When you hear the words Sulphur Springs, Tampa, you may think of a few things. Perhaps the landmark Sulphur Springs Water Tower or the public Sulphur Springs Pool. But few people remember what Sulphur Springs used to be — a popular vacation spot. Luckily, the Sulphur Springs Museum and Heritage Center is here to remind us of this vibrant, local history.
Florida’s own Coney Island
From the late 19th century until the 1940s, the independent community of Sulphur Springs was a national tourist attraction. People came to bathe in the beautiful mineral water and ride on the 40-foot water slide. There was even an alligator farm and the Sulphur Springs Hotel and Arcade, Florida’s first indoor shopping venue.
“It was like its own amusement park before Busch Gardens even opened here,” says Amy Dao, director of the Sulphur Springs Museum and Heritage Center.
Josiah Richardson, the original owner of the property, built up an oasis for the middle and working class. The Sulphur Springs Hotel and Arcade featured apartments, shops, post office, barbershop, sheriff, jail and bank. It was recognized in Ripley’s Believe It or Not as an entire city under one roof.
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That all changed in the 60s when the springs shut down. Sulphur Springs experienced bacterial outbreaks in the water because of nearby sinkholes and pollution. Even after the springs were shut down to swimmers, the City of Tampa still pumped water from the springs to its reservoir whenever the city experienced a drought. The continued abuse and pollution have made the springs unsalvageable. And despite public opposition, the city tore down the Arcade in 1975 in order to make extra parking for the local dog track.
Keeping the history alive
Sulphur Springs, Tampa may never return to its glory days. But the Sulphur Springs Museum and Heritage Center is determined to keep the history of the area alive. Founded in 2006 with USF, the museum is dedicated to contributing to the community’s economic growth, increasing respect and preservation of natural features, and providing educational resources and opportunities for all who visit. Museum director Amy Dao wants the museum to be a resource and exciting cultural center.
“We want to show people the rich history. There was a lot going on here back in the day that people don’t know about. So we’re here to be an education resource center for the neighborhood,” Dao says.
Along with a permanent exhibits that highlight the history of Sulphur Springs, Tampa, the museum also has rotating exhibits. Currently, an exhibit celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Riders is on display until March 27. The next exhibit starting April 8, is Have Blues, Will Travel: Driving While Black. It will highlight the dangers Black musicians faced while traveling in the Jim Crow era.
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There’s also Speaker Sundays, a monthly event at the museum where a guest speaker talks about issues related to the current exhibit. This March features guest speaker and journalist Kenya Woodard who will discuss the history of the Black press in Florida. Speaker Sundays happens every third Sunday of the month. Admission is free and refreshments are provided. In April, John Capouya will talk about soul music and the Civil Rights movement.
The Sulphur Springs Museum and Heritage Center is open Wednesday to Saturday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
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