Author: Abigail Blythe Batton
Peter Demens started his life with a good bit of luck. A Russian native, his parents were wealthy and he grew up in the aristocratic echelon of fancy dinners and ballrooms. His luck turned when both his parents died when he was still quite young. But as with every storm cloud, Demens’ silver lining came in the form of cash. Lots of cash. His parents left him a fortune. He stayed in Russia long enough to serve in the Czar’s army but felt politically pinched as he came of age. Demens was a liberal thinker and his particular brand of politics scratched up against Alexander III’s own conservative views. Demens, who was married with four children by 1880, was unceremoniously exiled.
As most adventurous young men did at the time, Demens set his sights on the west. He traveled to America, landing in New York, but, perhaps because he sought warmer climates, or maybe he smelled a money-making venture, he traveled south to Longwood, Florida where he very sensibly invested his money in lumber. While the north was booming with steel and manufacturing, the south still relied on a mostly agrarian income. Tobacco and cotton were the main plants but in order to make them economically viable, the south needed to be able to transport these crops across the nation. This was one of the main thrusts behind the railroad industry.
Because the railroads demanded lumber for their construction, Demens became heavily involved in this new industry. Eventually, he built a station house for the South Florida Railroad and then put his business brain to use by attempting to expand the railway system across Florida. The Orange Belt Railway got as far as Pinellas County where Demens built a station house called Demens Landing Park. On a modern map of St. Petersburg, the station sat on 1st Avenue South and 9th Street. This corner smacked up against John C. Williams’s 250 acres of waterfront property.
At this time, 1880, Pinellas County was mainly uninhabited but for a general store called Ward’s which sat across from the new station house. Demens had made an agreement with Williams to run the Orange Belt Railway all the way to Tampa but this endeavor proved to be an ambitious one. The Florida landscape was covered in bush, which needed to be cleared in order to construct the roads needed to get materials to the railway line. And as the area became more populated, first with railway and road workers, and then, as the area became less wilderness and more citified, it needed a name.
Common folklore states that the Williams and Demens agreed to flip a coin for the rights to name the town. If Williams won, he would name it Williamsville and if Demens won, he would name it St. Petersburg after his much-loved childhood home. The loser would get to name the town’s first hotel. After losing the toss, Williams named the hotel Detroit, after his childhood home.
But historians disagree with this account. Apparently, Mr. Ward, the owner of the only shop in town, wanted to name the new city Wardsville. Ward approached Demen’s business partner, Josef Henschen, stating his intentions to name the town Wardsville. Williams put in his bid for Williamsville but because Henschen was a paperwork man, he solicited Federal Post Office and put forward the name St. Petersburg, Florida as his boss desired. Ward kept his general store and Williams got to name the hotel Detroit, where his father had served as that city’s first mayor.
Shortly after naming the town, Demens and his family, in debt from the railroad construction, sold the railway and moved to North Carolina. After a short stay, the family migrated to California where Demens spent his later years helping Russian immigrants assimilate into American culture.
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