The Port of Tampa ranks as one of the busiest ports in the country. In trade, imports and exports, foreign and domestic, Port of Tampa ranks in the top 25, and the port is in the top 20 for domestic trade.
Tampa’s shipping industry dates back to the 19th century, but that history is tied to a different port in what was then a separate city — Port Tampa City.
Like much of modern Tampa, Port Tampa City traces its origins to Henry Plant. Plant extended his rail line from Tampa down the Interbay Peninsula to Port Tampa, where he promised to spend a million dollars in improvements, during the winter of 1887 and 1888. Although the exact expenditure is unknown, Plant certainly pumped a lot of money into Port Tampa, building piers, docks, wharves, warehouses and a recreational spot dubbed Picnic Island.
The federal government contributed money to the cause as well. The Army Corps of Engineers, in a mid-1880s report, determined that it was not cost-effective to dredge a shipping channel through Hillsborough Bay to the river and the town of Tampa. Instead, it devoted $130,000 to widen and deepen the natural channel that ran close to the site of Port Tampa City. The new channel, 20 feet deep and 200 feet wide, was completed in 1891. The following year the Port Tampa post office was established, and one year after that Port Tampa City was officially incorporated.
Port Tampa City also served as the home for several cigar factories, including the first factory of the Cuesta-Rey company. Close proximity to incoming tobacco served as the initial draw to the town, but the bigger cigar-producing enclaves of West Tampa and Ybor City soon dominated the industry.
Another short-lived business based in Port Tampa was the Honduras Lottery. Operated out of a two-story brick building on Loughman and Olivette (now Westshore Boulevard — the present-day site of Westshore Elementary), the lottery was shut down by the government. By 1899, the lottery building became home to the Convent of the Holy Name.
In 1898, the Spanish-American War cast the area in the national spotlight. Tens of thousands of people, including soldiers, journalists and profiteers descended on the area. If Tampa was a hurricane of confusion in the summer of 1898, then Port Tampa was its disorganized eye. Only one railroad track led from Tampa proper to Port Tampa located eight miles to the south. That track, owned by the Plant System, was wholly inadequate for the tasks brought before it.
The quartermaster assigned to Port Tampa, Col. Charles Frederic Humphrey, was overwhelmed by the mountain of materials, mail, animals and people laid at his feet in late May and early June, and he had many critics. Most of the problems at Port Tampa were the result of poor planning on the part of the U.S. Army. Inadequate facilities also were a constant source of irritation and concern.
Further aggravating the situation, the Army failed to secure enough transports for the journey to Cuba, prompting some regiments to take up the task of ship assignment themselves. The lack of space also meant that many of the horses and mules, sorely needed by the soldiers, would have to be left behind. By the time the transports were loaded, June 8, 1898, they contained almost 17,000 soldiers, 1,000 horses, 1,300 mules, thirty-four artillery pieces and four Gatling guns.
The Spanish-American War brought an immense amount of business to Port Tampa City, but it also brought the realization that Tampa needed a port closer than the 9-mile distance between the business district and Port Tampa. Transportation between the two cities did improve after the turn of the 20th century with the opening of direct streetcar service on Oct. 25, 1901. A one-way trip took about 30 minutes, most of which was spent on tracks that curved “gracefully along the shore of the bay, affording a succession of beautiful views of water and woodland” according to newspaper reports of the time.
Other transportation innovations would prove troublesome for the port city. Tampa attorney Stephen M. Sparkman, who was a powerful member of Congress, successfully pushed for the dredging of a shipping channel through Hillsborough Bay to downtown Tampa. The project, which began in 1904, spelled the beginning of the end for Port Tampa. Soon most major shipping traffic would be directed to the new Port of Tampa.
Despite the shift, Port Tampa City would remain important to the area’s shipping industry. Phosphate and oil still are important commodities going out and coming into Port Tampa. Though annexed by the city of Tampa in 1961, Port Tampa still maintains a spirit of independence and pride that comes only from a neighborhood with strong roots and a good sense of history.
Rodney Kite-Powell is the Saunders Foundation Curator of History at the Tampa Bay History Center. He welcomes your questions and comments and can be reached via email at [email protected] .org or phone at (813) 228-0097.