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Interbay Peninsula has long history

Story by Nick Stubbs
Thunderbolt staff writer

With a little imagination, one can almost see a young Tampa air base, the landing strips being cleared when the world was black and white, and war with the Axis powers was on the horizon. But if you thought that was the beginning of it all for the peninsula that is home of MacDill, you would be wrong.

While the Tampa Tribune headlines for July 13, 1939 read: "We get the big air base," it was only the beginning of the last big chapter in a long history of the peninsula and what would later be called MacDill Air Force Base. Little-known historical tidbits include a nearby community that was named for the swastika and used the Nazi symbol to show community pride, and a rattlesnake canning factory that processed thousands of cans of snake meat harvested from the brush where MacDill now sits.

Indeed, from the native Americans who appeared to have had a settlement at Culbreath Point to the late 1600s when Spanish and English explorers ventured here in search of deep-water ports and suitable locations for a settlement, to homesteaders who began taking up residence in the 1820s, the distinctive peninsula jutting into Tampa Bay goes back long before it became one of the most important military bases in the world.

According to Rodney Kite-Powell, curator of the Tampa Bay History Center, the land has a past unknown to many but students of area history. One example is that many believe its military history began with the construction of what was then designated Southeast Air Base, which began shortly before WWII. But Kite-Powell said the scene in 1898 would have surprised some, as it was a sea of tents and a major debarkation point for Cuba during the Spanish-American War.

Kite-Powell said as many as 10,000 troops, mostly artillery and some cavalry, were living on what now is the base land. They traveled to and from Fort Brooke, which was built in what now is downtown Tampa via the railroad that was extended onto the peninsula in the 1880s by Henry Plant. To put things in chronological order, Kite-Powell said you must go back to before western man arrived.

Because the peninsula lacked natural springs and had very little other fresh water, it was not known to support any major Native American settlements, which instead were found along the Hillsborough River or west across the bay at Safety Harbor, with its rich springs. Because the nearby Indian population was so large and goes back at least several hundred years, the area where MacDill sits must have seen a lot of traffic by early man, most likely for hunting and fishing, said Kite-Powell.

The area remained wild and untouched, even after the first expeditions before 1700. It wasn't until James Gadsden (for which Gadsden Point at the southeast corner of the base was named) arrived in 1824 that things happened in a big way.

Gadsden was here to seek a deep-water route in from the Gulf of Mexico and a place where the U.S. government could establish a fort. Deep water was essential to supply the fort and settlements that would crop up around it, but Tampa Bay at that time was shallow in Hillsborough Bay.

Legend has it that Gadsden left a message carved on a tree or rock at his namesake point, letting Col. George Brooke know that he should follow the land north from that point to the mouth of the Hillsborough, which is where Gadsden determined the fort should be built. Fort Brooke was built a short time later.

Small ships were able to reach the fort but it was challenging in the shallow water. Ballast Point, near the south gate entrance to MacDill, got its name because ships had to stop there to unload ballast stones in order to get their ships through the shallows leading to the fort.

The fort was the hub of development that would come. Settlements sprang up around it, and soon spread out onto the peninsula.

Fort Brooke became a Confederate stronghold during the Civil War and, while it was so minor even some historians are not aware of them, clashes between the Blue and Gray took place here, although the battles were little more than skirmishes, said Kite-Powell.

The first notable encounter was Oct. 17, 1863. Union blockade ships had taken up positions in Tampa Bay to keep Fort Brooke from being resupplied and, on this day, "perhaps out of boredom more than anything else," said Kite-Powell, Union commanders sent 124 troops ashore for an attack.

They traveled along the Hillsborough River to what is now Lowrey Park Zoo, where they destroyed two Confederate blockade runners and tried to mount an assault on the fort.

Confederate calvary chased them south along the peninsula, sending them retreating back to their ships. An historical marker near the intersection of Gandy and Bayshore commemorates the event, said Kite-Powell.

In May of 1864, the Union split up five companies of men totaling 300, they landed at the mouth of the Little Manatee River and Gadsden Point and converged on the fort. Three of the companies were from the 2nd Colored Infantry and, together, they won back Brooke. There were some other less noteworthy engagements, including one incident in which several Confederates dressed up as black slave women and waved in a rescue boat full of Yankees.

When the boat was in range, Confederate sharpshooters popped up and sprayed them with lead, inflicting some casualties. When the war was over, the area boomed. The Lykes family arrived on the peninsula and settled, as did the Culbreath family, which planted orange groves.

Port Tampa City on the west side of the landmass began to grow into a major port, especially after Plant brought in the rail lines and steam ships arrived via the natural deep-water access on that side of the bay.

In 1904 and 1909 two dredging projects allowed access for bigger ships through Hillsborough Bay, and things began to boom even more on the east side. There were setbacks, including the hurricane of 1921. Fortunately, what is now MacDill had few residents, as most of it was under water.

About 30,000 troops were in the area during the Spanish-American War and, while most were around the downtown area, many settled in tents, establishing the first military presence at what one day would be MacDill some 50 years before the air base would be built.

It was in the 1920s that a small community cropped up on land north of modern MacDill, adopting the swastika as its logo and symbol. The symbol made famous by Hitler was often used in real estate ads inviting people to buy and settle there. The swastika at that time was nothing more than a symbol for good luck, said Kite-Powell and, in fact, the name and symbol stuck right into the 1990s, when the City Council voted to do away with it. By the time the midpoint of the 20th century rolled around, there was much competition around the country for several big military bases planned by the government.

When Tampa got the nod for one of them, it was happy days. It was during the construction of the 6,400-acre base that it was soon realized the rattlesnake population on the peninsula was so great is staggered the imagination. Kite-Powell said the snakes were found by the thousands as brush was cleared. There were so many rattlers, a canning business opened near what is now Gandy and Westshore.

It actively canned and shipped snake meat into the 1950s. The first planes landed at the base in 1941 and the rest is (modern) history, as they say. An important military training base for B-26 and B-17 pilots and crews during WWII, MacDill, of course, later became the home of the 6th Air Mobility Wing, U.S. Central Command and Special Operations Command, making it one of the most important military installations anywhere in the world.

 

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