He and John Constantine Williams were co-founders of St. Petersburg.
St. Petersburg named one of its waterfront parks Demens Landing
in his memory. It is at First Avenue and North Shore Drive SE.
Demens was born May 1, 1850, in St. Petersburg, Russia, to
a noble Russian family. He was well-educated and could speak
French, German and English.
He also had close contact with the top officials of the country.
Demens, a captain in the Russian imperial guard, came to America
in the early 1880s.
The handsome, charismatic aristocrat arrived at Longwood,
just south of Sanford, and went into the lumber business. His
company built station houses and supplied railroad ties for the
Orange Belt Railroad, which was then under construction in Florida.
When the lumber ran out in the Longwood area in 1885, Demens
was owed money by the little railroad, so he took over its charter.
Demens persuaded Josef Henschen, a winter visitor from Buffalo,
N.Y., to invest $20,000; Henry Sweetapple, a Canadian, to invest
$15,000; and A. M. Taylor, Staunton, Va., to invest another $2,000
in the narrow-gauge railroad.
The corporation bought the cars, engines and rails on credit
and got donations of land for right-of-way. By 1886 the Orange
Belt extended to a town about 20 miles southwest of Sanford,
but Demens' goal was Point Pinellas and the Gulf of Mexico, about
120 miles further.
To get there, the company proposed selling $700,000 worth
of bonds. Throughout 1886, Demens had little luck getting a New
York brokerage firm, Griswold and Gillette, to help him. He then
heard from Hamilton Disston, who owned vast amounts of Florida
acreage, much of it in Pinellas County.
Disston would give land and town sites along the right-of-way.
He wanted to get a railroad to Disston City, a flourishing little
town where Gulfport is now.
Griswold and Gillette was impressed and sold the railroad
Demens planned a terminus on Mullet Key, now Fort De Soto,
where he would build a city on the main shipping channel into
Tampa Bay, and have the only harbor on the West Coast of Florida.
Disston's Florida Land and Improvement Co. rejected Demen's
proposal on Dec. 18, 1886. It was too grandiose a plan.
Back to the drawing board.
In January 1887, Sweetapple, the Orange Belt treasurer, began
negotiating with J. C. Williams, who agreed to donate some land
in what is now downtown St. Petersburg if the railroad would
extend through his village and into Tampa Bay.
Demens and his group were set to go with this plan when Griswold
and Gillette notified them of "unexpected delays" in
Again Demens' charm worked. He borrowed $100,000 from H. O.
Armour & Co. He settled early debts and hired railroad workers,
paying them with the remaining $15,000. But that money did not
The brokerage firm would not give anymore money until rails
were laid. Demens could not lay rails until he had money.
Add to this situation heavy rains, a yellow fever epidemic
in 1887 and an angry creditor who chained the engines to the
rails. Sweetapple died of a stroke in 1887.
Demens persevered. He borrowed another $10,000 from friends
to get the engines unchained. He wrote a desperate letter to
Griswold and Gillette.
But no money came.
On Oct. 1, 1887, an angry mob of workers gathered at Longwood
demanding three weeks' back wages and threatening to lynch Demens.
Demens again got his friends to come through for him and paid
off the angry workers.
And on Oct. 3, shipments of steel for rails began coming in.
With more track laid, Demens could borrow more money. He kept
his employees working overtime, but did not finish by his December
By April 30, 1888, the railroad came to Ninth Street S and
First Avenue. At this time, either by a tossing of coins, a drawing
of straws or the whim of a partner, the city was named St. Petersburg.
The versions vary, but Demens had earned it.
The first train arrived on June 8. By the end of 1888, the
Orange Belt extended to a fine Russian-style terminal between
Second and Third streets on First Avenue S. And shortly after,
to a railroad pier that stretched 2,000 feet into the bay.
Although its terminus immediately began to thrive as a city,
the Orange Belt was not a financial success at the outset. It
was in such bad financial straits that it was taken over by the
Philadelphia and New York syndicates that had so much money invested
Demens was forced out in 1889, but not defeated.
He bought and operated a planing mill in Asheville, N.C.,
then went to Los Angeles in 1892, where he bought a steam laundry.
He sold it four years later for $200,000, which he invested in
citrus in nearby Alta Loma, Calif.
He devoted the rest of his life to orange culture, study and
writing. This included articles for the Los Angeles Times
and stories about political affairs in Europe, where he traveled
for the Associated Press.
He and his wife had four children born in Russia, two born
in Florida and one born in North Carolina.
With Demens' Russian ties, the Russian Revolution had such
an effect on him that it was said to have ruined his health.
He died in 1919 in California.