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‘First Airline’ monument in the works for St. Pete waterfront

Bill DeYoung

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Artist rendering of the monument at the St. Pete Pier approach (all images provided by Flight 2014)

Ferrying passengers from one side of Tampa Bay to the other didn’t originate with the 2016 launch of the Cross-Bay ferry service. Developed and subsidized by both Pinellas and Hillsborough governments, that $350,000 pilot program – soon to be continued on a larger scale – arrived with a legendary precedent.

On New Year’s Day, 1914, pioneering pilot Tony Jannus began the world’s first passenger airline service, crossing from St. Petersburg’s Municipal Pier to the Hillsborough River (near the Lafayette Bridge) in Tampa in 23 minutes. On that first 21-mile journey, Jannus carried a single, honorary passenger – ex-St. Pete mayor A.C. Pheil paid $400 for the privilege.

The twice-a-day flights continued, six days every week, for three months. Tourists loved the novel experience, at $5 per person.

Flight 2014 was formed to coordinate a series of celebratory events around the centennial of Jannus’ historic first, in 2014. Today, the , a 501(c)3 nonprofit – a partnership between the Florida Aviation Historical Society, the St. Petersburg Museum of History, the Tony Jannus Distinguished Aviation Society and the St. Pete Chamber of Commerce – has its sights set on erecting a monument at the approach of the new, in-progress pier.

“It’s probably St. Petersburg’s biggest claim to international history, being the birthplace of the world’s first airline,” says Flight 2014 president Will Michaels. “That’s something that needs to be celebrated.”

The public art proposal, which has been endorsed by Mayor Rick Kriseman and City Council, calls for a steel replica of Jannus’ then-daring Benoist “airboat,” aloft a curved, artistic support, with a surrounding plaza consisting of educational panels telling the full, fascinating tale.

The hope, Michaels says, is that the replica plane will be full-sized. The group’s goal is to raise $700,000 through sponsorships and public donations.

Find out how to contribute here.

Michaels, a past president of the Museum of History and the author of The Making of St. Petersburg, stresses the multi-faceted significance of Jannus’ 1914 feat. “It’s not just the idea of a world first occurring here in St. Pete; it’s a great community story,” he says. “It’s a great local story.”

The brainchild of Jacksonville businessman Percy Fansler, the project was enthusiastically underwritten by St. Pete and Tampa governments, along with prominent local business people including developers George Gandy, Charles Roser and Evening Independent publisher Lew Brown, to the tune of $3,000.

The City constructed a hangar, near the pier, for the 24-year-old Jannus, and the pilots who would follow him in the business.

“So it’s the story of a community coming together, embracing a new technology,” says Michaels. “And I think it’s a model for other events that might occur here in St. Pete in the future.”

There were no airports or landing strips in the area in 1914 – the Wright Brothers’ first-ever powered flights had taken place just 11 years before – and so the Benoist airboat was “launched” by sliding it down a ramp into the water. A crowd estimated at 3,000 turned up to watch and cheer.

Tony Jannus

Jannus flew at 50 feet over the bay, and landed on the river in Hillsborough. Gathered there were another 3,000 cheering people.

“Twenty-one miles was a big deal back then,” says Michaels. “It’s still a big deal, really, if you’re trying to get from downtown Tampa to downtown St. Petersburg.

“Actually, Tony Jannus still has the record for getting across the bay the fastest.”

 

 

Here’s a unique way to show your support: Buy a custom, limited-edition Flight 2014 T-shirt from St. Pete Threads – and every dime of your $100 will go directly to the monument fund!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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