Steamboats in Florida

Passengers Boarding a Steamboat

Looking at the state seal of Florida, one will notice hibiscus flowers, a Seminole woman, a Sabal Palm and, in the background, an oceangoing steamboat that seems to glow as the sun sets behind it. Before railroads crisscrossed the state or cars zoomed down I-4 and I-75, travel was either by foot through overgrown cart paths or, for some, by water. Throughout the nineteenth century, with much of the state’s population in a certain amount of isolation, trips along the water became the most practical option.

Introduced in the early 1800s, the steamboat changed the nature of travel on the major rivers throughout the United States. By the late 1820s, these boats could be spotted chugging along some of Florida’s rivers and within the next ten years, steamboats established regularly scheduled trips up and down the St. Johns River, carrying passengers and cargo.

The number of steamboats cruising Florida’s rivers may have seemed small compared to the approximately 1200 steamboats sailing around New Orleans, but their importance here is evident. Although the initial purpose of these vessels was to transport cargo, their significance in passenger transport developed with time. Particularly after the end of the Civil War, steamboats helped transport new settlers from other states and brought tourists to their destinations in a leisurely fashion.

Towards the turn of the century, as railroads became the preferred method of transportation and their lines spread further into Florida, the popularity of steamboats began to decrease. Their true end, however, began as highways started to appear across the state and more people purchased automobiles. In certain places, however, the need for these steamboats lasted beyond the turn of the twentieth century. In the numerous towns that dotted the west coast of Florida, particularly between Tampa and Charlotte Harbor, access to mail, news, and much needed supplies was still heavily dependent on the Gulf of Mexico and the boats that maneuvered through it.

In the early 1900s, H. Walter Fuller Investment Company was in possession of three steamboats (Favorite, Manatee, and H. B. Plant) which served the Tampa Bay Area. The company, which was the brainchild of K. W. Wiggins, George Gandy Sr., and H. Walter Fuller, made daily trips around the area that included stops at Tampa, the Electric Pier in Saint Petersburg, and the Manatee River Ports. In total the trip took approximately four hours and included a meal. Other steamboats offered trips focused on relaxing excursions to places such as Pass-a-Grille and Palmetto, where passengers would go for picnics or take trips to nearby islands.

The Florida Maritime Museum has a model of Favorite in its permanent collection. The model was created by William H. Daniels and is unusual in its method of construction as it was completed with no formal plans. Mr. Daniels created the model by studying photographs of the steamboat.

For further reading, consider When Steamboats Reigned in Florida by Bob Bass.
Photos courtesy of the Manatee County Public Library Historical Image Digital Collection.


Krystin Van Leuven, the author of this article and curator at the Florida Maritime Museum, grew up in Manatee County and treasures the unique history of the area.

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