. In 1888 Jacksonville held the Subtropical Exposition, Florida's first World's Fair. President Grover Cleveland attended and then jumped on a steamboat.

Steamboats on the Suwannee and Apalachicola were smaller boats catering more to locals. They lacked the color of St. Johns vessels like the City of Jacksonville, a $120,000 electric lit floating palace. Races between rival boats were not just for spectator entertainment but to convince customers of the merits of the boats. When the Baya and John Sylvester crashed in a race, the state outlawed the racing practice.

Steamboats also took citrus to the North. In 1890, it was discovered that a 12 by 12 by 27 inch crate could safely carry citrus to Northern destinations. Few winter visitors failed to send shipped fruit back from Florida's first citrus empire, the St. Johns Valley.



Rapid railroad and coastal shipping also benefited Florida's long established fishing industry. South Florida was dominated by Cuban and Northern fishermen until the profitability of fishing convinced investors to purchase boats.

The Conchs, the natives of Key West, dominated not just fishing in the Florida Keys, but also developed a successful sponging operation, using glass bottom boats and sixty foot spears. This technique could only be utilized in calm water and along the shallow keys.

In the 1880's Tarpon Springs businessman John K. Cheyney recruited a New York sponge merchant named John Cocoris to start a sponge fleet in the bayous and springs of North Pinellas County. Cocoris brought in divers from the Aegean Islands. These Greek fishermen introduced diving tanks, which revolutionized the Florida sponging industry and delegated the Conch's to secondary spongers.

Soon 200 sponge ships operated out of Tarpon Springs and a vibrant community of Greek Orthodox settlers was added to the waves of change in Florida.


The Cuban Revolution of 1868 send many Havana cigar manufacturers to Key West to avoid the conflict and to develop American markets. Key West proved a costly location since most advantages was with organized labor.

The arrival of Henry Plant's railroad to Tampa Bay would cause a major change. Key West cigar maker Vicente Martinez Ybor obtained forty acres of land just northeast of downtown Tampa in 1885. As he imported skilled Cuban cigar makers, Spanish cigar manufacturers and German box makers flooded into Ybor City, and later developments in West Tampa, Palmetto Beach, and Port Tampa.

As Ybor City boomed, the shocked Tampa Anglo community decided to incorporate the Latin areas into the city's Third Ward and assure the control of local politics. Still, Ybor City changed Tampa into the South's first multiethnic manufacturing port complete with labor organizations and ethnic clubs. 



Tampa was also the focus of an event that put Florida on the map around the world. Floridians had been spared the heart-ship of war for forty years, when, almost overnight, they found a war thrust upon them due to the state's closeness to Spanish Cuba and the large Latin population of Tampa.

The desire of the independence of Cuba from Spain was not just the dream of the thousands of Cuban immigrants in New York City and Florida, but also of American businessmen who had millions invested in the island. Floridians not only supported the Cuban revolutionaries, but many Floridians had participated in gun-running and fund raising for years.

Next to New York City, Tampa's Ybor City and West Tampa were the centers of Cuban revolutionary organization. Jose Marti, the George Washington of Cuba, came to Florida many times to unify the diverse Cuban groups. He was also poisoned by Spanish agents in Ybor City.

When war finally came, after the mysterious sinking of the battleship Maine, Tampa was selected as the demarcation port for the invasion of Cuba and Puerto Rico. Some 23,000 volunteers, an international press corps, 20,000 observers, and Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders made Tampa an exciting and confusing global village.

The United States was not prepared for a war. Thousands of freight cars piled up for three hundred miles. The Tampa Bay Hotel was packed for the first time. There was a fear of a race riot, for this was the first time Northern, black, and Southern white units were organized into one military force.

Clara Barton feared Americans would die of yellow fever. Plant's Port Tampa docks could not dock the 100 ships so horses and supplies couldn't even be loaded into the last vessels. Fort Desoto, built at the entrance to Tampa Bay to stop the Spanish, was a total waste of construction since it was based on a ship channel map produced by Colonel Robert E. Lee in the 1850's.

When it became obvious that all the troops could not fit onto the crude armada, more soldiers were hurt piling into the ships than landing in Cuba. Finally, General William Shafter agreed to let the invasion force set sail. The entire world had discovered Tampa.


The Spanish-American War had started a construction boom that would continue into the 1920's. Many of the soldiers returned to Florida after seeing how inexpensive land was compared to the Great Plains and North.

In 1900, the last state convention of the Democratic Party of Florida met in Jacksonville. From then on, Floridians would select their candidates in state primaries. Rather appropriately, the candidate of the conservative Bourbons D. H. Mayes lost to reformer William Sherman Jennings. Jennings proposed to expand the role of state government with programs to help the poor and develop more schools. He even talked about draining the Everglades for land reform. Despite these measures, Jennings was still part of the Bourbon aristocracy that kept minorities and outsiders under wraps with Jim Crow laws and careful regulations.

Jennings' successor Napoleon Bonaparte Broward had been a gun smuggler in the Spanish-American War and a ruthless opportunists. Broward was also a firebrand against some of the old power structure and backed the state's first university system, a railroad regulatory board, and a corrupt practices law.  Progressivism in Florida was tempered by the South's conservatism and the state's lack of a strong urban, middle class population, the key to Northern reformers.

Not all reformers were the progressive kind. Colorful Reverend Sidney Catts mixed Populist ideas with a strong anti-Catholic and anti-Negro campaign. He drove his Model-T into Tallahassee to become Governor despite the opposition of more powerful candidates and most of the state's newspapers. Catt's plans for change were killed in part by the outbreak of World War I.

The Florida Jim Crow laws were just some of the many reasons why Florida lost talented African-Americans. Asa Philip Randolph of Crescent City went to New York City and started the Pullman's Union. James Weldon Johnson of Jacksonville was one of the founders of the NAACP.
In 1915, the State of Florida started a state highway program. It became the absolute necessity to the later development of Florida, as important as the construction of the railroads in the 1880's. The leaders of what would become the Florida Land Boom were already arriving before World War I.

Carl Fisher was developing the Dixie Highway Association to promote a motor route from Chiacgo to Miami, a cavalcade first completed in 1915. J. F. Jaudon, another promoter, tried to convince the state to connect Miami with Tampa. From 1910 to 1920, promoters and developers were starting a building boom of suburbs in Florida's major cities. They were meant for Floridians, but attracted a market of Northerners. There was Telfair Stockton in Jacksonville, Walter Fuller in St. Petersburg, and Al Swann and Eugene Holtsinger in Tampa.