By Charles Nelson
The push for ‘good roads’ is not a new issue in Southern Hillsborough County. Six years before the first cars arrived on Tampa streets in 1900, roadbuilding in South County was proposed, although actual construction was often a very slow process.
In 1894, a new road was suggested for linking Tampa to Riverview/Peru. This ‘Riverview Road’ would be built, primarily with convict labor, from a point just east of the Six Mile Creek Bridge (where today’s Broadway Ave. crosses the Tampa Bypass Canal) to the Alafia River.
Because of delays in building other county roads, convict labor was stretched thinly, and construction of the Riverview Road was delayed until late 1899. By then, newspapers were urging action as the existing route was in “exceedingly bad condition for travel.”
In late 1900, the county announced that it would build a swinging, iron drawbridge connecting Riverview with Peru over the Alafia River, using discarded iron from the dismantled Lafayette Street Bridge in Tampa (today’s Kennedy Blvd.).
That bridge was completed in 1901, at about the same time that the Riverview Road became a reality. That road, however, was a shell road and needed frequent repairs to keep it passable. To improve the road, plans to upgrade to a hard brick surface were announced.
But construction once again moved at a snail’s pace as disputes over private contracts, government funding and poor construction techniques hampered progress. In 1905, John Brandon, perhaps South County’s first NIMBY protestor (Not In My Back Yard) slowed construction by strongly opposing improvements near his property.
Yet, despite these delays, the Riverview Road could finally, in 1908, boast 14.3 miles of good, brick road from Tampa to the iron bridge on the Alafia River. Any motorist brave enough to drive across the bridge, however, immediately became mired in unimproved sandy roads that made auto travel difficult, if not impossible.
There were no plans for additional roadwork south of the Alafia since it was believed that existing, unimproved roads adequately served the needs of rural farmers in the area.
Surprisingly, the primary incentive to build good roads south of Riverview came from Manatee County leaders in 1910. They urged Hillsborough Commissioners to close the gap of dangerous, unpassable roads between Parrish and Riverview to create a continuous, paved route between Tampa and Bradenton. Hillsborough Commissioners accepted that challenge, but opposing recommendations on where to build the road stymied any decisions.
The powerful Tampa Board of Trade favored an ‘eastern route’ (now US 301), which would incorporate the Riverview Road and bridge. Its opponents, composed of Ruskin and Gardenville community leaders, favored a ‘western route’ (now US 41) along the bay which would be miles shorter and cheaper to build.
To draw attention to their position, the Board of Trade and the Tampa Automobile Club held a 53-mile auto race from Tampa to Bradenton along the ‘eastern route’ on July 4, 1911. On the paved road sections, north of the Alafia, speeds approached fifty miles an hour, but immediately south of the Alafia bridge, racers slowed to an average of twenty-seven miles per hour on the dangerous, sandy roads.
Recklessly, Tampa’s Fred Ferman gunned his 1911 Cadillac Touring Car into a steep, sandy curve, near Riverview School, at a dangerous 48 miles per hour. He lost control of his vehicle and nearly overturned his car, breaking his rear axle in the process. 1.5 miles from the finish line, his axle disintegrated and his passengers had to push the undrivable car to claim second place in the race. In all, six cars failed to finish because of the dangerous conditions.
That wreck-filled race underscored the need for a good road to Manatee County. On the next day, Commissioners selected the Riverview route as the best alternative and awarded contracts in August 1911.
Again, construction moved very slowly, and the road was not completed until 1923, although by then it had been widened to sixteen feet and paved with asphalt, creating a solid foundation for the future US 301.