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Port of Tampa, FL

CRUISING ASHORE: Tampa Bay History Center
History Comes Alive!

Explorers, Native Americans, Cigar Workers

... and even Cowboys 

Photo of Tampa Bay History Center goes here.

The Tampa Bay History Center is a new attraction along the waterfront in downtown Tampa, just a few blocks from the Channelside entertainment district and cruise piers.*

Surprises Abound at Tampa Bay History Center

By Susan J. Young

I love history, so I recently headed for the new Tampa Bay History Center in Tampa’s Channelside District. I was sure to like it, I thought. But I loved it.

As the center's promotional materials say, "It's Exactly What You Didn't Expect."

Three Floors of Exhibitry

I expected a small perfunctory museum. While Tampa certainly has interesting historical roots with Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders, native Americans, Cuban immigrants and a railroad baron, so many history museums are just small rooms filled with artifacts.

But the amazing size and scope of this 60,000-square-foot History Center with 12,000 years of story fodder was a pleasant surprise! 

Photo of ticket office goes here.Allow at least two to three hours to explore this three-level center (its main level ticketing area is shown at left.*)

You’ll follow in the footsteps of the first native inhabitants, Spanish conquistadors, pioneers, sports legends and railroad tycoons.

During your journey, you will stroll through a 1920s-era cigar store, row up the Hillsborough River, ride along with a cattle drive and learn about the early exploration of Florida.

Photo of interior of museum goes here.Soaring Atrium,

Waterfront Views

Visitors enter the center on the ground floor and either take stairs or the elevator to the first floor, called the Lykes Atrium.

This soaring atrium with a massive wall of glass both lets in sunlight and also offers spectacular views to Tampa’s waterfront area.

Look up to view 14 regional icons suspended from the ceiling. One is a streetcar, another a Florida cowboy.  

One particularly humorous icon is a "flying strawberry." What's that about, you may wonder? Here are two little known facts about the Tampa Bay area.

Photo of lower level of Columbia Cafe and channel area goes here.To the east of Tampa is Plant City, better known as the Strawberry Capital of the World.

And the world's first commercial aviation flights occurred in Tampa and St. Petersburg!

Before or after you buy your tickets and enter the museum, take time to step out onto the back patio.

The lower level of the Columbia Cafe affords outdoor views of the channel and Tampa's Harbor Island.*

Here you'll discover superb channel views of Tampa’s new Riverfront area with curved sidewalks, green spaces, a children’s play area, and of course, the water.

Photo of river area goes here.

(Harbor Island’s condominiums and yachts are visible just across the channel.*)

Spanish Influence, Native Bravery

Many people know the Spanish successfully landed and settled both St. Augustine and Pensacola, on Florida's Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coastlines.

But few know that during a 21-day period in 1528, Spanish Explorer Panfilo de Narváez and his entourage landed and explored near Tampa Bay.

Photo of multi-media opening goes here.So as you initially enter the center's exhibits, take time for a brief three-screen movie presentation, a portion is shown at left*

The movie provides an excellent overview of Narvaez's exploration of the region.

Essentially, the Spanish came ashore in what is modern day Pinellas County (St. Petersburg, FL). But they couldn’t find the mouth of Tampa Bay.

Worse yet, they had alienated and attacked the native Americans, who could have helped them.

Running out of food, Narvaez sent his ships back to Cuba for supplies with orders to return and join up with the land party bayside. 

As with so many causes throughout history, the Spanish explorer's actions were rooted in the fervor of conquest and the name of religion -- in this case Catholicism.

But Narvaez made a fatal assumption. He thought the mouth of the bay must surely be north. So he marched his troops along the beach in the wrong direction.

Let's just say that it's a long, long way from Tampa to Pensacola on the trip northward. The explorer and most of his soldiers vanished. 

Photo of Native American dolls goes here.When the ships returned, they couldn't locate their leader or his men.

A few Spanish soldiers captured by the native Americans survived. Held captive for nearly 11 years, they were finally freed during Hernando De Soto’s later expedition to Florida. 

(Hand-made native American dolls on display at the Tampa Bay History Center are shown at left.*)

Coacoochee’s Story

The highlight of my visit to the history center was the immersive experience within Coacoochee's Story Theater. 

Told from two perspectives – that of a U.S. Army lieutenant of the era and Coachoochee, a native American – this is a riveting and sad story of the Second Seminole War.

Through realistic vignettes, video imagery, audio sounds and multi-media stories, visitors hear the sad tale of native Americans who wished peace and got war.

The presentation covers the mid-1800s era when the winds of power were shifting from native control to the United States government. 

Photo of native American exhibit goes here.Many natives were relocated from their homeland of Florida to points westward.

But about 200 Seminoles  refused to march to Arkansas during the forced relocation effort.

Instead, they fled into the Everglades. They're now survived by 2,500 proud native Americans who continue their legacy today.

In one native American diorama, shown at left, a tribal member creates a colorful costume.*

It's nice to see this museum gives native Americans their due in the big picture of Florida's culture and development. 

 Photo of native American dug-out canoe goes here.

One of the most impressive native American artifacts in the history center is a petrifed dug-out canoe.*  

Photo of native American dress goes here.The "Florida’s First People" exhibit area features Tocobaga and Calusa artifacts, including tools, weapons and pottery.

It also displays original artwork by artist Theodore Morris.

The Charles E. Knight Gallery showcases Seminole and Miccosukee clothing, patchwork, jewelry, baskets, tools and a replica chickee.*

Photo of native American basketry goes here.



We enjoyed the intricate basketry, colorful costumes, and the child-friendly exhibits where kids could try their hand at making a clothing pattern or weave.

Cigar Heritage:

Ybor City

Photo of cigar factory lectur goes here.No history of Tampa Bay would be complete without a look at Tampa’s cigar heritage.

The area’s climate is similar to that of Havana, Cuba, with high humidity – perfect for cigar production.

The exhibitry – under the label of "Cigar City" -- chronicles Tampa's cigar industry and immigrant communities while featuring one of the most extensive cigar memorabilia collections in the world.


Photo of cutaway of Cigar Factory in Ybor City goes here.



We liked the cigar factory model with cut-out sections. Visitors simply push a button to illuminate parts of the factory.

On a larger scale, visitors look up to view a life-sized "lector."

He appears to be reading to the cigar workers -- a common method of entertaining those doing such tedious factory work. 

Landmarks and Historic Photos

Visitors may either take the stairs to the second floor of exhibits, or the largest elevator I’ve ever been in.

This elevator is certainly large enough to transport large cars, exhibitry and even a class of 40 schoolchildren!

You emerge into a second-floor area that showcases historic photos of significant landmarks.

A high-tech, interactive map allows one to select parts of the city and pull up photos and map sections. It's good in theory.

However, I'm good at techie things, and I didn't feel this specific exhibitry really worked well. We abandoned it and moved on.

We liked the "Tampa Bay Timeline" featuring large panels with compelling photographs, artist’s renderings and artifacts that showcase the past 500 years of the region’s history.

Cow Country and Crackers

Photo of cow film and saddles goes here.

In contrast, just around the corner, we loved the "Cow Country and Crackers" exhibit with its huge curved screen.

The term “Florida Cracker” comes from the 1800s. Crackers were frontier-era cowboys who cracked whips to corral bush cattle. 

Photo of cowboy exhibit goes here.Visitors are urged to push the big red button on the far wall and then hop aboard one of three saddles.

While kids surely will love it, I had to try it.

My mom and I couldn’t stop laughing at an adult (yes, me) rocking in the saddle as video unfolded with a fast-paced roundup and cowboy action.

Kid Friendly

and Interactive

This isn't a dry museum. It immerses the visitor in the experience, delivering historical background about the region, yet in interactive or visually interesting ways.

Photo of Orange crate goes here.For example, an "Agriculture/Grove Stand" features souvenirs from citrus-focused Florida, a restored 1908 REO automobile and a "design your own crate label" station.

We enjoyed pulling up the tabs on the "oranges" in a history center display to learn little-known facts about Florida's citrus industry.*

In "Natural Resources," visitors test their knowledge of the region's natural resources and supporting industries.

I recommend visitors sit through the brief and highly entertaining "Port City" theater presentation. You essentially sit in a cargo container.

A cartoon figure tells the story but also adds touches of humor that will have even adults rolling with laughter – such as showing a green potted plant for railroad baron Henry Plant, along with his photo. (Let's just say: "You had to be there.")

"Year-Round Play" exhibitry highlights the area’s recreational and social activities, including a sports trivia board.

Visitors may also climb into a crewing scull and row up the Hillsborough River. One 12-year-old rowed rapidly and watched his virtual progress on a large map -- as his scull moved down the river.

Another younger child wasn’t as effective, but it’s a fun action activity for the little ones.

Photo of hanging chads goes here.The "Witness to Change" area examines significant events that were catalysts for change in the Tampa Bay region, focusing on civil rights, urban growth and nature. 

Visitors might peruse the infamous "hanging chads" that threw the 2000 U.S. Presidential election into disarray.*

After a controversial recount, George W. Bush was named the winner and became President.


Photo of the Rough Riders uniform goes here.The history center's "War Stories" area focuses on soldiers or those serving on the home front in the wars that have touched Florida and the region since the 1830s.

One unique artifact is an original "Rough Riders" uniform from the Spanish American War.*

In addition, one exhibitry area, called "A Land Remembered," is inspired by Patrick Smith’s novel of the same name.

This area includes a replica pioneer cabin, original artifacts and a hands-on Discovery Center.

We observed young children putting on pioneer clothing and "having a play dinner" in the cabin. 

Historic Maps and Rotating Exhibits

Named by Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon in 1513, Florida once included virtually all of what is now the southeastern United States.

Even as late as the 1790s, the Florida territory reached as far west as the Mississippi River.

Photo of historic map goes here.

Touchton Map Gallery on the second floor is a changing exhibition space that focuses on 400 years of Florida maps and related cartographic materials.

Many of the historic maps – some date from the 1500s – come from the collection of Tom and Lee Touchton.

Photo of map display goes here.The Touchton began collecting historic Florida maps in 1982 and have amassed a priceless collection they’ve now donated to the museum for all visitors to enjoy.

One gazes in awe at some of the early maps -- which are amazingly accurate at capturing the outline of Florida's coastline.  


The history center's 2,800-square-foot Third Floor Gallery houses a rotating schedule of exhibitions and art exhibitions.

An Added Bonus: Columbia Café

Photo of cafe artifacts goes here.Florida's oldest Spanish restaurant is the Columbia Restaurant in Tampa's Ybor City.

It was founded by the Hernandez family, Spanish immigrants, in 1905.

The restaurant has several satellite restaurants in Florida, and so you'll discover a Columbia Café within the atrium area of the history center.

You might dine at interior tables, a long wooden bar featuring Old-World styling as well an outdoor seating area on a waterfront terrace; the latter features huge umbrellas covering multiple tables.

We opted for the air conditioned interior. Our server was superb and she made the dining experience a pleasant one.

For lunch, my mother ordered the half Cuban sandwich (smoked ham, roast pork, Genoa salami, Swiss cheese, dill pickle and mustard on pressed hot Cuban bread). 

Photo of 1905 Salad and half a Cuban sandwich goes here.It was accompanied by the restaurant’s famed “1905 Salad,” a mix of iceberg lettuce; grated Romano cheese; julienne strips of baked ham and Swiss cheese; green olives, and tomatoes. (See photo at left*)

The best part is the 100-year-old salad dressing recipe of fresh garlic, oregano, wine vinegar and extra virgin olive oil.

If you go, you might alternatively opt for the soup that made the original Columbia Restaurant so famous – its Spanish Bean Soup featuring Garbanzos, smoked ham, chorizo and potatoes simmered in a savory ham stock.

There is a nice selection of tapas. I ordered the Ybor City favorite of spicy Blue Crab mixed with Cuban cracker crumbs, paprika, onions, peppers and garlic, then breaded and fried golden brown.

Photo of crab/artichoke dip goes here.Another tapas option is the Scallops "Casimiro," fresh scallops baked in a clay casserole with lemon butter and topped with seasoned bread crumbs and white wine.*

Visitors might try a glass of the house Sangria; the tasty mix can be purchased at the restaurant.

Editor's Note: The restaurant is open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. So "after hours" when the history center is closed, just enter through the Riverwalk entrance.

Second Added Bonus: Florida Research Center

Another “extra” within the history center building is the Currie B. and Lavinia Sparkman Witt Research Center.

This facility focuses on Florida history and fields a diverse collection of books, maps, periodicals, microfilm, photographs, subject files and family histories.

In addition to this collection, several computers, a copier and a scanner are available to assist visitors in meeting their research needs.

The Witt Research Center has different hours than the history center itself. For more information, call 813-675-8969.

If You Go ...

The Tampa Bay History Center is located at 801 Old Water Street (formerly St. Pete Times Forum Drive) in Tampa.

Photo of the Tampa Bay History Center goes here.

The Tampa Bay History Center is just a few blocks west of Channelside's dining, shopping and entertainment area.*

The center is just a few blocks from the Port of Tampa's Channelside area piers. 

Hours at presstime were 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily (except Thanksgiving and Christmas).

Photo of exterior area of the Tampa Bay History Center goes here.We recommend checking in advance on any attraction’s Web site or calling that attraction before you drive a long distance to the site.

Hours can change, and may vary depending on big events in the area. 

There is sizable public event space between the Tampa Bay History Center and the channel.*

The St. Pete Times Forum, home of the NHL Tampa Bay Lightning, is across the street from the history center. While the center doesn’t have its own dedicated parking lot, parking for $5 per car is available at the adjacent St. Pete Times Forum East Lot.

Photo of streetcar goes here.Visitors might also park at the Channelside parking garage, several blocks down the street. There is also some street parking in the surrounding area. 

For a full day of history in Tampa, visitors might park in Ybor City and take the streetcar to the Tampa Bay History Center, returning later to Ybor for dining and a historic walk.* 

Normal admission to the Tampa Bay History Center is $12 for adults, $10 for seniors 65 and older; $10 for teens 13-17 and students of all ages with ID; and $7 for children 4-12. Kids 3 and under are admitted free with an adult admission. 

Those with kids might purchase a center-prepared activity backpack and give the kids an adventure through the History Center!

These backpacks are available in the Lykes Atrium for a rental fee of $5 each (plus the cost of museum admission).

Family backpacks are filled with hands-on fun, including games to play, puzzles to piece together, crafts to make, and other engaging activities.

Six different themes are available: Florida’s First People; I Dig Archaeology; Seminole Colors-Stories, Crafts & Culture; The Enduring Seminoles; Cigar City Past Times; and
Cigar City-Sights, Sounds & Flavors

Designed for children ages 6 to 12, each backpack activity option takes about one hour to complete.

Want to know more? Visit www.tampabayhistorycenter.org

*All photos used in this article are owned, copyrighted and used courtesy of Susan J. Young. All rights reserved. Do not link to nor copy these photos. Thank you!



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