When only their family lived there, young brothers found adventure on isolated Harbour Island

Playing aboard cargo ships, dove-hunting on Gasparilla day, Dennis and Andrew Schaibly grew up on the island near downtown Tampa before it was sold for development and renamed.
Published January 25
Updated January 25

TAMPA — Forty years ago this month, Seddon Island was sold to developers who transformed the 177-acre property off the southern edge of downtown from a phosphate loading terminal into the gated residential community known today as Harbour Island.

Tom Hall knows all about it as the man first hired to market the place to investors.

For instance, why was Harbour spelled with a “U”?

"It sounded classy," Hall said with a laugh.

But there’s one chapter in island history that even Hall hadn’t heard about. During its industrial beginnings, someone lived there.

"Someone lived there?" said Hall, now chairman of the Tucker/Hall public relations firm in Tampa. "I didn't know there was anywhere to live."

There was — the piece of land at the southern tip where Dennis and Andrew Schaibly grew up.

"For us it was just a big adventure," said Dennis Schaibly, 66, and now living in New Orleans. "We had an entire island as our backyard and all the fishing, water-skiing, hunting and boating at our doorstep."

It was a rural lifestyle literally a stone's throw from Tampa's urban core, he said, but also like "living in Epcot” because their playgrounds included docks, warehouses, ships and welding and mechanic shops.

"It was a different childhood," said Andrew Schaibly, 60, who lives in Wesley Chapel, “and we loved it. We had a lot of fun."

Seddon Island started as a sandbar and grew with fill material dredged from shipping channels. Owned by Seaboard Air Line Railway, it was named for company chief engineer W.L Seddon. Trains delivered phosphate to a terminal there for loading onto cargo ships.

In 1901, a house was built about 200 yards from the terminal, the Schaibly brothers said. The plant superintendent lived there, ready to respond to any problems that arose on nights or weekends.

Jack Norton Sr. and his family were the first occupants. His son Jack Norton Jr. succeeded him in the job.

Then, in 1969, Jay Schaibly was promoted to superintendent and moved his family from tract housing in Temple Terrace to a home that was unlike any other.

His wife Nell Schaibly, described as an avid outdoorswoman, adjusted easily, as did her sons, who were in the seventh and the third grades.

Debbie Schaibly, on the other hand, a high school senior, "was not enamored," her brother Dennis Schaibly said.

The Schaiblys estimate the three-bedroom home was around 1,500 square feet in size, including additions built by the previous tenant.

The family added their own touches — an above ground pool they buried halfway into the ground with a bulldozer.

They also built a soccer field that would be used by crews from around the world, and in return, the boys had the run of their cargo ships.

In those days, crews would toss their junk overboard so the brothers salvaged what they liked, including materials for a tree house and a 150-foot zip line.

All the derelict ships wound up at Seddon Island’s northern dock, Dennis Schaibly said. "We would sneak past a sleeping guard to play in those."

There was a bridge to get on and off the island, but it was quicker for the children to hop on their aluminum johnboat and motor over to Davis Islands to catch the school bus.

Andrew Schaibly learned to drive by the time he was 10, cruising the island in a Volkswagen.

The boys caught crab and mullet for sale to longshoreman and the proceeds paid for trips to the Florida State Fair when it was held nearby in Tampa.

They raised horses and chickens and let their dogs roam free. Tugboats honked to shoo the swimming canines out of the way.

"We also had a wild untamed thicket filled with little brown swamp bunnies we could hunt," Schaibly said.

The best time for dove hunting was the day of the Gasparilla parade because the boom of fake cannons masked the sound of their real gunfire. They’d host a dove-hunting party while the rest of the city screamed for beads.

The only downside of life on the isolated island, the brothers agreed, was the raising of the bridge each night. If they were traveling by bicycle or car and got back late, they’d have to swim home.

The Schaibly family moved off the island in 1974 when it was optioned for redevelopment by Major Realty Corp. of Orlando. Nothing came of that deal, and in January 1979, Seaboard sold the land to Delaware-based Beneficial Corp.

The sale price was $2.9 million, said marketer Hall — all of it recouped when a lot where the Schaibly family lived sold for $3.2 million.

Harbour Island, now home to some 4,300 people, was completed in 1985. As part of the ribbon cutting ceremony, former president Gerald Ford stood on the downtown side of Garrison Channel and drove a golf ball toward the island.

The island had seen golf balls before; the Schaiblys had a three-hole course near their home.

The family moved northeast, to Mango. Life in a normal neighborhood had its ups and downs.

The good news: never having to swim home. The bad news: losing the freedom of life on the island.

"It's not something you can get anywhere else," Andrew Schaibly said. "It was unique to us."

Contact Paul Guzzo at [email protected] or follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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