It may surprise some to hear that Manatee County did not always look the way it does now. In fact, at one point, our county included what became DeSoto, Highlands, Glades, Hardee, Sarasota and Charlotte counties. Sarasota would remain as part of our county until 1921.
Unlike today, the Sarasota of the past was much more isolated than many of the towns near the Manatee River. Because of this, it’s no wonder that the steamship Mistletoe is still spoken about today as being a part of Sarasota’s early history. The vessel began its run in the late 1800s and was Sarasota’s first reliable and regular connection to cities and counties nearby.
By dredging, shallow-draft steamships were able to reach markets from Tampa to Sarasota without having to go into the Gulf.
Mistletoe was owned by Tampa fisherman John Savarese and was one of the reasons for the dredging or deepening of the channels in the northern part of Sarasota Bay. By dredging, shallow-draft steamships were able to reach markets from Tampa to Sarasota without having to go into the Gulf. From this point forward, Mistletoe began a regular schedule that brought passengers and goods from Tampa to Sarasota with a single one-way trip per day.
For fishermen throughout Manatee County, including those in Bradenton and Cortez, this steamship in particular gave them more access to desired markets. Before the accessibility of steamships in the area, fish had to be dried and salted then transported to market for sale. With the ice sent from Tampa, fishermen were now able to send fresh fish back on the steamship to Tampa where they would be put on trains and sent north. This change caused fish houses to spring up along the coast, including one owned by John Savarese, Mistletoe’s owner.
Mistletoe met its end when it sank during a hurricane in 1910, but this was just the end of the vessel’s name. Shortly after she sank, there were several attempts (some unsuccessful) to raise her and put her back into commission. Through this, her cabin was damaged severely enough that it needed renovations. Once completed, workers had replaced the wood planking, added an additional 1 1/2 feet to her length, and outfitted her to carry 200 passengers in addition to cargo. At her rechristening in 1911, Mistletoe became The City of Sarasota.
After six years of operation, The City of Sarasota ended its runs from Tampa to Sarasota and the steamship was purchased by Pillsbury Boat Works on Snead Island, at the mouth of the Manatee River. She was then converted into a barge, but shortly afterward was pulled onto the shore and burned.
For more information about the different facets of Florida’s maritime heritage, visit the Florida Maritime Museum, 4415 119th St .W. in Cortez. It’s open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Please note that the museum will be closed from Dec. 23 through Jan. 2 for the holidays, but will reopen with normal business hours Jan. 3. You can reach us through FloridaMaritimeMuseum.org or by calling 941-708-6120.