Colonial Florida Charm
The third and smallest city on Anna Maria Island, Bradenton Beach balances it’s colonial Florida feel with modern tourist & archaeological attractions.
The earliest visitors to what we now know as Bradenton Beach were likely the original Tampa bay natives in 500 BC. The Calusa, Tocobagan, Ucita, Meceso and Pooy tribes apparently found the waters perfect for fishing, but did not settle there.
Some 2000 years later, Hernando De Soto re-discovered Anna Maria Island while searching for a mythical lost city of gold.
The island sat mostly ignored until the 1890’s when George Emerson Bean homesteaded some property at the northernmost tip that still bears his name. His son partnered up with Wilbur Hall & Fig Newton inventor Charles Rosier to plan and settle Anna Maria City.
People from Anna Maria City and its outskirts eventually drifted southward. The southernmost section of the island was popular for fishing and boating with residents from the nearby fishing village of Cortez, earning it the moniker Cortez Beach. But in 1921, all that changed when a bridge was built connecting the area to the mainland, and the already growing community experienced a land boom.
Depending on who you talk to, it was either the editor of the Bradenton Herald, or a land developer that unofficially renamed the community to Bradenton Beach. But the city made it official when they incorporated in 1952.
In 1940, the Regina, an Irish steamer that had been repurposed into molasses tanker barge got caught in a sudden cold snap that left it grounded off the coast of Bradenton Beach. While the boat was destroyed, volunteers from the island along with the Coast Guard managed to rescue all but the cook and his German Shepherd, who tried unsuccessfully to swim against the cold tide.
In 1967, a new, stylish drawbridge was built, and rather than tearing down the old bridge, they opted to keep most of it and turn it into the historic Bradenton Beach City Pier, a landmark that the whole island is known by.
Today, the city of Bradenton Beach is one of the smallest in Florida with only 1,500 full time residents, but isn’t looking to expand, instead focusing on preserving a colonial Florida feel – to the point that drive-thru restaurants are forbidden by law.
They have a thriving art community and many local businesses are dedicated to making and selling unique artisanal products that can only be found there. All three cities share the free Anna Maria Island Trolley and for 75-cents more, you can even hit St. Armand’s Circle and Longboat Key.
And of course, Bradenton Beach has beaches. Between Coquina and Cortez Beaches, there is approximately 3 miles of shoreline with adequate parking. In 2005, the wreck of the Regina was classified as a Historic monument and is one of 10 Underwater Archaeological Preserves in Florida and is a popular snorkeling spot.
In 1913, Charles Rosier donated a large chunk of his fortune (from selling the Fig Newton to Nabisco) to build a non-denominational chapel that would be open to all, regardless of their religious leanings. The original chapel still stands, although in the 1970’s a larger sanctuary was built next to it, accommodating more weekly worshipers.
In 1921, a draw bridge connecting the island to the mainland was begun. A severe summer storm wiped out almost all of the existing structure, forcing them to start over and rebuild the bridge from the salvaged lumber, finishing in 1922. In 2016, the Florida DOT approved a plan to build a high-rose bridge with federal funds.
Gradually the community grew and in the mid-1920’s a bar opened on the island, and soon a jail was built for the specific purpose of giving rowdy drunks a place to cool off overnight. In the 1940’s, a fire during a wind storm made the jail purposeless, except as a popular place for photo ops.
Following World War II, a retired Army Corps Engineer by the name of Jack Holmes who had visited the island 20 years earlier purchased 350 acres and began building Holmes Beach, the island’s second city. The community of Bradenton Beach was founded shortly thereafter.
These days, the old town charm of the 7-mile long island is maintained by zoning laws that for years prohibited drive-thru’s and buildings over 37-feet high. In 2011, the state legislature passed a law that prohibited local governments from overly regulating vacation rental properties. So now, ironically, the Old Florida appeal of the island has led tourism to quadruple in the past decade, contributing to the demise of its nostalgic draw.
Residents and tourists alike can still enjoy the Anna Maria Pier, the sandy beaches, and some of the finest locally owned boutique restaurants in Tampa Bay along the popular Pine Avenue thoroughfare.
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