On October 27, 2019, Henry B. Plant, were he still alive, would be 200 years old.
Plant is known for bringing the railroad down Florida’s west coast while the other famous Henry — Henry Flagler — worked his way down the east coast. But that’s not the half of it.
Plant’s railroad tracks “laid the foundations for communities to grow,” Heather Trubee Brown says. Brown is the curator of education at University of Tampa's Henry B. Plant Museum. When this writer visited Friday afternoon, Brown and fellow curator, Susan Carter, were busy setting up the 200th birthday exhibit, Henry Plant: He's More Important than You Thought.
The exhibit’s centerpiece is a large map of the Plant System designed by Tampa’s Pop Design Group in collaboration with museum staff. The map of the southeastern United States covers an entire wall of the exhibit space. Crossing through this space are Plant’s rail lines and steamboat routes, connecting the Tampa Bay area with Charleston to the north, and Havana to the south.
What a lot of people don’t realize, Operations Manager Lindsay Huban says, is that without Plant and his system of steamboats and railroads, Tampa wouldn’t have had a cigar industry. The city was literally just a village before Henry Plant came to town.
Henry B. Plant was born in Branford, Connecticut on October 27, 1819. He didn’t come to Florida until 1853, and it wasn’t under the happiest of circumstances. His wife was dying of tuberculosis, and doctors recommended Florida’s warm climate. Back then, Florida was fewer condos and more swamp, much like the Hermann Herzog landscapes that are part of the 200th birthday exhibit. Still, Plant saw its potential.
Plant was working in shipping at the time. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, his employer, Adams Express Company, started looking for buyers for their Southern Express Line. With the help of investors, Plant bought the line. When the Civil War bankrupted several southern railroad companies, Plant was ready to scoop them up as well. He connected and standardized these lines to form Plant System in the 1880s; in 1884, he brought the railroad to Tampa. But why stop there?
Plant Investment Company threw $3 million into Port of Tampa (not literally) to convert it into a deepwater port suitable for large steamships used in shipping. In 1888, Plant started construction of his flagship property, the Tampa Bay Hotel.
The Tampa Bay Hotel thrived for 40 years, from 1891 to 1933, before the building was acquired by the newly formed University of Tampa. The hotel thrived during the Gilded Age and the Roaring '20s, right up until the Great Depression. The Tampa Bay Hotel still stands across the Hillsborough River from Tampa — now we call it Plant Hall, and it’s home to the Henry B. Plant Museum, University of Tampa classrooms and faculty offices.
The Tampa Bay Hotel, or Plant Hall, is part of Henry Plant’s tangible legacy — a legacy that includes Plant Park, the Port of Tampa, and the recently restored Hotel Belleville in Belleair, Brown tells me. Plant City, Plant High, and several roads in Tampa were also named after the visionary.
Exhibit curators hope the 200th birthday exhibition and associated events will remind us of the more intangible parts of Plant’s legacy, like his love of music and his promotion of Florida at World’s Fairs and expos.
Brown tells me that Plant brought culture to the Tampa Bay area when he brought an orchestra to the Tampa Bay Hotel in 1891 and built his casino in 1896.
Plant’s love of music is something the Museum will be highlighting in both the exhibit and other 200th birthday events. They’ll be piping music from Plant’s favorite composers into the exhibit room, and they’re planning several live musical performances throughout the year as part of their Music in the Museum program. These occur from September through May, on the third Thursday of each month, continuing the Tampa Bay Hotel’s tradition of classical concerts.
Plant was doing a lot more than just bringing music to the Tampa Bay area; he was bringing people to Florida. Once he started opening hotels, Plant expanded his business from shipping to include tourism. He didn’t just make it easy for people to visit Florida — he gave them a reason to come.
Back in the late 1800s and early 1900s, that reason was tarpon. According to Jack Davis, author of The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea, tarpon fishing in the Gulf of Mexico during the late nineteenth century “ignited Gulf tourism.”
“As the cod inspired New England’s working waterfront, the ‘peerless monarch’ inspired the Gulf’s leisure coast,” writes Davis. “Railroads and steamship lines zeroed in on their own target: the new tarpon angler. They ran ads devoted to travel schedules and rates to tarpon retreats. Transportation and shipping mogul Henry B. Plant made it easier to get to them.”
When the International Fishery Conference came to Florida in 1897, Plant went all the way to Japan to recruit visitors. The Plant Museum is currently showing some of the items he brought back from Japan in a large display case in the center of the 200th birthday exhibit. You can also see Plant’s efforts to promote the state at World’s Fairs in a separate display case. Henry Plant was one of Florida’s first ambassadors; he shaped how the world saw Florida in its early years.
In 1933, when the University of Tampa acquired the Tampa Bay Hotel, a section of the hotel was converted into the Henry Plant Museum. Things left at the hotel formed the museum archives. It’s a treasure trove of Florida history, and this is the year to re-visit.
In addition to the events we’ve already mentioned, the Museum is hosting fine art conservator Rustin Levenson on April 7. Sometime in October, the museum is hosting a juried art show featuring art inspired by Plant’s life and legacy. In November, you can experience what the hotel would have been like in the 1920s with The Great Gatsby Party. Also this fall, Canter Brown’s new Plant biography is being released, and the Plant Museum is hosting an author talk. Come December, you can experience a Victorian Christmas during the Annual Victorian Christmas Stroll.
“There’s no bad time to come,” Huban tells me.
“Except Mondays,” Brown chimes in. “We’re closed on Mondays.”
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