With its headwaters in Alabama and terminus in Blackwater Bay, the Blackwater River is the major river of Santa Rosa County, Florida. For centuries this river has played an integral role in the development of northwest Florida as the primary avenue for transporting resources, goods, and people in and out of the interior of this area (Wells 2015). Prehistoric and historic use of this waterway is evident in the archaeology that exists along the coast, erodes from the shorelines, and lays buried and undiscovered in the dark tannic waters of the Blackwater River. From Native American burial mounds and oyster middens that date from the Middle Woodland Period (A.D. 200 – A.D. 500) to Revolutionary War (1775-1783) and Civil War (1861-1865) shipwrecks, the Blackwater River has long been of the utmost importance to its inhabitants. Today, the Blackwater Maritime Heritage Trail hopes to bring the knowledge of the archaeological record to paddleboarders, kayakers, and recreational boaters so all may learn of the river’s largely forgotten past.
Most of the shipwrecks of the Blackwater River speak to maritime commerce which flourished in Santa Rosa County during the Maritime Expansion (1865-1906) and Early 20th Century (1907-1945) Periods. One of the county’s most beloved vessels now lays at the bottom of Blackwater Bay.
The City of Tampa
City of Tampa started life as the single-decked steam-powered packet Volunteer. It was built in Mason City, West Virginia, in 1887 for the Bay Brothers, to run on a line service operating on the Ohio River. Volunteer was 93 ft. long and 12.6 ft. in beam, with a draft of 2.6 ft. The shallow draft and light build made it ideal for travel on ever-changing inland waterways, which often were unpredictable and had a tendency to shoal. Volunteer plied these waters until being “sold south” in 1892 to move fruit on the Manatee River in central Florida.
In 1898, Captain Augustus Mason bought the vessel and renamed it City of Tampa, which was his home port at the time. The newly christened City of Tampa was brought to Milton, Florida, where it resumed duties as a packet steamer moving cargo and people on a fixed schedule. In northwest Florida at this time, the lumber business was booming and Pensacola in particular was known around the world for its yellow pine industry. The popular steamer made stops along the Blackwater River at the towns of Milton and Bagdad and at the Bay Point Mill, as well as Pensacola daily. The vessel also provided special day trips and leisure cruises, complete with a band and dancing, for residents. The local newspapers, Milton Gazette and Pensacola Journal, ran almost daily reports of the vessel’s travels, and whether or not it was running on time. Tampa, as she was affectionately known, was highly regarded, primarily for providing a direct link from the Port of Pensacola to Milton at a time when there were no connecting roads.
City of Tampa worked for the community for 23 years, which was well above the average five-year lifespan for a packet steamer. This may be why local people in northwest Florida still fondly remembered Tampa decades after the vessel met her spectacular fiery end. City of Tampa was purchased by R.P. Broxson and G.C. Harvell in 1919, both men having worked on the vessel in the past. The new owners continued her regular route, and in 1921 she was brought in for boiler replacement at Bay Point Shipyard. In the middle of the night with Broxson aboard, Tampa caught fire and burned through her hawser and was set adrift. The steamer floated ablaze southeast with the outgoing tide, where she struck a sandbar at the mouth of the Yellow River, burnt to the waterline, and sank in seven feet of water.
City of Tampa was a total loss. Until Hurricane Fredrick in 1979, the boiler and stack were still visible, making her a hazard to navigation. However, the wreck of the steamer continued to be used by locals as a popular fishing spot. Many years later, after she had long disappeared below the surface, old local fisherman still knew of her general location. In 2010, City of Tampa was studied by Master's students in Historical Archaeology at the University of West Florida and side scan sonar and target diving operations were employed to monitor the vessel’s degradation.
(Author Andrew Derlikowski)