Safety Harbor History
Historic Safety Harbor has been inhabited for at least 6,000 years as evidenced by the artifact found in 2008 in Marshall Street Park, but some say our ancestors were here at least 10,000 years ago. In an effort to survive, native inhabitants searched for fresh water and abundant food. They found both here, in the five mineral springs and the abundant seafood in Old Tampa Bay. They also apparently discovered the beneficial properties of our famous “healing waters”, just as humans have done at other mineral and hot springs around the world.
The Tocobaga people inhabited villages around Tampa Bay ca. 900-1750 AD. The largest, a “Temple Community” where celebrations and ceremonies were held, was located within the confines of modern Safety Harbor. The “head chief” ruled from here approximately 29 smaller chiefdoms within a fifty-mile radius. The most peaceful tribe in Florida at the time, the Tocobaga constructed a number of ceremonial and communal mounds. Some were used to inter the remains of the dead. Although most of these mounds were destroyed in the early 1900s in order to use the shells they contained for road-building and landfill, one of the largest mounds still exists. It is located in Safety Harbor’s Philippe Park and is accessible to the public.
In 1528, the Spanish conquistador Pánfilo de Narváez landed in the Tampa Bay area. He and his men brought with them European products, foods and, sadly for the Tocobaga, European diseases. Legend has it that before he left, “Narváez seized the chief and vilely mutilated him by cutting off his nose, and his old mother was thrown to the dogs and devoured by them before his eyes.” European explorers who followed were, predictably enough, not welcomed; one hundred and fifty years later, most of the Tocobagas were gone, due to war (with the Spaniards as well as other Indian tribes) and disease.
In 1539, the Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto named Old Tampa Bay “Bahia Espiritu Santo”, or “the Bay of the Holy Spirit”. Legend has it he was searching for the “Fountain of Youth” Ponce de Leon had failed to locate. Supposedly he thought he’d found it in Safety Harbor, but there is no real evidence that either de Leon or de Soto even landed in the immediate Safety Harbor area. At some unspecified point, though, the name Espiritu Santo Springs, or “Springs of the Holy Spirit” was adopted for the five mineral springs.
Safety Harbor was first homesteaded by Odet Philippe in 1842-43 when, taking advantage of the Armed Occupation Act of 1842, he was awarded 160 acres of land free of charge (with stipulations) and built his St. Helena plantation in what is now Philippe Park. Odet’s life story is muddied by the many colorful tales he spun for his grandchildren, but it is clear he was a rather flamboyant but industrious and talented entrepreneur. He is credited with bringing cigar making to Tampa, with introducing grapefruit to Florida and with being the first to plant citrus trees in rows. Due to his contributions, citrus became the staple of the Safety Harbor economy by the turn of the 20th century, and remained so until the lethal “big freeze” of 1962.
Around 1855, the springs were purchased from the government by a wealthy North Florida landowner, entrepreneur and Indian fighter, Col. William J. Bailey and were owned by his family for the next 81 years. His youngest daughter, Virginia Hernandez Bailey Tucker, inherited them and became known as the ”Grande Dame of Safety Harbor”.
The springs were available to the public to use, but minimal development occurred until the turn of the century when Virginia, along with her husband James, some of their children, and Col. Bailey’s son Burton Bellamy Bailey, all moved to what Bailey originally named “Bailey’s by the Sea” but was named “Green Springs” in 1890. Virginia, a determined entrepreneur in her own right, maintained her family’s dream of sharing the healing water with the world even after James’ death in 1913, when she was 69. In 1923 she was able to boast that she “had lived to see her ancestor’s dream come true”.
Balneotherapy (healing with water) was popular with the wealthy around the world in the 1800s. In 1885, in a report to the American Medical Society, Dr. W. C. Van Bibber, President Lincoln’s former White House physician, discussed the healing effects of natural spring water and commented favorably on the proposed site of a sanitarium in Pinellas Peninsula (later known as Pinellas County) calling it the “Healthiest spot on earth” and the “Nation’s playground”, bringing world-wide attention to the springs.
Around 1900, each of the five springs were found to have distinctly different mineral content, and could be used to heal different ailments. “Espiritu Water” was bottled and sold across the nation and around the world, and a health spa and hotel were eventually built over the springs. The rich and famous came from far and wide to “take the waters”. Many “miracles” were reported.
Safety Harbor came to be known as the “health giving city” and was incorporated in 1917. Three months later a fire destroyed much of the town, but they immediately rebuilt. These determined, resilient “pioneer” families – the McMullens, Booths, Nelsons and Boyds, as well as others – rebuilt and carried on through several devastating hurricanes, through freezes, wars, the Great Florida Land Boom and the Depression.
The Safety Harbor Resort and Spa, as it is now known, has gone through several owners and renovations over the years and continues to be a prominent visitor attraction in Pinellas County. In 1964, the site was designated a Historical Landmark by the U.S. Department of the Interior and, in 1997, a Florida Heritage Landmark.
Safety Harbor continues to grow and thrive to this day, as we celebrate 100 years!