History of New Port Richey
New Port Richey and neighboring Port Richey were named for Captain Aaron Richey who came from Missouri and established Port Richey in the 1880s. New Port Richey was established by the Port Richey Land Company on October 15th 1911 and incorporated on October 27, 1924. Formerly, the area was known as Hickory Hammock. Publisher and former Ohio State Senator Dr. Elroy M. Avery was named New Port Richey’s first mayor.
The Hacienda Hotel, on Main Street, is a 55-room Spanish-style luxury hotel completed in 1927 by George J. Becker and Warren E. Burns. At first the Hacienda hotel was a mental facility. Then they changed it into a hotel. then back into a mental care center. It is now abandoned. Silent screen stars Thomas Meighan & Gloria Swanson, and local promoter George Sims owned the hotel, and Meighan’s brother provided the land. They intended to attract the west coast motion picture industry to Florida. Several silent films were produced in the rural area, and several actors built mansions along the nearby Pithlachascotee River. Screen star Ed Wynn served as master of ceremonies at the hotel’s grand opening, attended by other Hollywood luminaries such as Lupe Valez, Ann Hardking, Meighan and Swanson.
The Meighan Theatre, on Grand Boulevard, was built in 1925 by the Richey Amusement Company at a cost of $50,000. With over 300 seats, it opened in 1926 with the silent film “The New Klondike,” accompanied by a piano player. Sound was added in 1930 soon after the invention of sound films. Actor Thomas Meighan died in 1936, and the theatre’s name was changed to The Cinema and The Vogue. Now the Richey Suncoast Theatre, the historic building with its elaborate entrance arch and golden dome, serves the community as a stage production venue.
Sims Park (Bank Street & Circle Boulevlard), originally called Enchantment Park, honored George R. Sims, an early developer of New Port Richey who donated the land and clubhouse. Relocating to the area in 1922 from Great Neck, New York, he purchased impoverished property during the 1925-26 land boom. His wife, Marjorie, earned the first title of the 1922 Chasco Fiesta Queen in the first annual Chasco Fiesta, a fundraising event linked to a legend honoring Native Americans who once inhabited the area. The amphitheater at Simms Park, off Main Street has hosted numerous famous musicians, as well as two sitting U.S. presidents; Bill Clinton and George W. Bush and two vice presidents, Dan Quayle and Joe Biden.
Erected in 1916 as the first brick building in the area, the Sims Land Office on Main Street was once adjacent to the railroad depot. Its brick had been salvaged from the northern town of Fivay, now Bayonet Point.
Orange Lake, once called Mirror Lake, girded by Circle Boulevard in the heart of downtown, was a source of concern to early settlers. In the 1800s, it was called “Blue Sink,” and was nestled in a jungle of hickory hammock. The lake allegedly reached a depth of 250 feet (76 m), and farmers lost cattle and hogs that disappeared or fell prey to the alligators that inhabited the lake and surrounding swamp. It is now a picturesque setting for relaxation and serves as the venue for special events such as art shows, antique car shows, and Winter Holiday celebrations.
Gene Sarazan, a 1920s golf professional, relocated to the area and established a golf course in the downtown area.
In 1926, composer Irving Berlin owned property in the area adjacent to land owned by Paul Whiteman, the era’s “King of Jazz.”
Comedian Ed Wynn wrote a successful Broadway musical, “The Perfect Fool,” while fishing in the Pithlacascotee River. He also owned the Palms Theatre on Main Street. Built in 1921, it offered silent film entertainment to the area for a price of 25 cents for an adult admission.
Harry Miller and William Zimmer of Paramount Pictures visited the area in 1933 seeking a location of a feature length motion picture. Nathan H. Gordon and Jesse L. Lasky, the production manager of Paramount Lasky Corporation, expressed wishes to join screen star Thomas Meighan in creating a colossal motion picture studio in the area. The Great Depression of the early 1930s brought this dream to an end.
Raymond Hitchock, a theatrical comedian, and his wife, Flora Zabelle, a prominent actress, and Earl Benham, a songwriter from New York, invested in property in New Port Richey in the 1920s.
Jasmine Point, on North River Road, was the first luxuary subdivision in New Port Richey in the 1920s. Thomas Meighan’s two-story Spanish mansion boasted thirteen rooms, six baths, and an enormous swimming pool containing 65,000 gallons of water.
Moon Lake Dude Ranch & Gardens, developed by bootlegger Ed Haley during the Prohibition Era, hosted the Vanderbilts, and actresses Lillian and Dorothy Gish and Lana Turner. Called “The Playground of Millionaires,” the rustic lodge was finished in natural cypress and offered two bedroom cabins. Flocks of peacocks strutted on the front yard. The lodge also boasted stables with purebred horses for guests with a mile track for trotting races. Haley installed a ten mile (16 km) road and telephone lines to accommodate his affluent guests from the entertainment industry. A staff of one hundred fifty supplied excellent service and continental cuisine. A casino was constructed next to the lodge, complete with slot machines. Its dance floor was the largest in the South and dominated the Colosseum in nearby St. Petersburg.