Log in Subscribe

Sunday Favorites: The Romanticism of the Steamboat

At first, steamboats were used for freight. The Gertrude's bow is loaded with supplies. Photo: Florida Memory Project.

While planes, trains and automobiles are the preferred method of travel by today’s standards, in the 1800s, Florida residents were limited on where they could go or how they got there.


The southernmost train station was in Cedar Key and there were no roadways, only rough trails, cutting through the dense Florida underbrush.


Many families living in the Tampa Bay area existed in isolation, and often the patriarch sailed a boat to the nearest city when provisions like flour and oil were needed. Those perilous trips for supplies could sometimes take two weeks, and greatly depended on the weather. 


But in 1807, the world changed for good with the invention of the steamboat. The steamboat was a marvel of its time, and by 1829, steamboats began to populate Florida’s major rivers, running up and downstream with relative ease.


Suddenly travel could be leisurely. The steamboat was immortalized in literature, patronized by famous people and gaining popularity by the minute.


“Steamboats were colorful, raucous, dangerous, outrageous and sometimes impractical by design,” said Bob Bass, author of When Steamboats Reigned in Florida.


One of the first steamboats to arrive in the area was The Manatee, which had traveled all the way from New York. Samuel Stanton Sr. was a marine architect and engineer who operated a shipyard in the Northeast. After purchasing property in Bradenton, he began building The Manatee, which he foresaw as being a major means of transportation for the area. The vessel was launched in 1884, and Stanton and his family made their way to Manatee County on a journey that lasted 20 days and almost got them killed.


However, the venture proved to be a success as The Manatee served the area for many years before finally sinking in St. Petersburg.


Steamboats quickly became the preferred means of travel. Here tourists peer over the balcony on The Favorite steamer. Photo: Florida Memory Project.

Steamboats were first used for freight.


Palmetto businessman Joel Hendrix built the first wharf in Palmetto. The Palmetto Terminal Railroad ran a span of 12 miles from the dock to Parrish and hauled produce from the country farms to dockside, where it was loaded aboard ships. The wharf was not sturdy enough to hold a freight engine, so carts were pushed to the end.


Suddenly the economics of quaint agricultural towns such as Palmetto and Bradenton shifted, as they became tourist destinations for relaxing trips. One could say that the steamship was a lot like a modern-day cruise ship.


Small towns and cities along the coast built municipal docks to accommodate an influx of tourists. The docks housed restaurants and shops along with production packinghouses, which also used the steamships to transport their goods.


The Palmetto Wharf Co., owned by S.S. Lamb, J.A. Howze and J.A. Lamb, built City Dock in 1897. The dock was at the end of 10th Avenue (Main Street) and housed restaurants, a hotel as well as a packinghouse.


Steamboats also brought a sense of luxury and recreation to townspeople. For many years, taking a steamship was the only way to get from Tampa to St. Petersburg. People frequently took three-hour trips across the bay to a popular destination, Pass-a-Grille Beach.


Municipalities built piers with resturants and shops to accomodate tourists. The Palmetto City Pier is pictured above from the shore. Photo: author's personal collection.

H. Walter Fuller of Bradenton, K.W. Wiggins of Manatee and George Gandy Sr. of St. Petersburg formed the steamship company in 1907. Capt. Ollie Stuart made daily trips to Tampa, St. Petersburg and Manatee River points, including Palmetto. The trip to Tampa took four hours and included supper.


During the summertime, steamers ran a special on Thursdays. For 50 cents apiece, passengers could voyage from Palmetto to Anna Maria in the morning, and on the return route from Tampa, another ship would pick them up for the trip home. Girls would pack a lunch for the outing.


Bradenton’s Corwin Dock was located at the end of Main Street. This was also a bustling location in the early 1900s, as ships running between Tampa, St. Petersburg and the Manatee section made regular stops for cargo and passengers.


Various passenger and freight boats made their way between points of Tampa Bay including Tampa, St. Petersburg, Sarasota and the Manatee River. However, the shallow shoals could often cause problems at low tide.


Some steamship companies put up channel markers to direct captains; however, log rafts on their way to sawmills would often hit the posts and destroy them, according to Bass.


Although they revolutionized the world of travel, steamships were not without vulnerabilities; the average lifespan of a steamship was approximately five years, according to Bass. Boiler explosions, fires and sinking from hitting submerged obstructions contributed to the steamer's shortened lifespan.


In 1900 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began clearing the major rivers in Florida, but by that time, the reign of the steamship had been replaced with the train.


In the end, the nucleus of local towns shifted from the waterfront to the railroad stations, and finally to highways.


The H.B. Plant is seen crossing Tampa Bay. Photo: Florida Memory Project.

Despite the steamships' descent into obscurity, they will forever be romanticized in literary works like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Love in the Time of Cholera.


Samuel Stanton Jr. took after his dad when he authored and illustrated the picture book Steamships of America that featured every steamship ever built on American soil. Stanton died tragically in the Titanic disaster of 1912; his body was never found.


But steamships had an impact on lives all over the country. Mark Twain, born Samuel Clemmons, even took his name from a nautical term he learned while working on a Mississippi river steamship.


So the next time you are walking along Riverwalk in Bradenton, try to imagine a wharf jetting out from the mainland and bustling with ladies and gentlemen all dressed in white linen. Then you, too can be a part of the idealistic steamboat nostalgia.


No comments on this item

Only paid subscribers can comment
Please log in to comment by clicking here.