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This week, while Ybor City is going through an economic revitalization, an amazing discovery was made at one of the construction sites. An underground tunnel that runs ½ mile out to the Port of Tampa was found. It has been rumored that Ybor City is known for its bootleg whiskey, gambling, and women. Some of today’s historians say it might have been built for the Chinese prostitutes being smuggled in from Cuba through a network of tunnels that lay underneath the building in the historical landmark known as Ybor City.
Today, the City of Ybor still hosts its charm while preserving its history. You know you have arrived to Ybor when you see the immense archways that line the entrance to the streets of Ybor. The streets are cobblestone and railways line the streets, and the buildings are mostly brick and cast iron. Ybor City is now a bustling area of both business and entertainment. The buildings still standing reflect the influence of Ybor’s cigar-making past.
Like Sarasota, the famous Columbia restaurant has roots in Ybor City. It opened in 1905 and is one of the area’s oldest family-owned restaurant. You find many other restaurants influenced by Spanish and Cuban ancestry.
Fun fact, in 1885 Tampa had two telegraph lines and a steam-powered street railway system which carried passengers between Tampa and Ybor City. When Tampa Electric Company took control of Consumers Electric Light and Power in 1899, the streetcar line consisted of 21.5 miles of track, and it became an essential part of everyday life as workers took the streetcar downtown and to the cigar factories.
Tampa’s streetcar system stopped in August 1946 following World War II. Today Tampa Electric has brought the electric streetcars back to life in Tampa, which helps to support continued growth in Ybor City. Tampa Electric houses some of their business units in a brick historical building that sits outside the Ybor arches
Ybor City is rich in a history that stems from the first railway system that Henry Plant brought to the community. This infrastructure enticed Cuban businessman Vicente Martinez Ybor to move his cigar manufacturing operation to this area, and that is how Ybor City was established. One single cigar factory could employ up to 4,000 workers. Henry settled in nearby Plant City. The railroad gave this community a place on the map, and allowed agricultural growth, such as the Strawberry Festival many of you may have visited. One of the speeches given by José Martí was (Jose Martí, born in Cuba in 1853, was a teacher and a writer who advocated the overthrow of the Spanish who controlled his native land) delivered at the Vicente Martinez Ybor cigar factory.
This speech became his most famous that advocated for Cuban independence. After Jose’s speech, hundreds of cigar makers and other workers formed infantry companies to begin preparing themselves for battle. From the revolutionary fund, they bought rifles and ammunition. Martí returned to Cuba with a small army of these men and led the insurrection of 1895. Martí and many members of his Ybor City army died in a battle. Their deaths further inflamed public opinion against Spain. Newspapers across the country decorated Martí’s efforts in headlines and stories. His death brought more pressure for a revolution with help from the United States. When the U.S. declared war against Spain in 1898, American troops passed through the port of Tampa on their way to Cuba, and many Cuban immigrants were part of that army.
Then, Theodore Roosevelt and his units known as the Rough Riders were stationed in Tampa during the Spanish-American War in 1898. In the Spring of 1898, Tampa and the Tampa Bay area served as the main staging grounds because Henry Plant pointed out the importance of defending Tampa to the Secretary of War Russell Alger. Henry had a lot to lose, he invested far too much in building his railways and bringing jobs to the area. Plant suggested Egmont and Mullett Keys were good sites for coastal defense. Troops dispensed into Tampa, and one community impacted by the troops was Ybor City. You all should take a trip to Ybor City. I would suggest a day trip, as I have been told the nightlife in Ybor City can get crazy.
It’s an hour drive from Sarasota You will need to take I-75 North, straight all the way for approximately 50 miles, you will then need to exit at 256 that simple merges onto the what is known as the Solemn Expressway or Cross Town or FL-618 Port of Tampa. You will stay on this route for approximately 9 miles, you will then take exit 9, 22nd street, or highway 41 towards Port of Tampa. At that point, you will begin zig-zagging up and down the local streets. More than any other person besides maybe Henry Plant, Vicente M. Ybor was responsible for Tampa becoming a thriving port city in the last part of the 19th century. Before he relocated his cigar business from Key West, Tampa was not known for much of anything. With the arrival of immigrant cigar workers, Ybor City would soon become famous worldwide as the “Cigar Capital of the World.”
Today, the longtime home to shops, restaurants, and bars is being turned into stripped-down office space for professionals. It is said that the new owner is making a careful effort to preserve the 114-year-old red brick building during the conversion. The building has been gutted to its original state. It’s sad to see the walkways and other late 20th-century modifications also are being removed from the three buildings where Vicente Martinez Ybor rolled Tampa’s first cigars in 1886. Many believe that the city of Tampa including Ybor played an important role in the days and weeks leading up to the United States invasion of Cuba that began the Spanish- American War. The United States achieved the status of a world power during this war.
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