An African American slave, a Scottish businessman, and a Cuban factory worker: An unlikely trio with an even more unlikely memoria–the Fortune Street Bridge.
One hundred forty years ago, a formerly enslaved person named Benjamin Taylor moved to Tampa, where he married another former slave, a woman named Fortune. Together, they tended orchards of oranges, guavas, and peaches on the eastern shore of the Hillsborough River.
When Benjamin died in 1869, his 33-acre homestead became Fortunes. Three years later, Tampa Mayor Edward A. Clarke bought some of her land for $252. Clarke, whose personal wealth came from local real estate investments, portioned the former Taylor land into house lots, Clarke’s Subdivision.
Thomas and Ellen Jackson were also freed persons living just north of Tampa, which was not a big place then. In 1871, the Jacksons sold eight acres of their homestead to Bartholomew C. Leonardi, a Reconstruction-era Republican. Leonardi re-sold this property as home sites for African Americans. The development included new streets, one Leonardi named in honor of Judge Perry G. Wall. Soon, however, Wall Street became Fortune Street since the road led to Taylor’s homestead on the river.
Fortune Taylor remarried and left Tampa for a few years. However, by the 1890s, she was back in town, living independently and working as a maid for Clarke’s widow, Sarah. She was known as “Madame Fortune” to some and “Aunt Fortune” to others. When Christina Saunders told her son Robert about Madame Fortune, she remembered her as a “short, stout woman” who bought church bake sale pies and gave them to neighborhood children. Madame Fortune let young Christina comb her long hair.
In the meantime, Matthew Hooper–a northerner, a white man, and a county commissioner–claimed a homestead on the west side of the river, opposite Taylor’s place. Here his son Jim ran a dairy and grew oranges.
The Hoopers worked with Scottish businessman Hugh Macfarlane to create a new cigar factory town across the river from Ybor City. Macfarlane accumulated acreage and investors, and in 1892, the development of West Tampa got underway.
The only way across the river to West Tampa was on Jim Hooper’s ferry, a small boat or skiff. You got on the boat, and the ferryman pulled you overusing a rope strung across the river. This mode of transportation did nothing to promote West Tampa, and soon the only cigar factory in town was sinking into bankruptcy. Macfarlane tried to convince other factory owners to come to this new town, but the lack of a bridge made West Tampa hard to sell. What factory would build where there was poor transportation? How would people and tobacco and cigars get from the docks to the factories and back to the docks?
At that time, Tampa had only two bridges over the Hillsborough River, and one belonged to the railroad company. The railroad bridge had a wooden footpath, but the swaying and shaking kept many people from using it. Another bridge, further south at Lafayette Street, connected Hyde Park and downtown, but there were only paved roads between Hyde Park and West Tampa in the 1910s.
Fortunately, Macfarlane and his fellow West Tampa investors convinced the Tampa city council to let them build a bridge over the Hillsborough River. In October 1892, the American Bridge Company of Roanoke, Virginia, began constructing the Fortune Street Bridge, a 500-foot long, 88-foot-wide span completed in less than three months. With the bridge in place, many factories were built in West Tampa, and Macfarlane’s project succeeded.
Tampa’s businessmen and streetcar companies built the Fortune Street Bridge with their own funds, and once the bridge was finished, the investors donated it to the City of Tampa. This bridge lets streetcar passengers cross the Hillsborough River without having to get off on one side and back on again on the other. Tampa’s professional men and businessmen were real estate men out of necessity. The stock market was too risky for many but the wealthy, so local real estate offered the non-millionaire a relatively safe way to invest hard-earned money. Streetcar companies also speculated in real estate since new neighborhoods meant more riders.
A bridge tender opened and closed the Fortune Street Bridge to let boats go up and down the river. Using a hand-held metal crank, the tender walked in circles to turn the gears that opened the bridge. This was a fascinating spectacle for local boys but wearisome for workers after a day of rolling cigars. The streetcars, wagons, and bicyclists had to wait until the bridge opened for a boat.
As West Tampa grew, the Fortune Street Bridge quickly became a victim of its own success. The bridge shut for repairs every few months because of repeated openings and closings, rickety streetcar crossings, and numerous boat collisions.
One fateful Sunday in May 1901, a tugboat knocked the Fortune Street Bridge off its foundation. The bridge was open when the boat hit it, and the resulting mechanical damage was enough to freeze the draw in the upright position. Anyone who wished to travel between West Tampa and Ybor City or Tampa was forced to cross the river in rowboats. Many female cigar factory workers refused to use the boats after some passengers fell overboard. However, the dangerously overcrowded rowboats remained.
On Wednesday morning, May 15, 1901, some workers were late to a West Tampa cigar factory after an hour-long wait to cross the river. Reprimanded by the foreman, the workers voiced their grievances to their co-workers. Soon, the grumbling escalated into a factory-wide strike, and the protest spread to other factories. A group reported by the Tampa Tribune as numbering “five hundred or more” marched across the railroad bridge to factories in Ybor City. By the time the crowd reached Palmetto Beach, well over one thousand striking workers had demanded a better bridge between Tampa and West Tampa.
The city quickly built a pontoon bridge for everyone to use until the Fortune Street span was repaired, ending that particular strike, but only after newspapers picked up the story nationwide. People in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and Boise, Idaho, read about the unusual protest, which was just a single episode in the struggles between labor and management in Tampa’s cigar industry at the turn of the century.
Labor issues, war, and other demands on public funds delayed the construction of a new bridge at Fortune Street for more than two decades after that strike. However, the 1920s brought prosperity and growth to Tampa, and the city went bridge crazy. Real estate was again a hot investment, and big chunks of land were available on the west side of the river if only people could get there.
In 1924, Tampa voters approved $3 million of public improvement projects, including several new routes over the river. By January 1927, four Hillsborough River bridges were in various stages of completion: a new bridge at Michigan Avenue (now Columbus Avenue), a new bridge at Florida Avenue, are placement bridge at Fortune Street, and a new bridge at Sligh Avenue that used the old iron from the Fortune Street Bridge.
UGI Contracting Company of Philadelphia built the second Fortune Street Bridge. The new bridge was a trunnion bascule, with a large weight dropping to lift the end of a large metal arm. This was, and still is, an unusual type of bridge for automobiles, being more commonly used for trains.
The new Fortune Street Bridge opened at midnight on May 14, 1927. No public ceremony marked the event, although some boats blew their whistles at the flag-festooned bridge. This was the last of the bridges built over the Hillsborough River in the 1920s, with a final cost of $402,000.
In its early days, Fortune Street lived up to its name, being a valuable commercial connection between West Tampa and the Franklin Street business district in downtown Tampa. By 1967, its Fortune had reversed. A Tribune reporter described Fortune Street as being “in the midst of Tampa’s Skid row, with the city’s only tattoo shop, three bars, a mission, a barber shop, and a couple of less-than-first-class hotels….” The street was also now quite short, only eight blocks, resulting from interstate highway construction and urban renewal. Tampa’s urban renewal projects also rerouted and renamed streets, so the bridge became the Laurel Street Bridge. The bridge underwent significant renovations in 1969 when glass towers replaced the original wooden bridge tender houses. New plain concrete parapets and tubular metal handrails reflected the stark modernism of the times.
From freed enslaved people to labor strikes and new towns to urban decay, the Fortune Street Bridge, in its various incarnations, has served Tampa for over one hundred years. In 2006, the Tampa city government designated six Hillsborough River bridges as local historic landmarks, including the Fortune (Laurel) Street Bridge. Although modern development overshadows the bridge, it stands ready to assume new importance. Tampa Riverwalk proposals in the 1970s included the Fortune Street Bridge as a walkway to Riverside Park. Downtown traffic tie-ups show that the bridge may be helpful as an evacuation route. But the bridge has already done enough to earn our continuing respect for saving West Tampa and preserving the memory of the former slave, the factory worker, and the businessman who invested in a community.
CIGAR CITY MAGAZINE- JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2007
LUCY D. JONES
Lucy D. Jones is a local consulting historian and was president of Florida History, LLC, providing professional research services to homeowners, businesses, and organizations.
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