Dredges are once again scooping up enormous swaths of the Tampa Bay seafloor, as part of a $63-million project to deepen and widen Tampa’s Big Bend channel. This operation is the most expensive dredging project in Tampa history. But it is far from the first.
The bay bottom just off Port Tampa City, located on a southeast corner of the Interbay Peninsula, was where modern dredges first reengineered Tampa Bay’s waterways. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredged a 19-foot deep, 240-foot wide channel Map of the Plant System of railway steamer and steamship lines.
there in the 1880s, which motivated Henry Plant to extend his railroad to the port. This rail-channel combination lurched Tampa into the industrial era.
At the site where the rails met the waters of the bay, workers constructed two roughly mile-long piers, the Port Tampa Inn, and other buildings. The inn and other structures rested on pilings and appeared to hover over the bay. Boosters declared the facilities an engineering marvel, and Tampa’s Morning Tribune declared the port “magnificent, marvelous, and magic,” and labeled it the “Wonder of Florida.”
Soon steamships were transporting landlubbers from Port Tampa City to Key West, Havana, and other distant ports of call. Alongside these vessels, oranges, phosphate, cattle, and other Florida commodities were crammed onto transporting ships at the bustling port. Port Tampa City also became an immigrant entry point by 1890, complete with quarantine facilities. Thanks to the channel, Port Tampa City became the region’s Ellis Island and maritime hub.
Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders deployed from the port to fight the Spanish-American War in 1898. They steamed off into the bay to face their destiny, which for many was disease-induced death in Cuba.
In roughly its first 10 years of operation, the newly dredged channel linked booming Tampa to an increasingly connected world of goods, services, and global empires. But not everyone was content.
Businesses and politicians in Tampa proper argued that the city needed a channel just south of downtown. In the mid-1880s, the federal government had dug a narrow and crooked 8-foot channel in and around the lower Hillsborough River. But this rickety underwater snake only accommodated shallow drafts vessels, and Tampa’s business community wanted more.
Prosperity will follow
In December 1898, Tampa’s Weekly Tribune reported that Tampa mayor F.C. Bowyer told a pro-dredging group that a new channel south of downtown would make Tampa a commercial center, and that “the prosperity that would follow would excel that of any time during the history of Tampa, and in a few years we would have a flourishing city of 100,000.”
Seven years and a $350,000 U.S. Congressional appropriation later, dredging began south of Tampa proper.
The Inn at Port Tampa in the early 1900's.
At first, a 20-foot deep, 300-foot wide channel was dredged. But in the coming decades this channel would be repeatedly deepened, widened, and lengthened, and the dredged earth used to build Seddon Island, now Harbour Island. A bridge and railroad tracks were built, linking Seddon to the mainland, and it became home to phosphate loading and shipping operations. Other port industries also set up shop and took advantage of the new channel. Downtown Tampa’s modern-port era had begun. And it was soon shaped by war.
During World War I, Tampa’s waterfront was an important shipbuilding center. Later, the Great Depression nearly sunk the city’s maritime economy, but World War II breathed new life into Tampa shipbuilding and repair operations.
A year after the surprise Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, businessman Matthew H. McCloskey’s factories were building concrete ships for the Merchant Marine, and in 1944 the Tampa Shipbuilding Company employed 16,000, many of them women. Some women at first met resistance at the shipyards, but ultimately women workers were accepted, and welder Alma Brown even christened the U.S.S. Advocate. Over the course of the deadliest war in human history, the Tampa Shipbuilding Company constructed 76 naval vessels.
These shipbuilding operations were shuttered after the war, but the port still hustled and bustled during the second half of the twentieth century. This was due, in large part, to increased phosphate exports.
Phosphate becomes king
Between 1941 and 1953, Florida companies mined and manufactured more phosphate than they had from 1890 to 1940. By the late 1970s, Tampa-area phosphate was shipped to Canada, Korea, the Soviet Union, and other faraway locales.
This phosphate was accompanied by a bounty of other goods. In 1969, nearly 40,000 tons of both citrus and meat were shipped The Ybor Channel and Channel District looking south in the mid 1980's.
out of Tampa. That same year approximately 4,000 vessels entered the city’s port.
And all along, Tampa’s channels were deepened. By the early 1960s the main channel stretched down to 34-feet, and the following decade it was dredged to 43 feet deep. This deepening allowed the port to accommodate ever-growing transport vessels and, by the end of the 20th century, cruise ships.
The dredged channels of Tampa Bay have been an artery of Tampa's industry since the late 1800s. Immigrants, cattle, oranges, tourists, soldiers, phosphate, and more have been sent through the channels. All have linked Tampa to a wider world than mayor Bowyer could have ever thought possible in 1898, and perhaps now -- once again -- a new chapter of dredging will create a new Tampa.
Brad Massey, Ph.D., is the Saunders Foundation Curator of Public History at the Tampa Bay History Center. He can be reached via email at this address. Images with this story are provided by the Tampa Bay History Center. The Plant System map is part of the History Center’s Touchton Map Library. Support for publication of this column comes from the Tampa Bay History Center.