Location & History of Port Tampa Bay

Sailing ships docked at Lee Terminal at the Port Tampa Bay Oct 13, 1919

While its early history is filled with conflict, Tampa has emerged as a strong, diverse seaport community thanks to a persistent cooperative spirit among public and private interests.

In the early 16th century, when Spanish conquistadors first entered Tampa Bay in their quest for gold, they killed hundreds of Native Americans who had been benefiting from the ideal positioning for waterborne commerce of the bay and what would become known as the Hillsborough River. But, after finding neither gold nor precious gems, the Spaniards moved on from the area.

In the mid-18th century, English pirates and Spanish explorers alike were busy plying the west coast of Florida, sometimes clashing with each other and sometimes with the native people. Most of the area’s native inhabitants, whose ancestors had enjoyed the riches of Tampa Bay for thousands of years, disappeared, victims of war and disease.

As Spain began to lose its strength as a world power, it was the British who began establishing a foothold in the Tampa Bay area. In 1772, a British mapmaker, Bernard Romans, named an arm of the bay plus its principal river after Lord Hillsborough, a man named Wills Hill, who, while never visiting Florida, served from 1768 to 1772 as secretary of state for Britain’s North American colonies.

Some 60 years later, Hillsborough’s name would be attached to the county of which Tampa is seat. The city’s name, by at least one account, is linked to a Calusa tribal village named “Tanpa” that was well south of Tampa Bay, but historians believe mapmaker Romans accidentally transferred the name northward, and it was soon changed to the more euphonious “Tampa.” Another account indicates “Tampa” may have been an anglicizing of a Calusa word for “stick of fire,” perhaps a reference to the high concentration of summer lightning strikes in the Tampa Bay area. Yet another explanation is that the name comes from a Spanish transliteration of “itimpi,” a Calusa word meaning “near it.”

While conflict remains as to the exact etymology of the name of the city and bay, there has been little disagreement about the naval and maritime commerce significance of the area. Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca, one of the few survivors of a 1528 confrontation with Native Americans, referred to the entire bay as a “Port,” writing, “The Port of which we speak is the best in the world.” And, in 1821, two years after the United States bought Florida from Spain, James Forbes, who had been appointed by Florida’s military governor, Andrew Jackson, to serve as U.S. marshal for much of Florida, wrote that the bay must “afford protection to our own trade and be of vital importance to our naval grandeur.”

By 1823, Lt. Col. George Mercer Brooke was establishing a military post at Tampa, and, along with four U.S. infantry companies, he built Fort Brooke. Soldiers feasted on the fish and oysters of the bay, as well as the game from surrounding forests. By the mid-1830s, steamers and sailing vessels were calling at primitive wharves, bringing military supplies to carry on war against the Seminoles, as well as delivering slaves and carrying away hides and lumber.

A Scottish schooner skipper, Capt. James McKay, arrived with his wife in Tampa in 1846, the year after a hurricane wrought destruction upon Tampa’s budding growth. McKay is often credited as the person who truly made Tampa a port, first with a sailing ship running between Tampa and Mobile and New Orleans and then with two steamers transporting cattle to Cuba. One story relates how McKay dealt with several corrupt Cuban bureaucrats who had been hampering the trade – ordering them thrown overboard from one of his steamers into shark infested waters outside Havana’s harbor. McKay was an active blockade runner during the Civil War and would later serve a year as Tampa’s mayor.

Tampa’s cattle trade with Cuba resumed after the Civil War, led by rancher Dr. Howell Tyson Lykes, who went on to found the Lykes shipping empire in 1900. Also after the war, Fort Brooke was abandoned by the federal government, and some of Tampa’s forward-thinking citizens came together to buy much of the land, transforming it into a teeming waterfront. The citizenry remained undaunted even as yellow fever epidemics swept the area in the 1860s and 1870s.

A major partner in the evolution of Tampa’s maritime history was a railroad tycoon, Henry Bradley Plant, who brought Old Port Tampa a rail connection to Jacksonville in 1884. By 1888, tracks ran all the way from Old Port Tampa to New York. Around this time, Plant expanded his empire to include hotel property and steamships, and one of the steamers he deployed in Tampa-Key West-Havana trade, Mascotte, was made part of the city seal when Tampa was incorporated as a city in 1887.

The late 1880s also saw the discovery of phosphate in Central Florida and the opening of Tampa’s first cigar factories, and Tampa quickly became the principal marine shipping point for these and other commodities. Following U.S. intervention in the ongoing Cuban War of independence, 1898 brought the Spanish-American War, and, in May of that year, Lt. Col. Theodore Roosevelt and hundreds of his Rough Riders, plus some horses, departed Tampa on a Cuba-bound steamer. Indeed, Tampa’s pivotal role in the short war helped boost the city and port into the national spotlight.

As the 19th century drew to a close, local business leaders were coalescing in an effort to gain federal support for deepening Tampa harbor channels and by 1905 had convinced Congress to authorize the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to dredge to a 20-foot depth. In addition, two of the men who had acquired much of the Fort Brooke waterfront property – E.M. Hendry and A.J. Knight – dredged their own 20-foot channel, further extending navigable waters, and opened a shipping terminal at the mouth of the river. Tampa also got a second railroad, then a third, and Mallory Line, Southern Steamship Co. and Penn Steamship established regular Tampa calls.

Legislation related to further deepening the channel to 24 feet included a condition that the City of Tampa build wharves and a belt line railroad – even though the property was not within the city limits. Knight and fellow businessman A.R. Swann offered to donate the necessary land to the city, and, after disagreements over configuration of the new wharves in relation to downtown streets, the Tampa Port Commission was formed as a uniting body, with members appointed by Florida’s governor.

Thus, local, state and federal interests combined with private enterprise to bring about what would become the modern Port Tampa Bay. Local voters joined in with their support, approving a bond issue that provided funds for onshore structures and municipal docks, which were completed in 1924.

By 1929, a 27-foot channel was in place and the port commission was abolished, with the city’s public works department taking its place in overseeing the port. World War II brought a flurry of activity for shipyards and other war industries. At the war’s close, in 1945, legislative act supported by local voter referendum led to creation of the Hillsborough County Port Authority, later renamed the Tampa Port Authority, and its gubernatorial appointees began pushing Congress for a 34-foot channel.

While the 34-foot channel was approved in 1950 and completed in the early 1960s, the port authority and citizen leaders recognized the need for still deeper waters, working together to secure federal authorization in 1970 for a 43-foot-deep main ship channel, along which much of the present-day Port Tampa Bay’s facilities are located.

The cooperative spirit through which Port Tampa Bay has evolved continues today, with terminal operator partner Ports America heavily involved in the phased build-out of container terminal facilities; with rail and energy interests engaged with the port authority in a public-private partnership for Tampa Gateway Rail development; with multiple government entities advancing the I-4 Crosstown Connector; with cruise lines joining in passenger terminal renovations; and with major importers and exporters allying through the Executive Shippers’ Council. Port Tampa Bay's story truly underscores the importance of working together to attain benefits for all.