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Ferry plan calls to mind Tampa Bay's steamship past

The Favorite Line’s H.B. Plant docks at the foot of Jackson Street during the 1910s. Steamships used to be the most popular transportation between Tampa and St. Petersburg. 
The Favorite Line’s H.B. Plant docks at the foot of Jackson Street during the 1910s. Steamships used to be the most popular transportation between Tampa and St. Petersburg. 
Published Aug. 12, 2016

When one thinks of traveling between Tampa and St. Petersburg, images of bridges and traffic immediately come to mind. But prior to the opening of the Gandy Bridge in 1924, steamships were by far the most popular and convenient way to move people and cargo to and from the coastal cities.

The recent news of the proposed ferry service connecting the downtowns of Tampa and St. Petersburg brings to mind the long history of water-borne transportation across Tampa Bay.

Steamship service across those waters began in the 1880s, but the most popular steamship line operated in the 1910s. The aptly named Favorite Line began operations April 1, 1909, after taking over the Independent Line. The new line operated three steamers, the Manatee, the H.B. Plant and the Vandalia.

The Manatee had been in operation on Tampa Bay since the early 1890s, and it connected Tampa to the Manatee County port towns Palmetto, Bradentown (Bradenton), Manatee and Ellenton. The H.B. Plant covered the same ports, and both ships docked once a day in St. Petersburg. The Vandalia traveled exclusively between Tampa and St. Petersburg, with all three using the St. Petersburg Transportation Co. dock and pier downtown. That company operated the city's streetcar service, and a streetcar ran the length of the pier to connect the steamers with the city's transportation network.

Over the next decade, the Favorite Line added two steamships – the Pokanoket and the Favorite – to replace the H.B. Plant and the Vandalia. The Favorite became the line's flagship, and it was soon synonymous with cross-bay travel. The three vessels continued to provide passenger and freight transportation to St. Petersburg and the towns of Manatee through the 1910s until 1919, when expensive repairs and debt began to weigh the company down.

The Tampa Bay area had changed considerably during the 1910s. The growing use of automobiles coupled with government spending on road improvement (which grew dramatically following the conclusion of World War I) began to erode the local ferry services. The Favorite Line ceased operations on April 13, 1919 — almost exactly 10 years after it began service. An editorial from the Jacksonville Times-Union lamented the loss of the ferry line, saying it was interesting "how names go wrong and tastes change to the disadvantage of business enterprises. The Favorite Line of steamers, which once plied between well-known south Florida resorts, has been put out of commission by the automobile road."

Several months of discussions, meetings and interventions by business leaders in Tampa, St. Petersburg and Manatee produced many headlines but made little headway. A news story on one of the early meetings provided an ominous but (at the time) overlooked coincidence. The Tampa Board of Trade heard two committee reports at its July 21, 1919, meeting: the feasibility of restarting the Favorite Line and a report on the status of the "Gandy Bridge project".

A buyer eventually came forward to acquire the Favorite Line. The Wilson Line, based in Philadelphia, purchased the line in late 1919 and began operating the Favorite along with a ship from its northern line. Service resumed in December 1919 and included all of the ports of call of the old Favorite Line.

In 1921, the Wilson Line discontinued service to Manatee County. The Adams Boat Line from Sarasota took up that service and included a stop in St. Petersburg. The Wilson Line continued its service to St. Petersburg, and both lines operated as much for the tourist trade as it did for regular passenger and freight traffic.

The opening of the Gandy Bridge on Nov. 20, 1924, signaled the beginning of the end for bay area ferry service. By 1927, neither the Wilson Line nor the Adams Boat Line were operating between Tampa and St. Petersburg. The last bay area ferry service, the Bee Line, connected Point Pinellas in Pinellas County and Piney Point in Manatee County until the opening of the Sunshine Skyway bridge in 1954.

As with many events in history, what was once old is new again. Automobile traffic, which prompted the demise of the cross-bay ferry system, has become so congested that ferry service may again become practical. Connecting that ferry to a larger transportation network, as the original ferry system was connected to streetcar systems in Tampa and St. Petersburg, may be more difficult to replicate.

The Tampa Bay ferries were once an integral part of the area's transportation network. Only time will tell if the new ferry service will prove as beneficial.

Rodney Kite-Powell is the director of the Touchton Map Library and the Saunders Foundation Curator of History at the Tampa Bay History Center. He can be reached by email, rkp@tampabayhistorycenter.org, or by phone, (813) 228-0097.