Editor's note 

The story of the Tarpon began 130 years ago, in July 1887 and ended 50 years later in September 1937. For decades, she was a familiar sight in Franklin County and an integral part of the economy and social of the Panhandle. Over the next two weeks, Chasing Shadows will reprint a biography of the Tarpon that first appeared in the Panama City News Herald in 1973.

Eighty years ago this month, more than half the passengers on the Tarpon died on stormy seas.

 

The birth of the Tarpon

The story of the Tarpon began on July 23, 1887, in Wilmington, Delaware, in the yards of the renowned shipbuilders, Pusey and Jones. On this day, hull number 241 – soon to be delivered to Naugatuck Valley Steamboat Company of Derby, Connecticut – was launched. The vessel was 130 feet in length, 26 feet in berth, with a draft of 8 feet and was named Naugatuck, according to shipbuilders’ records. She left the wharf on August 21 1887 and on her maiden voyage plied Connecticut’s Long Island sound and Housatonic River.

In its first winter of service, the twin screw, iron hull vessel was used as an icebreaker to keep the river’s channel free of ice. She was so successful at this task that shipping was curtailed for only three weeks of the entire winter.

Hard times befell its owners and two years later the newest vessel in their fleet was offered for sale. In October 1890, under the commission of Captain Albert N. Haig, the Naugatuck sailed for southern waters to join the Plant Line of Tampa, Florida.

The new owner of was Henry Bradley Plant, a man credited to be the architect of the financial reconstruction of the South after the War Between the States. Considered to be the worst sort of Yankee by Jefferson Davis, Plant nevertheless emerged as a financier to bridge the gap between the North and the South in the field of investments. He convinced Northerners to invest in the South, particularly Florida and convinced Southerners to invest money in their own development.

During Plant’s lifetime he spent large sums of money on the development of the west coast of Florida. He founded what was later to become the Seaboard Coast Line Railroad, rescued hundreds of fever-stricken American soldiers from Cuba and built the world famous Tampa Bay Hotel, which is today the main building of the University of Tampa and also houses a museum of Plant’s achievements. At the turn of the century, the Plant System of railroads, steamship lines and express companies was probably the largest conglomerate in the United States. His purchase of the Naugatuck was to expand Plant’s west coast operations.

On July 20, 1891, the Plant Line steamed her back to the yard in Wilmington; there it was fitted with an additional 30 feet in length; at this time its name was changed to the now famous Tarpon.

As of this writing, little is known concerning her 11-year tenure in the Tampa Bay area. Much research is yet to be done at this timer period.

(Editor’s note: The "Tarpon" was based in Port Tampa and regularly traveled between Fort Myers and Port Tampa carrying freight and passengers. The 160-foot steamer's southbound route in early 1892 was to depart Port Tampa at 10 p.m., on the following day to stop in St. James City and Punta Rassa around noon and to reach Fort Myers in the late afternoon/early evening. She may have been one of the dozens of Plant vessels used to transport troops and supplies to and from Cuba during the Spanish-American War.)

 

Personal Charge

 

In 1898, U. S. expeditionary Forces embarked from Port Tampa as this nation became involved in a brief war with Cuba. During the chaotic period of loading all of Plant’s vessels for shipping men and material to the war zone, Plant became dissatisfied with government’s handling of the effort and took personal charge of the task himself. There is strong evidence that the Tarpon was one of the 36 transports used to ferry men and materials to and from Cuba.

Henry Plant died in June 1899. His company was merged with Peninsular and Occidental Steamship Company. Once again the Tarpon was offered for sale.

In December 1902, it was announced that the ship had been sold to Mr. J. H. Saunders of Pensacola.

Saunders was a prosperous businessman who controlled several Naval stores, a grocery company and a milling company.

Saunders joined by H. H. Boyer – the agent for the German-American Lumber Company of Millville, Florida – and John Massey incorporated the Pensacola St. Andrews and Gulf Steamship Company.

Saunders hired Captain Willis Green Barrow and sent him to several eastern ports to secure a vessel for the new company.

On December 13, 1902, Barrow, of Pensacola, Florida, took command of the Tarpon in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. From this point on, the lives of the ship and her skipper became inseparable. The trip from Philadelphia took 14 days. An early newspaper’s account tells of the excitement created by the Tarpon’s arrival in Pensacola. Its owners offered the public the opportunity to board the port’s new steamer and inspect accommodations.

Soon after the New Year in 1903, the Tarpon began its weekly runs. The ports of Mobile, Pensacola, St. Andrews Bay, Apalachicola and Carrabelle were featured in its route. A record of dependability and accuracy in its schedule was soon established by the ship.

During this period of development of Northwest Florida, roads and bridges were non-existent. Most trades, commerce and communications between communities were entirely dependent on waterways. The Tarpon and the personable Captain Barrow became famous on the North Gulf Coast. To the men, Captain Barrow was a rough and grumbly old sea salt; to the ladies, he was a gentleman of the highest caliber; and to the children he was an inspiring hero.

In August 1908, J. R. Saunders died and Captain Barrow became president and major Stockholder in the steamship firm he founded.

Aside from a few storms, hurricanes, fires and groundings, the Tarpon maintained an exceptionally close schedule. In March 1923, she was severely damaged by a fire in the Port of Panama City; the ship underwent extensive repairs at a shipyard in Millville.

 

High and Dry

 

In September 1926, she was completely blown out of her element at Pensacola by a hurricane. After the winds subsided, the Tarpon rested high and dry on the beach of Santa Rosa Island. The ship was so far removed from the water that it took two months to dredge a channel under her to free her to float again.

In September, 1929, she again fell victim to a hurricane that forced her shore near West Pass of the Port of Apalachicola.

For 34 years Captain Barrow and the Tarpon made some 1,756 trips before finally succumbing to the stormy seas off the coast of Panama City on September 1, 1937. In the early morning hours the ship foundered. Of the 31 persons aboard, 18 were lost.

The ship had sailed from Pensacola the evening before on its way to Panama City. The weather was reported fair. Sometime during the night the weather worsened as the ship neared Panama City. A leak that had been reported earlier in the bow of the ship was being aggravated by the rough seas.

More about the Tarpon next week…