Before They Were >The Islands=
by Rodney Kite-Powell
Curator, Tampa Bay History Center
There have been islands in Hillsborough Bay for almost as long as the bay
has existed. The original delta islands were formed as sediment and other material
flowed out of the Hillsborough River and into the bay’s estuary system. Plants
eventually took root and more material accumulated on the growing islands, more
so on the southerly island than on the one closer to the river’s mouth. Small sand
bars extended out from the two islands, demonstrating the shallow nature of
Hillsborough Bay. It was these two islands, and the surrounding tidal area, that
developer David P. Davis used as the nucleus for his.
The islands first appeared, nameless, on early sixteenth century Spanish
maps depicting Hillsborough and Tampa Bays (then known as Bahia de Espirito
Santo, or Bay of the Holy Spirit). The islands were included as part of the Fort
Brooke military reservation created in the 1820s, and it is probably during the fort
years that the larger of the two islands picked up its first name, Depot Key.
Various other names, all describing a particular feature of the islands, appeared
through the years, including Rabbit Island, Big and Little Islands, Grassy Islands
and, eventually, Big Grassy and Little Grassy Islands.
The first recorded sale of either of the bay islands came on April 18, 1860,
when William Whitaker purchased the southern tip of Depot Key (Big Grassy
Island), a total of six and one third acres, for one dollar per acre. Little Grassy
Island and the remainder of Depot Key were purchased in 1881 by a number of
different interests. William C. Brown purchased all of Little Grassy Island,
totaling sixteen and one third acres, for the same price per acre as Whitaker paid
twenty-one years before. Brown and William B. Henderson teamed up to purchase
a large portion (sixty-nine and three quarter acres) of Big Grassy Island from the
state for ninety cents per acre. The town of Tampa purchased the remainder of the
island, consisting of twenty-eight and one half acres, at the same price. Brown and
Henderson, in turn, obtained a ninety-nine year lease for the city=s portion of Big
Grassy Island for twenty dollars a year.
During one of the first channel dredging projects of the 1880s, cypress tree
stumps were discovered in eight feet of water a few yards south of Big Grassy
Island. This discovery illustrated that the whole bay was a freshwater cypress
swamp during the last Ice Age. Another channel dredging project, begun in the
early 1900s, bisected Little Grassy Island, creating Seddon Island on the east side
of the channel and a remnant of Little Grassy Island on the west side. Little Grassy
Island usually disappeared under a strong high tide, but Big Grassy Island
generally remained dry. Both islands, however, were completely covered by water
during the 1921 Hurricane.
Tampa’s City Council, on June 8, 1920, offered a referendum to voters
asking whether they would support the purchase of Little Grassy Island for use as a
city park. In an incredibly tight vote, the referendum passed 694 – 692. Though
non-binding, the city agreed with the majority and purchased Little Grassy Island
from William Brown’s widow, Mary E. Brown, on May 9, 1921, for $25,000.
Many histories of Tampa and Davis Islands relate stories of Boy Scout
Troops going out to the bay islands for camp outs. Tampa children made
unsupervised forays to the islands, as well, including a young D. P. Davis.
According to his brother, Milton, the boys ventured out onto the scrub-covered
mud flats in the late 1890s, catching crabs and frying fish instead of attending
school. As an adult, Davis found another use for the bay islands. To his chagrin,
he found that it was no easy task obtaining ownership of the islands, as well as the
rights to the bay bottom that he would need to make his idea of Davis Islands a
reality. Those efforts will be the subject of a future Davis Islands News article.