A Feature from the Gabber Newspaper
No gambling, but lots of history in this Gulfport gem
The current Gulfport Casino, anchor of Beach Boulevard and centerpiece of the waterfront.
Casino of a Different Kind
By Roger Turner
It dominates the history of Gulfport much the way it dominates our waterfront. Look down Beach Boulevard to the bay, and it's all you see. Look through the history books on Gulfport, and you'll get much the same viewpoint. Maybe not first but certainly foremost, there was the Casino.
Our Story of Gulfport calls it the "heart and hub" of Gulfport. The Historic Preservation Committee designated it a "local historical landmark," the first of only three (the other two are the Gulfport Historical Museum building and The Cedars/Bayview Hotel), with maybe a fourth coming soon (Scout Hall).
Webster defines "casino" as "a public room or building used for social meetings, dancing, gaming." In the age of Las Vegas and Atlantic City, most newcomers and visitors think of the last word in that definition when they encounter the Gulfport Casino. But the pioneers had the rest of the definition in mind when they named the first Casino nearly 100 years ago.
The First Casino
The steamship burned and sank and the railroad went to far-off St. Petersburg instead. So Disston City remained isolated from the rest of the world and never fulfilled the dreams of its founder.
Veteran City (designed to attract Civil War veterans) was another grand idea that never made it much beyond the dreaming and platting stage. It remained for a trolley line, a dock, and a way station cum dance hall and "spa" to put Gulfport on the map.
The trolley line came from St. Petersburg, built by Frank Davis as an extension of that city's system. Since the idea was to connect to boats that would carry passengers to the increasingly popular Pass-A-Grille, a 700-foot dock was built out into the bay and electrified and lighted (thus, "the electric dock"). Trolleys rolled down what is now Beach Boulevard and all the way to the end of the dock, where passengers could practically step right onto the boats.
The dock was completed in 1905 and, the following year, a way station and ticket office opened on the east side of the tracks out near the far end. The building contained a Post Office and a refreshment stand and shop that sold postcards, shells and other souvenirs as well as tobacco, candy and soft drinks. There was also an apartment for the couple who ran the place, and an open-air pavilion on the second floor with a dance floor and a stage.
It was known variously as The Casino, the Gulf Casino and, sometimes, as the "Dock and Spa." That last designation, according to Doris Brown in Our Story, comes from a sign on the trolley identifying its destination. By any name, the place became a popular attraction on its own.
That first Casino was also an important meeting place. The founding fathers gathered there when deciding to incorporate Gulfport in 1910. The First United Methodist Church, now at 28th and 53rd, met there in the beginning. It wasn't just about dancing.
But for 15 years, the first Casino made Gulfport popular. The trolley made transportation available. Together, they stimulated growth in this once tiny fishing and agricultural village.
An early version of the current Casino, built on 72 concrete piers now enclosed by a sea wall.
Until 1921, that is. Though seemingly well built, the wooden structure couldn't withstand a direct hit from a devastating hurricane that year. It was quickly replaced in 1923 by a poorly built structure on stilts that was closer to shore (maybe 100 feet out) and had "Gulfport Casino" emblazoned across its front.
Built, again, by the St. Petersburg and Gulf Railway, the second Casino was torn down a few short years later because of "code violations" and safety concerns. Little is known about this second version, and perhaps it's just as well.
Some folklore survives, however, and is often retold. It was land-boom time in Florida and the Roaring 20's everywhere. Dancing, though ever popular, was at its height in Casino number two. The crowd danced and the building shook and people worried that it might all fall into the bay. The building's short life suggests that the story may be true.
The Present Version
It's difficult to pin down exactly when the second Casino was torn down, but it seems evident that Gulfport was without one for some time. The crash in the late 20's and the ensuing depression meant there was little money available for building a new one.
Until 1934, when the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (one of the many Roosevelt Administration economic recovery agencies) and the local Civil Works Administration pooled their resources to build a new one. The result is the Gulfport Casino that we live with today, more or less.
It was moved to the shoreline this time and built on concrete piers, a wooden structure that cost $16,000 to build. The trolley, which made its last run in 1948, was never physically connected to the building. And as always, this new Casino became an intrinsic part of the social fabric of the community.
It has hosted political events and wedding receptions and club luncheons and card parties and concerts and sporting events plus meetings and celebrations of every description and, of course, dances - always dances. One of the Casino's bragging points is its famous wooden dance floor.
Casino number three has been altered and expanded through the years. Most noticeably, a band shell was added to the front of the building and the once-grand entrance was split into two entrance doors. A sea wall was built around the structure and filled with sand to protect the piers.
Good thing, too, because the Gulfport Casino is expected to live on in this community's future. It will be closed mid year for an extensive renovation, funded in part by a grant from the Florida Department of State. More about the building, and the renovation, will appear in a future article.
In the meantime, you might want to tip your hat the next time you pass by the grand old building at Beach and Shore Boulevards. Respect is due.
All photos courtesy of the Gulfport Historical Society, and much of the information came from Museum Director Lynne Brown. All mistakes are the work of this writer. ...
The first Casino, as it appeared from the south side, looking back along the tracks toward shore.
The short-lived second version, the first to be called the Gulfport Casino.
The third (and present) Casino with its turret-flanked entrance, before the 1950 alterations.