You may not have heard of Peter Demens, but he was one of the Sunshine City's founders. And he's the person responsible for give the St Petersburg its name.
Just how did it happen?
Born Pyotr Dementyev just outside of St Petersburg, Russia, he served in the Czar's military and was part of the aristocratic life. He left the country after Czar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881. Arriving in New York he "Americanized" his name to Peter Demens and stayed only a short time before leaving for Jacksonville, Florida, where a relative lived.
Soon Demens started a successful lumber mill in Longwood, Florida that supplied logs for railroad ties and lumber for rail stations. When one of his customers, the Orange Belt Railway had financial troubles and was unable to pay, Demens became owner of his own railroad line.
Meanwhile, John Williams, a wealthy man from Detroit had moved to Florida for health reasons and wanted to start his own city on the Pinellas peninsula. He choose the site where St Pete is now. Back in the late 1880's this area was no more than a tiny fishing village and Williams knew to make it a successful city he would have to have transportation for goods and people.
After all, this area was completely isolated from the rest of Florida unless you arrived by boat. A rail line could change all of that and it eventually did. He approached Peter Demens with a deal...you build a rail line connecting Central Florida to St Petersburg and I'll give you prime waterfront acreage along my proposed new city.
The two men agreed on a deal with the stipulation the rail line had to be completed by 1888 and extend into Tampa Bay to reach deep enough water for boats to load and unload. The railroad made it to current day MLK Street by 1888 and 1st Ave South...but that wasn't the deal the two men had struck. Demens still had to provide access to the water.
Williams refused to give Demens the land until the pier was complete. Peter Demens did eventually finish the task (in 1889) with a railroad pier that extended 1/2 mile into the Bay in order to reach 12 ft deep waters.
Throughout it Demens was under tremendous pressure from suppliers, financiers...even his own workers halted work and threatened lynching if they weren't paid back wages immediately. One of Demens' business partners had a fatal stroke when creditors chained the train engines to the track. There was also the threat of malaria and yellow fever the workers had to contend with, amazingly it got built!
So how did Demens come to name the city? You might hear the tale of a coin toss between Williams and Demens, the winner getting the rights to name the city and the loser naming the only hotel in town (built by Demens), but that's not it. Actually it was one of Demens' associates, Henry Sweetapple who filled out the paperwork at the Longwood post office (back then the post offices were involved in approving and naming cities). And he had the town named "St Petersburg" after Peter Demens' hometown.
Today "Demens Landing" is a city park and the site of the old Railroad Pier, St Pete's first city pier.
Rev B has nearly been published multiple times and has received letters of rejection from Highlights, Jet Magazine, Dear Abby and The New Yorker. While accepting full responsibility for all grammatical errors he makes no claims of being an author. Please enjoy the entries found here and use the search function if you're looking for something more specific.