Tampa's Rough Riders honor city's role in Spanish-American War

Nearly 120 years later, the War of 1898 remains a defining moment in the Bay Area's history.  It's the story of the Henry Plant Museum, Teddy Roosevelt, the Rough Riders, and the war that put America on the world stage.  

That year, nearly 600 American troops gathered and set out for Cuba in hopes of liberating the island from the Spanish. Tampa was suddenly more than just a dusty weigh station.    

The current-day Rough Riders are gathering Saturday morning to say that Tampa remembers the chaotic days that set the stage for Cuban independence.

Tampa was alive, thanks in part to one of the biggest characters in American history and his devoted wife.

"At that time it was just a small dusty town that was known for producing cigars," said Bill Hogan of the Tampa Rough Riders.

Visitors were not impressed.

"One described it as a bum place," said Lindsay Huban of the Plant Museum. "[But the Tampa Hotel] was easily the nicest hotel in the state of Florida."

Henry Plant pushed for the eventual leaders of the invasion of Cuba to stay there. 

A group of powerful Americans, including Teddy Roosevelt, wanted to push the Spanish out of Cuba after the sinking of the Maine.

"It had electricity in every room, you had a telephone so you had luxury you didn't have anywhere else," said Huban.

Teddy Roosevelt recruited horsemen from New England to train for adventure in the Caribbean.

"The journey by rail from San Antonio to Tampa took just four days, and I doubt if anybody was on the trip will soon forget it," Teddy Roosevelt wrote in his memoirs of the experience. "Everywhere, the people came out to greet and cheer us. They brought us flowers, they brought us watermelons and other fruits."

The commanding officers stayed at the Tampa Hotel, as opposed to the chaotic tent cities in South Tampa. Rooms were $15 a night. His wife, Edith came too.

Image 1 of 27

She wrote her sister to say she was in her "thinnest nightgown."

"The bed is located in the alcove so you could open the windows and have cross breezes at night," said Huban.

Roosevelt got permission to spend the night, so long as he was back for 4 a.m. reveille.

"This was Teddy's last stop before going to war," said Huban. "This would have sort of been his last hurrah."

Hurrah, indeed.

"During the time the soldiers were here, there would have been balls every evening," said Huban. "Everybody looking resplendent in their fanciest outfits, their dress uniforms, it really kind of set the stage. Moonlit walks throughout the parks. It really would have been a very romantic place."

Historians politely describe nights full of "conjugal comforts."

"Ultimately, Teddy had about six kids, so he was a rather busy guy," said Hogan of the Rough Riders.

The Rough Riders disembarked for Cuba from what is now Picnic Island.

"The bands [were] playing, the flags flying," wrote Roosevelt. "The great fleet steamed southeast until the Tampa light sank into the distance."

Left behind was a city whose mark was made.

"Henry Plant lobbying to have all the troops come to Tampa on their way to Cuba really is what got Tampa on the world stage," said Huban. "It made people hear of Tampa and start coming to Tampa."

Tampa now had a history. Plaques, gazebos, and civic groups mark the time.

"They would have been coming straight from the east out towards the Seffner area, coming straight through Tampa on their horses," said John Werner of the Tampa Rough Riders.

The most famous participant of America's first international war needed Tampa to fortify himself,

"He was an absolute wild man," said Hogan.

It fortified him in more ways than one.

"They were instilling spirit in the whole area, the city of Tampa, and hopefully in the whole country," said Werner.

The Tampa Rough Riders are rededicating the gazebo at the Spanish-American War Memorial Park at 4752 W. Prescott St. on Saturday morning November 3 at 10:30 a.m.