Before there was a Port Tampa, the southwestern tip of the Interbay Peninsula was known as Black Point – a good place for fishing. Settlement of the area began around 1885 when Henry B. Plant selected it for his system of hotels, railways and shipping lines. Upon completion of the railway extension from Tampa in 1888, Port Tampa became a major freight and passenger railway terminus and international seaport. Two hotels were built on pilings adjacent to the pier extending a mile into Tampa Bay. Passengers could step from the train next to the hotels, lean out their chamber window to catch fish to be cooked and served to them, and walk across the pier to board their ship. Leisure time could be spent at nearby Picnic Island, a recreational and amusement resort.
Port expansion led to the development of the City of Port Tampa. Quarters were built for port workers; stately residences were constructed for sea captains; wealthy merchants built grand homes; cigar factory workers built modest dwellings. Port Tampa City became a thriving town and a charter was granted by the state legislature on June 30, 1893; a self-governed borough with elected officials, ordinances, and a marshal to keep the peace.
By the time Clara Barton sailed into Port Tampa from Cuba with injured crew members of the USS Maine in April 1898, Henry Plant was successfully lobbying the War Dept. to select Tampa as an assembly point and his docks in Port Tampa as the point of departure for the Spanish-American War – a conflict that would put Tampa on the map. Troops camped in the port district and on Picnic Island. Theodore Roosevelt and the Rough Riders, among other notables, rode through town on their way to the war in June 1898.
A year later Henry Plant died and his empire was dismantled; neglected wooden structures such as the Plant hotels disintegrated. Fires destroyed most of the commercial district. The hurricane of 1921 wreaked havoc in the port district and the beach pier. Shipping operations outgrew Port Tampa; thus the larger Port of Tampa, situated on Hillsborough Bay near present-day downtown Tampa, was developed. Loyal residents, merchants, and city officials persevered through the Great Depression, WWII, and the debate over a new firehouse. Port Tampa City remained a chartered municipality until abruptly losing its sovereignty on May 11, 1961.
Today, Port Tampa is a community culturally, ethnically, and socio-economically diverse. It has retained its small town fixtures including civic organizations, fraternal orders, churches, community centers, parks, shops and businesses. Historic sites are repurposed: Port Tampa City Library in the former First Bank of Port Tampa City building and later known as the Commerce Bank Building, V.T. Clark’s general store in the earlier Hanks’ Corner, American Legion Post #138 on the location of the past Municipal Pier, and West Shore Elementary School on the site of the previous Lottery Building. Ships hauling bulk products and petroleum dock at the port. A freight train rolls along the tracks between Port Tampa and Tampa several times a week. That train whistle is a reminder that this port continues to be an international gateway.
A visit to Port Tampa would not be complete without an outing to Picnic Island’s beach, boat launch, fishing pier, playground, and bird sanctuary; an idyllic recreational locale and a tranquil spot to just sit and watch beautiful sunsets. Some things are constant: Port Tampa is still a good place for fishing.
More information on the history of Port Tampa City is included in the book Port Tampa City – A History of Change, in the reference section of the Port Tampa City Library. Library hours: Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays 10:00 AM – 6:00 PM, Wednesdays noon – 8:00 PM, closed Sundays, Mondays and national holidays.