Manatee History Matters: Steamboat model on display in Cortez museum

Looking at the state seal of Florida, one will notice hibiscus flowers, a Seminole woman, a Sabal Palm and, in the background, an ocean-going steamboat that seems to glow as the sun sets behind it.

Before railroads crisscrossed the state or cars zoomed down Interstate 4 and Interstate 75, travel was either by foot through overgrown cart paths or, for some, by water. Throughout the 19th 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 seen chugging along some of Florida's rivers and, within the next 10 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 estimated 1,200 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.

Toward 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 20th 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 Co. 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 St. 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 in Pinellas County and Palmetto, where passengers would go for picnics or take trips to nearby islands.

The Florida Maritime Museum has a model of Favorite on display from 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. Daniels created the model by studying photographs of the steamboat.

Admission to the museum is free and is open to the public 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday at 4415 119th St. W., Cortez, 34215. For information please visit floridamaritimemuseum.org or call 941-708-6120.

For further reading, consider "When Steamboats Reigned in Florida" by Bob Bass.

Krystin Van Leuven, curator for the Florida Maritime Museum, grew up in Manatee County and treasures the unique history of the area. She can be reached at krystin.vanleuven@manateeclerk.com or 941-708-6120