TAMPA — Henry B. Plant's railroad recently had been completed, a new ice house was up and running and the cigar business was in full swing.
Just off of Florida's southern tip, the Spanish were terrorizing Cuba.
Tampa, already filled with Cuban immigrants, became the central supply center for Cuban rebels fighting in the island country's mountains. And war fever here began to mount. Then, on April 24, 1898, Spain declared war on the United States and the Spanish-American War officially was on.
Soldiers, dressed in their old gray and blue civil war uniforms, poured into the Tampa Bay area to sign up for Teddy Roosevelt's 1st US Volunteer Cavalry, soon to be known as the Rough Riders.
Tampa became the stage and supply port for the largest military deployment in the nation's history, up to that time.
While it lasted just four months, many of the soldiers who fought under Roosevelt made Hillsborough County their home, becoming part of its social fabric, helping to build its businesses, schools and communities.
They were honored Saturday when the county's veterans and members of Tampa's Rough Riders Club met at Veterans Memorial Park to dedicate a memorial to the Spanish-American War and to those from here who fought and died in the conflict.
The Spanish-American War memorial is one of 12 planned for the park —each representing a different theater of war — which already has shrines to those who fought and died in Vietnam, Iraq and Korea. A memorial in honor of Committed Forces — those who served in places such as Bosnia, Grenada, Panama and elsewhere — will be dedicated on March 1.
“This (Spanish-American) War was a significant event in U.S. history and put Tampa on the map,” said Charles Spicola, founder of Tampa's Rough Riders, the club that wears the uniform of Roosevelt's cavalry unit and performs public services throughout the region. “It made us a world power and it put Tampa on the map.”
Spicola's grandfather was among those who sold food and drinks to the troops that poured into Tampa in months leading up to the 1898 war, he said. Today, he said, many descendants of those soldiers remain part of the community.
“It's so important that we remember this history of our county,” County Commissioner Victor Crist said during the dedication ceremony. He applauded those who worked hard to make the memorial possible. “It took a lot of sweat equity and effort to make it work,” he said.
Concern about where to place memorials for the county's war dead surfaced in 2006 and Vietnam veteran Dave Braun took up the mantle. “At the park we were already trying to claw our way out of being the best-kept secret in Tampa Bay,” he said.
He and a committee for the county's veterans museum conceived the idea of creating 12 theaters of war at the park and veterans got busy raising money to supplement funds offered by the county.
“We started the effort with Vietnam, since most of us are Vietnam veterans,” Braun said. After his cochairman, Tom Fletcher, stepped down, veteran Bob Silmser filled the role of assisting Braun.
Others jumped in to help find funding, as well as companies willing to provide landscaping, sculptures and labor. And veterans from all over came together to plug one theater of war or another.
Plans are in the works to build memorials to the Seminole Indian War, World War I, World War II, Afghanistan, the War Between the States (U.S. Civil War) and the Gulf War. Ongoing fund-raising activities are listed on the park's web site.