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Kite-Powell: How Port Tampa vs. port of Tampa came to be

Published Sep. 23, 2016

The Tampa Bay area's port system, under the umbrella of Port Tampa Bay, handles between 30 million and 40 million tons of cargo every year — almost one-third of all cargo coming in and out of Florida.

But the region's place as a major American port was far from certain. Hillsborough Bay is naturally shallow so extensive channel and harbor improvements were necessary.

The area already had a deep-water port at Port Tampa City. Established by Henry Plant in 1888, Port Tampa took advantage of a natural deep-water channel that ran through Tampa Bay toward Egmont Key. Plant built a mile-long railroad pier and connected it to his existing railhead on Polk and Ashley streets in Tampa. That connection, a single track cutting across the Interbay peninsula, provided opportunities but presented problems.

Having only one track to service the port proved problematic. The bigger problem, though, revolved around ownership. All of the docks and other port facilities at Port Tampa were owned by one company: first Plant's South Florida Railroad and then the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad, which purchased Plant's line after his death.

With complete control of the port came control over the prices to move cargo through it, and it was alleged that it cost as much, in fees, to move an item from Tampa to Port Tampa as it did to get that same item to New York City. If Tampa was going to take its place among the great port cities of America, this situation would need to change.

The person who was in line to help guide the government appropriation to Tampa, U.S. Rep. Stephen M. Sparkman, was also in a position to potentially benefit from preventing it. In addition to representing Florida's 1st Congressional District, Sparkman was an attorney for the Atlantic Coast Line. The railroad stood to lose a considerable amount of business if a deep-water channel was cut through Hillsborough Bay to Tampa's docks on the Hillsborough River.

The Seaboard Air Line railroad supported the channel dredging since the company already had a line along the east side of downtown Tampa. That line would provide the needed rail connection to the new deep-water cut.

In 1903, the federal government provided funding for improving the channel to Port Tampa City. News broke the following year that $400,000 remained unspent from the project, and the Tampa Tribune quickly advocated for it to be spent on a deep-water channel in Hillsborough Bay. When Sparkman did not act quickly enough, the newspaper accused him of favoring his client, Atlantic Coast, over his constituents.

The argument soon turned into a feud between Tampa's daily papers, the Tribune and the Tampa Daily Times, which supported Sparkman politically.

The congressman gave several reasons for his lack of enthusiasm for pursuing the appropriation. First, the money could be used to deepen the natural channel near Egmont Key to a depth of 25 feet, which would ultimately benefit the facilities at both Tampa and Port Tampa City.

Second, Sparkman assured the public that his position on the powerful Rivers and Harbors Committee in the U.S. House would enable him to direct another appropriation Tampa's way during the next session of Congress.

Last, he claimed that there was not enough interest among his fellow congressmen to alter an existing appropriation.

The Tribune attacked all of these notions. How, the paper asked, would deepening Egmont Channel from 20 to 25 feet help Tampa if the existing channel in Hillsborough Bay was only 10 to 12 feet deep?

Ultimately, time ran out on redirecting the money toward Tampa's channel. The paper then refocused its energy on pushing Sparkman to follow through on his promise to gain another appropriation, but this time earmarked for Tampa.

Sparkman did follow through, and on March 4, 1905, the Tribune announced the passage of the latest Rivers and Harbors bill. The following day's coverage elaborated, stating that the bill "carries an appropriation for the port of Tampa – not Port Tampa – of $448,350."

This is likely the first time that the name, or notion, of a "port of Tampa" appeared in print.

Despite its loud disagreement with Sparkman over the past year, the Tribune was quick to congratulate the congressman on his work in Washington. Sparkman Channel, dredged as part of the harbor improvements, was named in the congressman's honor.

Work on the channel through Hillsborough Bay to the mouth of the river commenced quickly. On July 9, 1909, the first phosphate freighter docked at Seddon Island.

Tampa officially had a real port, and it continues to play a major role in the region's economy to this day.

Rodney Kite-Powell is the director of the Touchton Map Library and Saunders Foundation Curator of History at the Tampa Bay History Center. He welcomes your questions and comments and can be reached by email, rkp@tampabayhistorycenter.org, or by phone, (813) 228-0098.

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