Pensacolians and visitors alike have always been drawn to the beach no matter what era. While beach lovers have been a constant for more than a century, there have been many changes to Pensacola Beach, which today is recognized as one of the best beaches in America.
Let’s take a look at Pensacola Beach’s history through vintage photos and discover just how much our local treasure has changed over the years.
Remember Pensacola Beach before cars and traffic? Remember the days when there were just a few buildings on the island and the rest of it was pristine and untouched?
The first bridges linking Pensacola to Gulf Breeze and Pensacola Beach opened in 1931. Before then, the only way to reach the island and its beautiful sugar-sand beaches was by boat. Santa Rosa Island has been central in Pensacola’s history — from the Native American settlements that date back two millennia, to the Spanish settlement on the island in the 18th century, to the Battle of Santa Rosa Island during the Civil War.
But Pensacola Beach as we know it today began when the bridges opened on June 13, 1931.
In the 1920s, Pensacolian O.H.L. Wernicke became fixated on the idea of pair of bridges connecting Pensacola with the Fairpoint Peninsula and Santa Rosa Island. Wernicke invested $50,000 of his own money to seed the project, which eventually led to the formation of the Pensacola Bridge Company. Unfortunately, Wernicke died of a heart attack in August 1930, less than a year before the bridges opened.
The original three-mile bridge spanning Pensacola Bay — built at a cost of $2 million — was a reinforced concrete structure made of up 293 spans, with an 80-foot drawbridge section in the middle. After the new, four-lane Philip Dane Beall Sr. Memorial Bridge was opened in 1962, the old bridge was converted to a fishing pier and remained in service until being heavily damaged by Hurricane Ivan in 2004.
When it opened in 1931, the first Pensacola Bay Bridge had a toll. Bridge-crossers could buy monthly permits for five dollars — the equivalent of nearly $78 in today’s money. Pensacolian Thomas A. Johnson abolished the toll during his tenure as secretary of the Florida Department of Transportation in the 1940s; the bridge was renamed in his honor in 1948.
The Pensacola Beach Casino opened alongside the two bridges in June 1931. “The Casino on Santa Rosa Island is a splendid building of reinforced concrete and hollow tile structure with its floors elevated 18 feet above sea level,” wrote the Frisco Employees’ Magazine. “Its bath house accommodates 500 persons, its dining room 300, and its dance hall 200. A fishing pier 1,200 feet long is in process of completion, and reaches from the casino out into the gulf where water is 22 feet deep.”
Despite the name, the Casino was a recreational complex, not a gambling destination. The facility was built by the bridge developers at a cost of $150,000 — about $2.3 million in today’s dollars.
The bridges and the Casino were inaugurated with great fanfare. On the morning on June 13, 1931, a parade marched from Pensacola across the two bridges to the Casino, where an all-day program was held. The Frisco Employees’ Magazine recounted the events:
After the ceremony the crowd, numbering many thousands of people, inspected the Casino proper and soon the surf was filled with shouting children and smiling grownups enjoying the cool waters of the Gulf of Mexico. A dinner was served in the Casino dining room at noon, and at 2 o’clock, a program of boat races began in Santa Rosa Sound, under the direction of R. G. Patterson, commodore of the Pensacola Yacht Club. Skippers from eight of the gulf coast yacht clubs competed with skippers from the Pensacola club and the Naval Alr Station in a series of fish class sloop races. Later in the afternoon a program of motor boat races was run. Following these events a lull in the official program provided time for another plunge in the surf until dinner was served.
The night program was fully as thrilling as that of the daylight hours. An anti-aircraft battery from the coast artillery post at Fort Barrancas gave an exhibition of searchlight and anti-aircraft firing. Tracer bullets were used and the spectacle was of great interest to the throngs of witnesses. Following the gun fire, a huge display of fireworks consumed an hour and then the program brought most of the throng into the Casino or on its cooling verandas, where dancing continued until well past midnight.
When the Pensacola Beach Casino first opened in 1931, utilities like water and power hadn’t yet been extended to the island. The complex relied on trucked-in water and generated power; the facility’s generator building can be seen in the above photo to the right of the main building.
Boxing matches sponsored by the YMCA were held at the Casino on Tuesdays. Other events hosted at the Casino included the Miss Florida beauty pageant and fishing tournaments. Though the building was razed in 1972, the island’s main public beach continues to bear the name Casino Beach.
Pensacola photographer Charles T. Cottrell captured the above scene, along with the rest of the photographs in this collection. Cottrell took tens of thousands of photographs over his five-decade career, leaving behind more than five tons of glass negatives in his Palafox Street studio when he retired. Many of those negatives were later purchased by Philip A. Pfeiffer, who donated them to the University of West Florida in 2013.
Before Pensacola Beach’s famous beach ball water tower, there was, well, just a plain old water tower. The beach’s original pier, seen above, made it all the way to the turn of the century, but after being battered by Hurricanes Erin and Opal, officials decided to replace the pier in 1998. Completed in 2000, the newer pier is wider, taller, and until 2009 was the longest pier on the Gulf Coast.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. The scene above isn’t all that different than one you’d see today — sure, the bathing suits are different, and there are a few high-rise hotels in the picture now, but the sight of families enjoying Pensacola Beach has been a pretty constant one since those bridges opened in 1931. The Casino may be gone, but now there’s the Casino Beach Bar, the Sandshaker, Sidelines, and other newer legends.