Henry Plant didn’t just build the original iteration of the hotel that is now Belleview Inn. He’s the little-known individual responsible for kick-starting the development of Florida.
Who knows what Florida – particularly Tampa Bay and Pinellas County – would have looked like today if it weren’t for Henry Plant? He was said to have been so significant to the development of the state in the late 1800s that, in an 1898 article, Success Magazine dubbed him “the King of Florida.” Another article from an 1895 issue of The Atlanta Constitution proclaimed that he was “one of those remarkable men who masters all conditions and creates environment. He is a builder – a creator. A whole state blossoms at the touch of his magic wand.”
Henry Plant Who?
So why have you likely never heard of him? Because of another Henry that you likely have heard of: Henry Flagler. While both men were equally important in early Florida transportation systems – Plant linking Central and West Florida with his railway; Flagler’s railroad extending from Jacksonville down Florida’s East Coast and eventually connecting the mainland to the Keys – Flagler tends to get all the glory. Scholars contend that it’s because Flagler was more personally invested in Florida as he had a home in Palm Beach. Plant, on the other hand, always remained connected to his Northeastern roots, with homes in New York and Connecticut. And when Plant died in 1899, he also didn’t have anyone to carry the torch for him (his only surviving son remained in New York City), whereas Flagler did, helping to solidify his reputation in Florida – and, as a result, history as well.
A Love of the Rail Lines
But Plant’s achievements were certainly nothing to scoff at, even in comparison to his more popular counterpart. Born to a modest farming family in Branford, Connecticut, in 1819, Plant first went to work at the age of 18 as a captain’s boy for the New Haven Steamboat Company that ran between New York and New Haven. Demonstrating a knack for the express shipping business, he quickly moved up through the ranks and eventually, in 1854, became the superintendent of the Southern Division of the Adams Express Company in Georgia.
After the outbreak of the Civil War, however, the company went bankrupt. Instead of returning to the Northeast, where he was originally from, Plant recognized a business opportunity at hand. Not only did he buy Adams Express’s southern express lines, but he purchased additional railways as they also went bankrupt, until he eventually connected and expanded rail lines through Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. Recognizing the potential Florida had (he had spent time there in the 1850s when his wife, on doctor’s orders, was sent there to treat her failing health), he took his first step to opening up the state in 1881, when he laid a line between Waycross, Georgia, and Jacksonville, Florida. By 1884, he brought the first steam engine to Tampa.
Putting Florida on the Map
“Before Plant, Florida was just a wilderness of orange groves, cattle, small isolated villages,” says John Hobach, president of JMC Communities, the St. Petersburg–based property developer that completed the restoration of Belleview Inn in 2018. “But he made them into accessible communities.” At this point, no other person – Flagler included – had dedicated this much time, energy, and money to the advancement of Florida. In fact, thanks to his railways connecting Florida producers with Eastern seaboard consumers, state industries such as citrus, celery, lumber, and phosphate flourished.
The state’s fledgling tourism industry did too, luring travelers who sought to retreat from harsh northern winters. That led to the building of his own eight grand hotels throughout western Florida from Tampa to Punta Gorda, which attracted, housed, and entertained his wealthy passengers, their families, and entourages. They boasted amenities such as electric power, winding walkways through exotic gardens, and sports like golf, tennis, and shuffleboard.
Today, there are only two remaining Plant hotels standing. One is the former Tampa Bay Hotel (opened in 1891) that now houses the Henry B. Plant Museum; the other is Belleview Inn (opened in 1896 under the name The Hotel Belleview), which sits on a bluff in Belleair overlooking what is now Clearwater Bay and was painstakingly restored between the years of 2016 and 2018 into the luxury Florida Gulf luxury inn you see today. But what makes Belleview Inn so special is that it’s the only Henry Plant hotel still in operation as a hotel. And you can see many homages to him in the latest iteration, including the restored column-lacking lobby and specially commissioned artwork.
Where to Stay Belleview Inn