St. Pete’s ‘Fountain of Youth’ is a familiar lesson in the challenges of Florida’s urban springs | Tampa Bay News | Tampa

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Photo by Dr. Amanda Hagood

St. Pete’s “fountain of youth” is a water-stained faucet.

On one of those very un-Floridian winter days, the sky is shrouded in thick clouds, a steady, spitting rain chills the back of my neck, and I sneak down 1st Street like a half-drowned cat. After 20 minutes of driving through downtown St. Petersburg, upset left and right (literally) by my misunderstanding of its many one-way streets, I abandoned the car, cursed when I discovered that I had left my umbrella at home, and decided to sabotage it anyway. I’m on a mission.

I’m looking for the Fountain of Youth.

This is, of course, a quest as old as La Florida itself. Except maybe not. For more than a century, the legend of Florida’s magical spring of youth has made its way through the state’s water attractions, tourist literature and a whole suitcase full of Florida place names, including including the weird little corner of St. Petersburg. I am searching. The story is said to begin with the conquistador Juan Ponce de León, who gave his name to Florida (from the Spanish Easter celebration “Pascua Florida”) after sighting its Atlantic coast in April 1513. His expedition continued to surveying “island”, which they quickly discovered was not an island, stretching from around present-day St. Augustine to somewhere near Charlotte Harbor.

My route is much shorter. After a couple of drizzly blocks, I find myself in a brick-paved octagon surrounded by a low beige cement wall, with a water-stained white pedestal rising in the center. The space is guarded by two growling lion masks that once splash water in sunken pools. The “fountain” itself is a water-stained faucet, turned slightly askew, much like the one I remember from the water fountain outside my high school gym. Honestly, I wouldn’t have known about this place for The Fountain of Youth if it wasn’t for the old fashioned script scrawled on the marker facing the street – which I only noticed on leaving.

Click to enlarge Look for the ancient script to find the

Photo by Dr. Amanda Hagood

Search the ancient script to find St. Pete’s “Fountain of Youth”.

Old postcards of this place frame it very differently: there is lush tropical vegetation and smiling tourists (also sometimes gagged tourists, as the magic water was apparently quite mocking). A statue of Ponce de León once stood on the pedestal, but had to be removed after multiple defacements. Although I was unprepared for the more austere version before me, I was aware that the fountain had shrunk over the years.

St. Pete’s own “discovery” came in 1901, when local philanthropist Edwin H. Tomlinson tapped a sulphurous groundwater well at the base of a fishing pier he had built off the coast of the 4th Avenue S. Visitors soon began to flock to this “fountain of youth”. tasting the waters, thinking, I guess, whatever smelled so medicinal must actually be good for you. A few years later, one of those visitors (Dr. Jesse Conrad) returned to buy the pier and expand the site with bathing and drinking facilities and an eye-catching sign. Around the same time, another quick-rejuvenate attraction had opened statewide in St. Augustine. Indeed, this fountain of youth, built on the grounds of a former Spanish mission, is still thriving today, with tourists coming from far and wide to drink the water from its source in small plastic cups or, if they’re feeling fancy, a blue bottle of wine with a cork stopper.

Click to enlarge A 1934 postcard (Gulf Coast Card Co.) showing people enjoying the waters.  The card notes:  "Thousands of gallons of Fountain of Youth water, said to have healing properties for those suffering from rheumatism and neuritis, are carried from the still flowing well each year in jars." - PHOTO VIA FLORIDA MEMORY

Photo via Florida Memory

A 1934 postcard (Gulf Coast Card Co.) showing people enjoying the waters. The card notes: “Thousands of gallons of water from the Fountain of Youth, said to have curative values ​​for those suffering from rheumatism and neuritis, are carried from the still flowing well each year in jars .”

Of course, there isn’t much evidence to suggest that Ponce de León actually visited any of these sites, or the many others that now bear his name. (My favorite: De Leon Springs in Volusia County, a uniquely Florida mix of a former sugar cane plantation turned elephant waterskiing pond turned do-it-yourself pancake restaurant — sort of too a state park.) wisdom has it that Ponce de León was not even looking for the fountain of youth so much as, like other conquistadors, for gold, land and people to enslave.

Later writers who claimed he was looking for the fountain were more likely to cast shadows, suggesting that Ponce was either reckless (looking for something that obviously didn’t exist) or helpless (one of the things the fountain was meant to restore was your…er, personal vitality).

Ultimately, the water that Ponce de León – along with his navigator Antón de Alaminos – should probably be known for is not the fountain, but the Gulf Stream, the powerful current that hugs the coast of Florida and pushes towards north along the Atlantic coast. This flow will prove decisive in the process of European colonization, fueling, among other things, the infamous triangular trade of sugar, rum and slaves.

But the fountain of youth myth has stuck, and that’s perhaps no surprise. As Rick Kilby points out in his lavishly illustrated tour of Florida Fountain-related sites (“Finding the Fountain of Youth”, 2013), this story has taken on iconic power in promoting Florida to potential visitors, even in as Ponce de León—and celebrating the colonial invasion in general—has fallen out of favor.

“For five centuries the idea of ​​Florida has been tied to the vital properties of its water, both real and mythical,” Kilby writes. That may be especially true in St. Pete, where early boosters like Dr. WC Van Bibber were already promoting the city’s warm climate, salty breezes, and abundant sunshine as creating a “health city” perfect for sick snowbirds.

Click to enlarge A 1951 photograph showing visitors enjoying (sort of) medicinal waters.  - PHOTO VIA FLORIDA MEMORY

Photo via Florida Memory

A 1951 photograph showing visitors enjoying (sort of) medicinal waters.

Even after a major hurricane destroyed the Fountain of Youth pier in 1921, the city routed water from the well to a nearby location further inland, where until 1975 residents and tourists (“the newlyweds and the nearly dead”) would gather to drink or take it home in bottles. Tests in 1971 suggested there might be some truth to locals’ claims that the water was special: it apparently contained high levels of lithium, a well-known mood stabilizer. As WTVT’s Lloyd Sowers joked, “It may not have made them look younger, but it may have made them more relaxed about getting older.”

I wish I could say the same for me. Standing in this forgotten little place, squeezed on both sides by the vast, currently empty parking lots of Al Lang Field and the Mahaffey Theatre, it’s hard not to be disappointed. Why? Because I failed to find a magic elixir to reverse the ravages of my nearly 40s (or even just the last two)? Or was it the discovery of a place once bubbling with life now so deserted? Or maybe it’s a deeper concern that goes as far as the aquifer itself.

For, as the popularity of the fountain of youth illustrates, the story of water in Florida has for so long been a legend of endless abundance.

Our springs, our seas, and even the vast Floridian aquifer that waters so many of our towns and farms have all been imagined as an endless spring that allows us to defy the ironclad rules of depletion and exhaustion. We are beginning to see the consequences of living in this fairy tale: the Florida Springs Institute determined in 2018 that there was a 32% reduction in average spring flows between 1950 and 2010, even as withdrawals for residential and agricultural properties continue to increase. As National Geographic’s Jon Heggie says, “In Florida, the health of the aquifer is visible in its headwaters. With insufficient water to create high pressure, flows stop, algae forms, and clear spring waters become stagnant and brackish, and may even dry up.

I saw this anti-miracle for myself: after a formative experience in Florida at the extraordinary first-magnitude Wakulla Springs in the late 1990s, I returned to share this special place with my partner in 2015. Nostalgic for the magic glass bottom boat tour i had done as a kid, i was disappointed to learn that the boats weren’t working. Thanks to runoff and reduced flow, the water just isn’t clear enough most of the time. I scaled the old dive tower to peer into the 200-foot-wide entrance to the massive cave at the bottom of the basin, a ghostly place that still burned in my memory, littered with mammoth bones and populated by hundreds of schools of fish. What I saw instead: a lone snorkeler trying to spot a manatee that was within 15 feet. His family was shouting instructions in the swimming pool: “To your left! Ten o’clock!” they cried. Not well; the water was too dark.

And although Tampa Bay’s urban springs are smaller than their giant cousins, their struggles are, in a way, even more spectacular. Paved, channeled, polluted or clogged by rising salt water, they are often the first victims of development, revealing our thwarted relationship with the water on which we depend. Many of them could be restored, their streams regaining some of their lost power to feed the bay, provide habitat and wow us with their extraordinary beauty. But that, in addition to saving the great northern springs, would force us to go beyond the desire for eternal youth and the expectation of eternal abundance. As I stand alone, shivering in the cold drizzle, a vision comes to me: perhaps we should turn this lonely place into a Fountain of the Ancients, a vantage point where we can watch over our life-giving bay. A sanctuary whose waters would magically inspire outpourings of thanks to the land that has provided us with so much, and floods of respect for this beautiful, fragile and utterly unique place we now call Florida. The story of water in Florida has for so long been a legend of endless abundance.

Yeah, that’s it: Fountain of the Ancients! I think as I pull up my coat for the pilgrimage back to my car. It will look great on a postcard.

Click to enlarge Cover of the April 21, 2022 issue of Creative Loafing Tampa Bay.  - PHOTOGRAPH BY DR.  AMANDA HAGOOD.  DESIGN BY JACK SPATAFORA

Photo by Dr. Amanda Hagood. Design by Jack Spatafora

Cover of the April 21, 2022 issue of Creative Loafing Tampa Bay.


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