How has Clearwater Beach evolved over the past century? Florida Wonders explores.
Welcome to Florida Wonders, a series where Tampa Bay Times journalists tackle reader questions about the people and places in the Tampa Bay area and the state of Florida.
This week New Port Richey resident Patti Carney wanted to know: What are some of the biggest changes, positive and negative, that have occurred at Clearwater Beach?
Carney was curious to hear about the past 50 years, but we’re traveling back further in history in order to answer her question with enough context. After all, a lot has changed on Clearwater Beach since it first started being developed more than 100 years ago. It’s now a booming tourist attraction. It has been the setting of several movies. And it also receives consistent national praise, most recently being named the best beach in America by Trip Advisor for the second year in a row.
How did Clearwater Beach get to this point, and where did it all start? Grab your flip-flops — we’re headed to the beach.
Ernest Tate first bought the island for just $200 back in the 1890s. It was only reachable by boat until 1917, when a 2-and-a-half mile bridge nicknamed “Old Rickety” was constructed. It started at the foot of Seminole Street and stretched down to where the Clearwater Recreation Center is now.
The bridge’s name comes from the noise that automobiles made as they came across the wood, said Susan Raineri of the Clearwater Historical Society. Workers at the island’s diner used to notify the kitchen when they heard the clacking of potential customers driving over the wooden bridge.
Old Rickety was scarred with burn marks from various fires. Smoking was popular in those days, and the ash flicked from lit cigarettes often caused blazes that required the bridge to close for repairs.
“There were times people got stuck out there and had to ferry back the next day because there had been a fire on the bridge,” said Jeanne Holmquist of the Clearwater Historical Society.
Despite its quirks, the bridge made it easier to bring building materials over to the beach.
The Million Dollar Memorial Causeway replaced Old Rickety in 1926 and stuck around until 1962. It was a tourist attraction itself, covered in flowering bushes. Beachgoers could stroll on a sidewalk in the middle of the bridge that ran through the lush plants.
The city unveiled the Memorial Causeway in 1963. Over the years, the drawbridge caused traffic backups for miles on holidays and spring break, leaving cars idling. It also didn’t have enough room to accommodate pedestrians and cyclists.
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