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    Old place, new face

    An improved and expanded Wall Springs Park, once a tourist destination, will reopen as a haven for travelers of the Pinellas Trail.

    By RICHARD DANIELSON

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 16, 2001


    PALM HARBOR -- For nearly a century, Wall Springs served as a resting place for weary travelers. It will soon do so again.

    The difference is that when Wall Springs Park opens this summer, it will not cater to rheumatism patients and northern tourists just off a three-day train trip. Instead, it will offer shade and glimpses of Florida wildlife to cyclists and in-line skaters coming off the Pinellas Trail.

    The first phase of the $6-million park consists mainly of restrooms, parking and two entrances, one adorned with a large sundial. The first part of the 80-acre park, about a mile south of Tarpon Springs, is expected to open in June or July.

    Future phases will include picnic shelters, shell paths through the woods and perhaps fishing piers and a 35-foot observation tower overlooking Boggy Bayou. Officials also plan to build a home so a ranger can live at the park.

    The idea, county officials say, is to preserve a bit of the coast and the refuge it provides for ospreys, otters and gopher tortoises.

    "You're kind of really out in old Florida," said Pinellas County engineering specialist Debra Ashman, who has worked on the park for seven years. "It's quiet. It's nice. It's away from the noise and traffic of Alt. 19. You've got breezes off the gulf. You've got chances to see wildlife. And it has historic value."

    Because of a decision last week by the County Commission, the park eventually will be considerably larger than first planned.

    Commissioners voted unanimously to pay $6.975-million for nearly 35 acres in two different locations. The seller is Daniel G. McMullen Jr., whose family owns the largest piece of undeveloped coastal land in Pinellas County.

    The larger of the pieces includes Danenman Point, a wooded peninsula that juts into the gulf between the Camp Wai Lani Girl Scout retreat and Bluejay Woods.

    The smaller parcel is to the east, on the northern border of Wall Springs Park. The two pieces will be connected by a permanent 60-foot-wide access easement that crosses the remainder of the McMullen property.

    The McMullen family reportedly has a contract to sell the remaining 85 acres to an unidentified developer. But one of the terms of the county's purchase secures the access easement for the public, said Carl Barron, the county's director of general services. That is what will make it possible eventually to extend the boundaries of Wall Springs Park to Danenman Point.

    County officials have no detailed plans yet for the new property. Those decisions, as well as exactly what amenities to include in later phases of Wall Springs' original 80 acres, await the arrival of new county parks director Elizabeth Warren.

    The park already is attracting favorable attention from neighbors.

    Kieran and Diane Keegan, who live about 10 blocks away, couldn't resist taking their boxer Garth on a quick unauthorized walk through the unfinished park Friday.

    "Anything that beautifies the town is worth it for me," said Keegan, 40, who owns a catering business. "Who could not like this?"

    The $6-million cost of the park includes some work that is necessary but will not be obvious to parkgoers, officials say.

    In addition to building decorative rock walls at the entrances, work crews will move a sewer lift station away from an entrance.

    A short stretch of the Pinellas Trail will be realigned about 100 feet to the east to give the park a little more green space as well as to make it safer for folks on the trail and motorists on Brevard Street, said Rudy Garcia, a county division engineer for structures and parks. Turn lanes have been added to Brevard Street so it can handle more traffic.

    The county originally planned to open the new-and-improved version of Wall Springs park in early 2000. But the opening was pushed back while the 182-acre Boca Ciega Millennium Park was developed in Seminole.

    Plans also call for future enhancements to the spring, but the new park will not offer swimming. County officials say the risk of someone getting hurt in the lagoon fed by Wall Springs is too great.

    "Public safety is a big issue any time you open a public park," Garcia said.

    The same concern 35 years ago forced the property's previous owner to close Wall Springs as a tourist attraction and favorite swimming hole of North Pinellas residents.

    Tampa businessman Charlie Wall bought the spring and operated it as a recreation area in the 1870s.

    According to one apocryphal account, the pioneer Gause family sold the spring to Wall for $400 and a pair of mules. A county history says public records show that Wall actually bought the land from the state of Florida but notes that "$400 and two mules make better copy."

    In 1927, Wall's family sold the land to Henry Davis. Davis renamed the springs Health Springs, bottled the water and opened a spa with bath houses, now long gone, next to the lagoon.

    Davis claimed the water would "soothe and aid sufferers of high blood pressure, bladder or kidney complications and inflammation of the joints."

    About 3.5-million gallons of water a day flow out of Wall Springs, more in times of heavy rain. The temperature is a constant 74 degrees and the water is slightly salty, containing about three times as much chloride as tap water. Consequently, only saltwater plants grow around the spring's round, rocky opening, which old-timers compared to the profile of Ponce de Leon's wife.

    In the early 1900s, the spring was so popular that the Atlantic Coast Line railroad put a small depot next to it.

    In 1949, Davis sold the spring to the Cullen family, who kept the swimming hole open until 1966, when they closed it because of liability concerns. Mary Cullen sold the land to Pinellas County in 1989.

    Since then, the county has added small pieces to the park, culminating in last week's agreement to purchase the McMullen land.

    Officials say the purchase is the latest in a series of investments that will pay off when Wall Springs is re-opened to the public this summer.

    "It's just neat knowing we saved this from developers, and we were able to make a park out of it," Ashman said.

    - Staff writer Robert Farley contributed to this report. Richard Danielson can be reached at (727) 445-4194 or danielson@sptimes.com.

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