River Tower Festival celebrates the iconic Sulphur Springs Water Tower

Photo via River Tower Festival

Anyone who has driven around Tampa has 100% caught a glimpse of the Sulphur Springs Water Tower. The structure looks like a castle built for Rapunzel and stands tall over a gorgeous park. It’s visible from the highway akin to a Disney attraction. A local group is looking to raise funds to preserve and restore parts of the tower. This is the main influence behind the always fun “River Tower Festival.” The event takes place November 12 from 2pm-10pm at 401 E Bird St.

The festival will include live music, DJ performances, arts vendors and food vendors. Gates open at 1 pm. Tickets for the event are $15 in advance and $20 at the door. We are also offering VIP tickets for $50 which include access to our covered VIP viewing area, 3 drink tickets, a River Tower Festival T-shirt, and parking within the venue.

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Celebrating the the wild structure at River Tower Park

There will be a variety of local live music ranging from Rock, Americana, and Reggae. The very talented all girl teen band, Boycott, will kick us off and then other talented Tampa performers include The Resonance, Rebekah Pulley, Navin Ave, Tribal Style, Will Quinlan, and our headliner Have Gun, Will Travel. There will also be music by DJs, Chris Preston and Gabe Echazabal.

Sulphur Springs Park was an amusement park established in the early 1920’s about 7 miles north of the city on the Hillsborough River. It could be reached by trolley. The central features of the park, according to a 1924 Tampa Tribune article, were “the famous flowing spring and bathing pool; and the alligator farm with thousands of live alligators of all ages on display. Canoes were available for journeys up the beautiful Hillsborough River.

Tampa history stands tall

The Sulphur Springs Water Tower has been a part of Tamp’s history since 1927. It stands 214 feet tall and was built on top of an artesian well. It was designed by Grover Poole and commissioned by Josiah Richardson, the owner and developer of the Sulphur Springs Arcade. Richardson’s dream was to build an entertainment empire featuring a Ferris wheel, a hardwood dance floor, swimming pool and a gazebo amid the area’s Sulphur Springs. He started the Springs Hotel and Arcade, which was featured in Ripley’s “Believe it or Not” as a city under one roof. The first indoor mall housing a hotel, barber, pharmacy, etc. His dream was well on its way and near completion when Richardson realized he didn’t have the drinking water needed to supply the area. 

Richardson mortgaged his property and borrowed the $180,000 needed to build the tower. Tower construction was announced in January of 1927 and took one year to complete with around the clock construction. In January of 1928 a powerful revolving searchlight was placed on the new tower with a light that had a radius of 5 miles. 

In 1933 the TECO dam broke during heavy rains and destroyed much of the resort area. Richardson could no longer pay the interest on his loan and lost much of his property in foreclosure. Sulphur Springs never recovered. In 1976 the arcade was destroyed and replaced by a parking lot. The Sulphur Springs Water Tower is one of the few remaining structures from this important time of history that was so instrumental in the development of Tampa. 

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Sulphur Springs Water Tower through the decades

The Tower was used a water source until 1971 when the city became the main water supplier to the area. From 1952 until 1985, the 12-acre tower site became the home to the Tower Drive-In Theater. The theater was demolished in 1985 after being condemned by the city. The Tower became forgotten and taken for granted. It became a sight of graffiti and deterioration for the next decade. 

In 1989 the tower was repainted in preparation to sell the property to developers. After interference by preservationists, the developer abandoned their goal of developing the property and in 2005 the City of Tampa purchased the property and installed lighting. This was the last time that the Tower received any sort of attention.

In 2019 the River Tower Festival was born in an effort to bring attention to the neglected tower and create a revenue stream for its preservation. It was the hope of the newly formed River Tower Foundation that the festival would grab the attention of the City of Tampa and bring the need to preserve this historic icon to the forefront. We were successful in 2019! Although the festival was held on a rainy and cold day, we managed to bring folks together and raise funds for the cause. The city is now working with the Foundation to make improvements with a vote going before City Council soon to budget funds for pressure washing and painting the tower.

You can learn more, and get tickets on the River Tower Festival’s website.

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