The Steamships of Jacksonville

Published October 14, 2009 in History

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

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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.

Merchants and Miners Transportation Company Steamship Line

Known as the "Queen of Sea", the Merchants and Miners Transportation Company Steamship Line operated one of the finest fleets of passenger steamers on the Atlantic Coast and ranked foremost as one of America's top tourist routes. It was said to be the only line plying between Baltimore, Savannah and Jacksonville.

Founded in Baltimore in 1852 to operate a cargo and passenger steamship line between Baltimore and Boston, Mass. The service initially operated with two wooden hulled side wheelers, but in 1859 built two iron hulled steamers to augment services and extended services to call at Providence, Rhode Island. Services were disrupted by the American Civil War, but resumed in 1864. After a period of decline after the war, the company slowly recovered and by 1869 were able to order a new ship. Further ships were built in the 1870s and in 1876 the Baltimore & Savannah SS Co. was purchased which allowed the company to enter the cotton trade between Savannah, Charleston and New York. The company expanded in the 1880s and added several new ports of call including Newport News and Norfolk to their routes. In 1900 a Philadelphia - Savannah service was started and in 1907 the Winsor Line of Philadelphia was purchased with their fleet of seven steamers. A new route between Baltimore and Jacksonville commenced in 1909 and in 1920 a service was initiated to Havana, Cuba, but this was discontinued after about a year. A service to Nassau, Bahamas started in 1939, but on the entry of the United Stated into World War II in 1941, most of the company's ships were requisitioned for war duty. Limited services continued, but after the war, it was not considered financially viable to re-purchase ships which had been sold to the Government or to build new ships and in 1948 it was decided to cease trading. The company was officially liquidated in 1952.

Clyde Steamship Company

Clyde-Mallory Lines once provided downtown Jacksonville with passenger and freight services to New York, Miami, Boston, Wilmington, Charleston, Key West, Galveston, Tampa, New Orleans and Mobile. They claimed to have the newest, largest and most magnificent ships serving the South. Clyde's terminal was located where the CSX headquarters building sits today.

Clyde Steamship Co., Philadelphia (later New York) (1844-1932)
The Clyde Line was established in 1844 by Thomas Clyde, connecting Philadelphia with other
east coast ports. The headquarters moved to New York in 1872. Besides connecting the northeast and southeast, the line also served the West Indies, especially Dominican Republic, after 1870s.

The company was purchased in 1907 by Charles W. Morse's Consolidated Steamship Lines, which collapsed in 1908. Clyde Line was then taken over in 1911 by the Atlantic, Gulf & West Indies Steamship Lines, a combine of a number of lines, but the Clyde Line name and flag continued in use until 1932, when Clyde was combined with the Mallory Line name to form the Clyde-Mallory Line.

Clyde-Mallory Line, New York (1932-1949)
A combination by the Atlantic, Gulf & West Indies SS Lines parent company of the old Clyde Line and the old Mallory Line. Clyde-Mallory existed for only 17 years; it was sold to the Bull Line in 1949 and the Clyde-Mallory name and flag went out of use.

Jacksonville, Miami, Charleston and New York were the Ports of call for many Clyde Line vessels. They include the Apache, Mohawk, Cherokee, Algonquin, Seminole, Lenape, Huron, Comanche and the Arapahoe.

Jacksonville's Clyde Line docks burned to the ground in 1941.


While the steamships and the benefits that came with the maritime industry are no longer a part of the Downtown Jacksonville scene, they were an important economic element of what once made downtown special.

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.

Article by Ennis Davis and Daniel Herbin

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