At the Sulphur Springs River Tower Festival, Tampa felt like Toronto

by Joey deVilla on November 18, 2019

The warmly-dressed guitarists and bassist from 'Have Gun Will Travel' playing onstage at River Tower Concert in evening.

Take a look at this scene from an outdoor concert that took place Saturday night, and note what the musicians from the alt-folk-roots-rock band Have Gun Will Travel are wearing. From left to right, one guitarist is wearing a leather jacket and hoodie, the other guitarist is wearing a jean jacket, and the bassist is wearing a flannel shirt (a.k.a. “Kenora Dinner Jacket”).

The temperature was about 10° C, which is 50° in Herr Doktor von Fahrenheit’s old-timey system for measuring phlogiston in the atmos-sphere. By Tampa standards, this is downright frigid. By Canadian standards, it’s would be light jacket weather, except for the fact that “It’s a wet cold!”. The humidity for which Florida is known, combined with that evening’s breeze, made it feel considerably chillier, even for me.

Here’s another photo of the concert from farther back.

'Have Gun Will Travel' playing onstage at River Tower Concert in evening.

What also added to the “Toronto in the fall” feeling included:

  • Everyone in the audience bundled up in different ways: winter coats, flannel, blankets, and those baja hoodie things that people used to call “drug rugs”,
  • a conversation with Chris, a local who’d just come from a hockey game and who was still wearing his hockey jersey and describing Tampa Bay Lightning’s loss to the Winnipeg Jets, and
  • the park’s complete lack of palm trees or other sub-tropical flora. If I didn’t know any better, I’d swear I was at Sandbanks Provincial Park in Ontario, and nowhere near Florida.

The event was a concert for the Sulphur Springs River Tower Festival, whose goal was to raise funds to help restore this structure:

Sulphur Springs River Tower rising over the trees at night.

It’s the Sulphur Springs Water Tower, located in Sulphur Springs, a historic district of Tampa that’s just north of my neighborhood, Seminole Heights.

Here’s a drone’s-eye view of the tower:

Back in the 1920s, Sulphur Springs was seven miles north of what was considered to the city of Tampa, and it was an amusement park. People traveled there by trolley to enjoy the spring and pool, do some canoeing on the Hillsborough River, and see the alligator farm “with thousands of live alligators on display.” It was the subject of many a postcard:

The tower was built in 1927 to supply water pressure to the nearby Sulphur Springs Hotel and Apartments (pictured below)…

…as well as Florida’s first shopping mall, Mave’s Arcade:

In 1933, a break in the Hillsborough River dam caused a flood that destroyed the arcade. The park later became home to the Tower Drive-In Theater from 1952 to 1985, when the city condemned the site. Abandoned, the tower fell into disrepair and became a graffiti target. The city purchased the tower in 2005, installed lights to illuminate the tower, and since then have done nothing.

Sulphur Springs Tower is a Tampa icon and landmark. I navigate by it whenever I drive down I-275 or bike around the neighborhood. You might think it’s an imitation of San Francisco’s Coit Tower, but it predates Coit, which was in 1933, a good six years and one stock market crash later. It’s been 30 years since the Tower’s been given any love, and it’s long overdue for some.

Here are some news items about the tower and the festival:

My thanks to Tom Leber for the tickets! I’d also be happy to throw a couple of bucks towards restoring the tower.

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