River Tower Festival returns to raise money, awareness for iconic Sulphur Springs Water Tower

“Josiah knows where the money grows.’’ That was the slogan of Josiah Richardson, who developed Sulphur Springs, building the Sulphur Springs Water Tower next to the Hillsborough River in 1927.

Familiar to motorists traveling on I-275, the 214-ft white tower has two tiers of battlements at the top, as if it were the remains of a medieval castle. It is a longtime landmark and symbol of Tampa, not unlike the minarets at the University of Tampa.
“It’s an icon. It's ‘Welcome to Tampa! You’re here now,’’’ says Debi Johnson, president of the nonprofit River Tower Foundation.

The River Tower Festival returns on November 11th. The all-day concert event raises money and awareness for the repair and restoration of the iconic Sulphur Springs Water Tower.The tower is the centerpiece of a music festival set for 1 to 10 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 11 at River Tower Park, 401 E. Bird St., to raise money for the tower’s repair and upkeep and improvements to the surrounding park. Arts vendors and food vendors will be on site. Beer and wine will be available.

Local and regional bands will perform rock, reggae and Americana music. In the lineup are Space Krate; Julie Black Duo; Synergy in a Cup; Rebekah Pulley and the Reluctant Prophets; Lauris Vidal; Tribal Style; and Roxx Revolt & The Velvets. DJ Gabe Eschazabal will entertain, too.

Admission is $20 in advance and $25 at the door. Children under 10 get in free. Special $75 VIP ticket buyers will get three drinks (beer or wine), a tower poster and access to the VIP tent, where light snacks and a “special cocktail’’ will be served. Festival organizers advise those attending to bring a blanket or chair. Pets are not allowed.

The first fundraising festival took place in 2019. After the pandemic put the event on hold in 2020 and 2021, the festival returned last year.

“Honestly, the way it started, me and some friends were going down the river in a boat, and one of them looked at the tower and said, ‘You know, we should do something to try and raise some money for the tower,’” Johnson recalls. “And I said, ‘Yeah, let’s do that, let’s just have a music festival.’ ”

The City of Tampa is in the process of pressure washing and painting the tower. Johnson believes that the festival called attention to the tower and spurred the city to do something.

“It needs more than just paint and pressure washing,’’ she says. “It needs repair work done.’’

For example, she says, decorative features at the base of the tower are crumbling and those that were at the top are gone, she says.

The group also wants to spruce up the park surrounding it. They would like to extend the boardwalk running under Interstate 275, connecting River Tower Park with Sulphur Springs Park, alongside the river.

“We would like to see a lot of the invasive plants removed and make it to where we can put some benches on the river and people can actually sit and see the river,’’ Johnson says.

The tower itself was built over an artesian well and pumped water to the surrounding neighborhood, remaining in operation until 1971, when Tampa took over supplying the area.

Richardson, the flamboyant developer, is reported to have been the talk of the town when he bought new Cadillacs for his wife and his daughter, according to various histories.

He planned an entertainment resort in Sulphur Springs, where he had established an amusement park featuring a swimming pool, bath houses, an alligator farm, walking paths and a dance pavilion. He built the Springs Hotel and Arcade and needed a water supply, so he mortgaged the property for the $180,000 it cost to build the tower. Announced a year earlier, the tower opened in January 1928 and featured a searchlight on top that cast a beam a radius of five miles.

During a storm in 1933, the TECO dam broke and flooded Sulphur Springs, ruining Richardson’s business. He defaulted on the loan and lost the property in 1934. Richardson died in 1956, and his daughter reportedly sprinkled his ashes at the base of the tower.

The arcade was demolished in 1976 and replaced by a parking lot. But the tower remained. From 1952 to 1985, it was the site of the Tower Drive-In Theater. A developer planning a hotel resort on the site had the tower painted, but the project never happened. The city bought the tower in 2005 and illuminated it.

The city’s current project is the first work that has been done to it since 1989. The approximately $309,000 contract with Kimszal Contracting includes pressure washing, painting and replacement of lights at the top of the tower.  

For more information and tickets, go to River Tower Festival.
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Philip Morgan is a freelance writer living in St. Petersburg. He is an award-winning reporter who has covered news in the Tampa Bay area for more than 50 years. Phil grew up in Miami and graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in journalism. He joined the Lakeland Ledger, where he covered police and city government. He spent 36 years as a reporter for the former Tampa Tribune. During his time at the Tribune, he covered welfare and courts and did investigative reporting before spending 30 years as a feature writer. He worked as a reporter for the Tampa Bay Times for 12 years. He loves writing stories about interesting people, places and issues.