The development of Tampa, which dates back to the establishment of Fort Brooke in 1824, has had a profound effect on the downtown waterfront. That growth began in earnest in 1847, when the town of Tampa was platted into blocks by John Jackson.
Fort Brooke remained a fixture on the landscape throughout the mid-19th century. The fort gained prominence during the Second Seminole War (1835-1842) as the southern base for the United States Army. Gen. Zachary Taylor, who would become president of the United States, commanded the Army from the southern outpost from 1838-1840.
Fort Brooke’s importance waned at the end of the 1850s, with the majority of Florida’s Seminoles forcibly removed from the state and the remainder pushed into the Everglades.
Fort Brooke was used by the Confederate Army during the Civil War and was maintained by the U.S. Army during Reconstruction. By the early 1880s, though, the army realized it no longer needed a fort on Hillsborough Bay. The fort was decommissioned in 1883, and the land was sold to Edmund Carew of Gainesville. Tampa was eager to buy the land first, in hopes of creating a park, but Carew used his connections to purchase the old fort property. A small settlement began to grow within the old boundary line, which first came to be known as the Garrison and then formally incorporated into the Town of Fort Brooke.
Development blossomed in the towns of Tampa and Fort Brooke soon after the arrival of Henry Plant’s railroad, which connected Tampa to Jacksonville and points north in December 1883, and Plant’s steamship line, which connected Tampa to port cities along the Gulf Coast, plus Key West and Havana, Cuba.
In the 1890s and early 1900s, the shape and character of downtown’s waterfront began evolving. The Hendry and Knight company dredged the southern shoreline along Hillsborough Bay and began clearing the estuary on the southeastern portion of downtown for commercial development, significantly altering the size and appearance of Tampa’s growing port area.
In 1903, the Army Corps of Engineers began a project that would provide deep-water access to the new port area, creating an island, known then as Seddon Island (today’s Harbour Island), in the process. Railroad tracks were extended over one of the new channels, Garrison Channel, to the new island. Tracks were added to the new Hendry and Knight Terminals, as well, and one of the area’s first enterprises set up shop — the H. F. Starbuck Remilling Company.
By 1907, another railroad company, the Tampa Northern Railroad, extended its line into Tampa with tracks running along Water Street in the old Garrison section. That same year, the city of Tampa annexed the Town of Fort Brooke and the old Garrison district. The annexation allowed the city to better control development in and around the port. It also allowed for an increase in city revenues with the expanded tax base.
By World War I, Tampa’s waterfront was a whir of activity. After the war, the Florida Asphalt Block Paving Company joined the re-milling company and warehouses between Water Street and Garrison Channel. Materials used in the construction of homes and businesses during the 1920s Florida Land Boom passed through the wharves and along the rail lines in and around the Hendry and Knight Terminals.
The collapse of the real estate market and the national depression of the 1930s halted growth along the waterfront. Shipping by rail and sea continued through the decade, but in the 1940s, World War II provided a much-needed boost to the area economy. The Estuary area, which stretched from First Avenue (Adamo Drive) on the north, Ybor and Garrison channels on the east and south, and Nebraska Avenue on the west, buzzed with activity. Shipyards, warehouses and rail facilities hummed 24 hours a day.
The pace slowed considerably after the war, but the Hendry and Knight Terminals remained busy along the Garrison Channel. The Grain Processing Corporation began operating a mill, elevator and processing facility at 915 Water St., shortly after the end of World War II. The company was purchased by Cargill within a few years, but the grain processing plant remained on Water Street (which was joined to and renamed Ashley Drive in 1968) until the early 1970s.
Among the last businesses to occupy 915 Water St. (Ashley Drive) was CJ’s Sandwich Shop, which served the dwindling number of warehouse employees during the 1980s. By the early 1990s, the waterfront along Garrison Channel was vacant, save for a stretch of decaying piers and docks. This would soon change, however, with the 1992 announcement of a new educational attraction — the Florida Aquarium. The aquarium opened its doors in 1995, leading the way for broad redevelopment efforts in the old warehouse district.
Today, this section of downtown Tampa is known as Channelside. Gone, for the most part, are the warehouses and railroad tracks that gave the area its earlier identity. With attractions and museums — the aquarium, the Forum, the Tampa Bay History Center — plus several large-scale residential projects leading the way, this area is enjoying new life as a destination for both locals and tourists.
HartLine’s electric streetcar operates along the former Water Street, passing through the old Garrison section and connecting downtown Tampa to Ybor City. Cruise ships now tie up to Tampa docks where barges and phosphate ships once moored. Though the fate of the Channelside entertainment complex is still in flux, further refinement and redevelopment within the Channel District is certain.
Rodney Kite-Powell is the Saunders Foundation Curator of History at the Tampa Bay History Center. He welcomes your comments and questions and can be reached by email at email@example.com or by phone at (813) 228-0097.