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The Steamships of Jacksonville

Metro Jacksonville takes a look at an industry that once gave downtown Jacksonville's waterfront an international and cosmopolitan flair: The Steamships of Jacksonville.

Published July 3, 2012 in History      6 Comments    Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article


What is a Steamship?

A steamboat or steamship, sometimes called a steamer, is a ship in which the primary method of propulsion is steam power, typically driving propellers or paddlewheels.

The term steamboat is usually used to refer to smaller steam-powered boats working on lakes and rivers, particularly riverboats; steamship generally refers to larger steam-powered ships which are usually ocean-going. The term steamwheeler is archaic and rarely used.

Steamships gradually replaced sailing ships for commercial shipping through the 19th century and in turn were overtaken by diesel-driven ships in the second half of the twentieth century. Most warships used steam propulsion until the advent of the gas turbine. Today, nuclear-powered warships and submarines use steam to drive turbines, but are not referred to as steamships or steamboats.

Screw-driven steamships generally carry the ship prefix "SS" before their names, meaning 'Steam Ship' (or Screw Steamer, or 'screw-driven steamship'), paddle steamers usually carry the prefix "PS" and steamships powered by steam turbine may be prefixed "TS" (turbine ship). The term steamer is occasionally used, out of nostalgia, for diesel motor-driven vessels, prefixed "MV".

The St. Johns River Steamboats

From Savannah, the George Washington became the first steamboat to visit Jacksonville in 1827. Over the next seventy years, steamboats would transform the St. Johns River and Jacksonville into an epicenter for the distribution of goods, people and supplies throughout the east coast. At the height of the steamboat era, there were 38 stops along the St. Johns between Jacksonville and Enterprise, FL.

The steamship Fred & Debary on the St. Johns River.  This steamer was operated by the DeBary-Baya Merchants' Line in the late 19th century.

1829 - 1835 Early beginnings - sporadic communication
1835 - 1842 Second Indian War lasted seven years
1842 - 1850 Regular service - Savannah - boat building
1860 - 1865 Civil War - invasion from the north - cessation of travel
1865 - 1875 Reconstruction - re-establish old travel patterns
1875 - 1887 Golden age - river steamboat service
1884 - 1885 The first railroad connecting Florida from the northeast is completed and extended to Titusville.
1887 - 1920 Gradual decline of steamboats because of railroads and freezes

The Steamer "Magnolia" on the St. Johns River by the Acosta Bridge in 1917.

The "City of Jacksonville" moored at a Northbank dock in 1912.

160 feet in length, the City of Jacksonville steamboat was built in 1882 in Wilmington, DE.

Workers unload a shipment of bananas in Jacksonville at the Caribbean Fruit and Steamship Company's terminal.

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July 03, 2012, 06:52:32 AM
Love the history. Thank you Dan and Ennis.

Your last paragraph captures it. "As the Mayor's office prepares to decide the FUTURE of Jacksonville's waterfront, considerable thought needs to be given to uses that can become economic anchors for a 21st century central business district."

I must say that Mayor Brown is making Downtown a Destination and not a pass through. After Friday's 6/29/12 press conference at Tillie Fowler Regional Park and his newest initiative People and Parks connection where it was announced that the newest kayak launch at Catherine St. On Hogans Creek is ready to go. Congratulations to Dave Roman and Mayor Brown.

All we need to do now is FIND FIND.

The future of Jacksonville's waterfront especially with the looming Govt. takeover of Downtown by another Authority that has been approved by city council but now the boundaries of this Authority are up for a decision and a vote. The Public Trust has been totally destroyed in the past. Shipyards III. The recent news conference at Tillie Fowler Regional Park and the rejuvenated effort of Dave Roman and Mayor Brown along with the commissioners of FIND should have us all saying "VISIT JACKSONVILLE"

It will only happen with legislation.

So who wants to kayak at the brand new kayak launch at Catherine St. In Springfield on Hogans Creek?

Congratulations to Mayor Brown and Dave Roman.

Who's next?


July 03, 2012, 10:34:12 AM
What a coincidence! I'm headed to New Orleans to ride the Natchez paddleboat this weekend. I love the old Jacksonville steamboats. The "City of Sanford" steamship caught fire just across the river from Ortega with many dead:,%20City%20of%20Sanford.htm. Very tragic. It's amazing it didn't happen more often. Before electricity, I believe the ships would just have huge bonfires burning on the front of the boat for night travel.


July 03, 2012, 11:37:31 AM
Look how ornate some of them were inside. Very cool. Too bad we don't build with that type of craftsmanship anymore.


July 03, 2012, 12:13:28 PM
They do look very well appointed.  I'm sure due to their smaller size that a choppy Atlantic could have made many people with motion sickness a little ill, but what a way to travel!

Wish Jacksonville's waterfront could have at least a scrap yard of these ships.  I work on a project in Alameda, CA and in Alameda there is a former naval shipyard filled with old ships.  It's a pretty cool sight, even from a distance.  Philly has a ton of old ships sitting at the docks, too.


July 03, 2012, 12:59:05 PM

None of this is new, as Jacksonville stumbles around trying to figure this out I offer this photo of a vibrant intermodal terminal circa 1920. The location is the steamboat wharf at Silver Springs. The steamer 'Metamora,' of The Lucas New Line is docked at the head of the springs, a tour boat awaits a fresh load of visitors, and in the background 'The Silver Springs Special' of the Ocklawaha Valley Railroad (you were expecting anything less?) is mixing it up with the nautical world.

In another generation the Metamora would slowly sink into the dark waters of the St. Johns at it's Palatka wharf only to be pumped out and moved to a common graveyard of many of our riverboats just south of the town. The boats were visible well into the 1950's-70's, even today low water exposes machinery and giant timbers from this era.

The Cruise Ship Yorktown, at 257 feet long, with 140 passengers, built in Florida for inland waterways, is the ideal target for a downtown mini cruise terminal. The fact is there are many more small cruise liners we could go after.

If city planning, the mayor, DIA, etc... could wrap their collective heads around a concept of a smaller (think something about the size of a two floor c-store) ship terminal on our river walk. Within that terminal, we house a 'Visit Jacksonville' center, and an official Florida marine welcome station. A small theater room could show the historic films shot in Jacksonville as well as those used in Fort Caroline and/or St. Augustine by the National Park Service. Free OJ or coffee. Leave space for a couple of full time small concessions within the building. Add DVI, and seasonal Park Service people to the mix, and SELL THIS CITY as the WORLDS BEST SMALL SHIP CRUISE PORT.


July 03, 2012, 02:40:04 PM
An interesting article I found:

By The Times-Union

Wednesday, August 27, 1997

Derelict steamboat more than a wreck

By Bill Foley


Is anything more annoying than the disappearance of the ubiquitous?

Through much of my childhood, a derelict steamboat lay broken and sagging in the Intracoastal Waterway at Atlantic Boulevard.

It was gussied up with gingerbread siding and had a big sign on it that said ''Showboat,'' but it really was nothing more even to my undiscerning childish eye than a rotting wreck.

But it was a neighborhood wreck, and every time we drove to town - town being Jacksonville - the old Showboat was there as sure as the canal was there - that's what the Intracoastal Waterway was called before Elvis or the moonshot or whatever benchmark in time marked its transition in popular parlance from ''canal'' to ''Intracoastal Waterway'' or ''The ICW'' if you live at the Beaches and are truly hip, if that's what they call it anymore.

Anyway, the Showboat was part of the landscape as much as the sea oats and Jimmy Johnson's fish camp and Harry Blitch's restaurant and the dinky little drawbridge from which the locals fished over the side, buckets strewed into the path of beach-bound traffic, daring the townies to run them down.

None of it is there anymore, of course.

Highway construction claimed the sea oats, and Jimmy Johnson and Harry Blitch have long since made the hereafter a little more colorful. The dinky little drawbridge has been replaced by a real swooper from which no one would fish, even if anybody fished anymore in the canal - oops, The ICW.

But I have no idea what became of the Showboat.

I am sure it passed ingloriously, sucked up from the mud and cut and chopped and whacked to shreds, its remnants carted off to a landfill or dumped in the sea or whatever. I don't remember it happening, though, and I didn't see anything in the paper about it. Just one day it was gone and nobody who never saw it ever heard anything about it, and anybody who ever saw it surely remembers it well - an eyesore that became a landmark.

It was, of course, once famous.

The derelict once was The City of Jacksonville, proud queen, they called it, of the St. Johns River. It was built to the order of the DeBary Line in Wilmington, Del., in 1882, especially for service on the St. Johns River. With its sister steamer the Frederick DeBary, it plied thrice weekly between Jacksonville and Sanford, in time becoming known as the most traveled steamer on the St. Johns River.

In the 1890s, the Clyde St. Johns River Line took over the City of Jacksonville and the Frederick DeBary and began daily runs with passengers, mail and express traffic between Jacksonville and Palatka. In 1914, the DeBary was replaced by the Osceola, which coincidentally ended up as a derelict imbedded at the foot of the present Jacksonville City Hall, a circumstance of which city fathers were innocent until they tried to build a parking lot.

The City of Jacksonville and the Osceola both ended their runs in 1928. Other forms of transportation had made the river craft obsolete. Investors from Savannah considered making the City of Jacksonville an excursion boat, but it didn't work out. The engines were taken out and, with the end of Prohibition, the City of Jacksonville became a nightclub, a restaurant, a private club, all the stuff that hot spots along the canal fail at, unless they are run by Harry Blitch.

The Florida Times-Union described the old derelict in 1949 as bearing ''the rusty scars of a hard life . . . a little apologetic in her condition.''

And thus I remember it until it was gone, I know not where.

And a picture of her sometime in the 50's:

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