Nestled between the Port of Tampa and McKay Bay, just south of Ybor City, is the historic community of Palmetto Beach. Started as an Ybor suburb in the mid-1890s, Palmetto Beach was home to a handful of cigar factories, hundreds of cigar workers’ homes, and a wonderful picnic spot on the north end of McKay Bay known as DeSoto Park.
During the summer of 1898, there was enough empty land in Palmetto Beach for several thousand U.S. soldiers and volunteers to set up camp in preparation for going to Cuba to fight in the Spanish-American War. That vacant land disappeared, replaced by homes, businesses and cigar factories — plus a school at DeSoto Park.
Tampa’s population growth during the first decade and a half of the 20th century was stunning. In 1900, federal census takers counted 15,839 people in Tampa. Fifteen years later, the state census found 48,160 people — a growth rate of 300 percent. Immediately outside of Tampa’s city limits, the cities of West Tampa and Port Tampa City added to those numbers, pushing the 1915 Tampa metro population close to 60,000.
A portion of that growth occurred south of First Avenue (present-day Adamo Drive), and in 1911 the city of Tampa annexed what was then known as East Tampa, including Palmetto Beach, as part of a much larger expansion of the city limits. Three years later, city leaders decided to add a new fire station in the community. Palmetto Beach’s Tampa fire station No. 6 represented the first expansion of the department outside of the original four firehouse locations of downtown (No. 1), Tampa Heights (Nos. 2 and 5), Hyde Park (No. 3) and Ybor City (No. 4).
The new fire station opened July 23, 1914. The Tampa Tribune reported in the next day’s paper that “the new station is located at Palmetto Beach, in accordance with the recommendation of the insurance men, who recently declared that section of the city entitled to better protection.” Unlike today, however, the newest station did not get the latest and greatest equipment. “At present this station is equipped only with a horse-drawn apparatus,” continued the Tribune article. “The last station to be put in service is the only one in the Tampa Fire Department making use of horse power, other stations having long ago been equipped with motor apparatus in accordance with the plan followed by other progressive cities.”
The horse-drawn hose wagon did not remain in service for too long, and it was replaced by a motorized fire engine several months later. The horse stable, however, did remain behind the building for some time, and the legend of this station as the last one to utilize horse power remains today. The dining room on the first floor is rumored to have served as an indoor stable with a hayloft above.
Tampa’s fire department numbered close to 60 firefighters, officers, engineers, the fire marshal, two assistant chiefs and fire Chief W. Monroe Mathews. Mathews’ pay was $2,400 a year ($55,200 in today’s dollars) while the average fireman was paid between $55 and $97.50 per month ($1,265 to $2,242.50 in today’s dollars). The addition of station No. 6 did not add staff to the department, nor, as mentioned above, did it add to the city’s five “auto combination trucks.”
Station No. 6, known as The Beach House, was not open in time for the big Ybor City fires of 1908 and 1912, or the port lumberyard fire of 1914. It was open, however, on Oct. 24, 1921, when Tampa was hit by a devastating hurricane. Palmetto Beach was struck particularly hard, with dozens of homes damaged or destroyed. The firehouse on 22nd Street survived the storm, and the firemen there undoubtedly gave assistance to the neighborhood throughout that terrible night.
The station continued to serve the Palmetto Beach neighborhood and the growing Port of Tampa throughout the 20th century. Twice in the spring and summer of 2000, the firefighters at station No. 6 had to respond to major fires just to the north of their district in Ybor City. In May, a forklift operator hit a power line that sparked a fire in a palm tree that then led to a much larger fire in an unfinished apartment complex. That fire destroyed several blocks of that complex, plus the Ybor City post office.
In August, the former Blue Ribbon grocery store on Seventh Avenue — the former home of the Ybor City post office — caught fire and burned for several hours, causing a total loss.
Because of its location next to the Port of Tampa, station No. 6 is home to Tampa Fire Rescue’s hazardous incident team as well as one of its most complex and technologically advanced piece of fire equipment — the Pierce Quantum HIT 6 truck. Members of station No. 6 are all trained to respond to hazardous materials calls, from chemistry lab accidents at USF, to ammonia leaks at the port to gas line breaks throughout the city. It is interesting, and a little ironic, that the firehouse that opened with the oldest technology — literally a horse and wagon — now has the latest in firefighting and hazardous materials response equipment. And Tampa is all the safer because of that apparatus and the firefighters who operate it.
Rodney Kite-Powell is the Saunders Foundation Curator of History at the Tampa Bay History Center. He welcomes your questions and comments and can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 228-0097.