Written by Christopher Hendrix. Research conducted by the staff of Manatee Village Historical Park. All sources are available upon request.
In the 1880s, Florida’s rail and steamship empires had grown throughout the state, and were spreading into South Florida. With this new frontier now so easily accessible by rail and steamship, Florida’s intrigue and allure began to attract travelers.
Around this time, northern newspapers, such as The New York Times, employed travel writers to author articles about their adventures. These types of articles often times sensationalized areas, and encouraged wealthy people to vacation in the destinations they read about. One such writer was William Drysdale, who wrote more than 380 newspaper articles. Drysdale, who usually signed his letters and articles as W. D., focused more than 50 of these articles on Florida, and is credited with helping cultivate New York and Florida’s tourism connection.
Born July 11, 1852, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, W. D. was the grandson of Scottish immigrants and the son of a well-educated minister and school principal. After initially running two newspapers, he enrolled in Columbia Law School. In 1874, W. D. left law school and went to work at the New York Sun as a reporter. This is where his fame began. W. D. reported on the highly publicized adultery trial of Henry Ward Beecher, a very prominent preacher, becoming friends with Beecher in the process. This allowed him access and incite other reporters were unable to gain. Despite his highly publicized reporting, the Sun replaced him soon after.
In 1877, W. D. joined the New York Times. While on assignment in Mexico and Cuba in 1878, W. D. wrote letters describing his travels. These letters were published in early 1879 in the New York Times. The travel letter format was becoming more popular at this time, and the readers of the New York Times seemingly enjoyed W.D.’s letters. Soon, he went on assignment to Bermuda, New Orleans, and Texas, amongst others.
W. D. first came to Florida when he landed in Manatee County, almost by accident as his planned trip to Key West had to be changed. W. D. arrived in Palma Sola in February of 1884. In his article, Yachting on the Gulf, Down the Coast in the Schooner Mallory, W. D. describes his first time seeing Manatee County,
“Things were beginning to look a little tropical; for the weather was delightfully warm; the shore were shaded with palmetto trees; there was a big palm tree in sight, and the name of the river reminded us forcibly of the sea monster after which it is named. The water was clearer than any we had theretofore seen. The bottom was a pure white sand, and the whole scene was one of summer.”
W. D. went on to describe a tropical paradise with white sandy beaches, a luscious canopy, clear waters, great weather, very fertile ground, and good food. He likened Palma Sola to the Garden of Eden, and was pleased with his surroundings. The people he described were friendly and hardworking, and he never spoke ill of any of the locals he met.
W. D. arrived in Palma Sola intending to stay just one night, and instead stayed for two weeks. He took up residence at the Palma Sola Hotel, a small two story hotel, with a comfortable and breezy front porch and dinner service. He was very pleased with his first dinner at the hotel, writing in Yachting on the Gulf,
“All the luxuries of Southern Florida were there – great big clams, beautifully fried; the sweetest of oysters from Sarasota, served raw; an abundance of fresh vegetables just out of the garden; fresh, ripe Florida oranges, and a great dish of guava jelly, homemade, from Manatee County guavas. We let no edible thing escape…”
W. D.’s accounts of his time in the area were filled with relaxation and adventure, and all the spoils of a wealthy Gilded Age vacation. In his time in Palma Sola, W. D. partook in several activities, including fishing, alligator hunting, picnicking, boating, and site-seeing throughout the area. In the mornings he would watch the sunrise over the river, and in the evenings, he would enjoy smoking a pipe on the porch of his hotel with other guests and locals.
W. D. was clearly very impressed with Manatee County. In his article Under the Solitary Palm: a Nearer View of a Unique Florida Town, W. D. concluded,
“I never saw or heard of this country till [sic] two weeks ago… It was good fortune (and the yacht Mallory) that brought me here, and after visiting nearly all the warm counties frequented by Americans – Cuba, Mexico, Bermuda, Yucatan, Texas, Louisiana, and many of the smaller West India islands – I like the West Coast of Florida best of all.”
W. D. would not return to Florida for another five years. By that time, the railroad tycoons Henry Plant and Henry Flagler had developed infrastructure in the state so much so that traveling to the state could take as little as 30 hours. Florida had become a winter destination for wealthy northerners, and W. D. was not to miss out.
In 1889, W. D. visited St. Augustine, staying at the new Ponce de Leon Hotel. On this trip, he also visited Jacksonville, Jupiter, Tampa, and Havana. Between 1889 and 1893, W. D. wrote a series of signed articles on Florida, almost every other week. These articles were largely focused on Florida’s West Coast and the areas accessible by the Plant System of railroads and steam ships. Due to health complications, W. D.’s letters had seemingly lost the rugged adventurous spirit found in his first trip to Palma Sola in 1884, and generally covered the growth and expansion of the area.
W. D. passed away from heart failure on September 20, 1901, at the age of 49. After his death, a manager of the Plant System said “[He] probably did more to boom Florida when it needed booming than any other newspaper writer.”
Though W. D. did not return to Manatee County, his writings on Palma Sola were amongst his most important. He described a tropical paradise to his northern readers, and encouraged them to visit Florida at a time the state was rapidly growing. While it cannot be determined how many people visited the area because of his writings, Manatee County’s own population and tourism industry soon began to grow. Today, letters from W. D. and others give us insight into the lives lived by those in the area, the cultures that developed, the attractions tourists were interested in, and what people did for leisure.
Articles written by William Drysdale can be found throughout the New York Times. W. D.'s articles on Palma Sola and his first trip to Florida can be found in the book Palma Sola: The Youngest and Largest Town in Florida. This book can be accessed for free through HathiTrust.
Palma Sola Point, ca. 1883, courtesy of Manatee County Public Library Historical Digital Collections
Palma Sola Hotel, ca. 1930-31, courtesy of Manatee County Public Library Historical Digital Collections
Title Page, Palma Sola: The Youngest and Largest Town in Florida, 1884, courtesy of HathTrust Digital Library