As Reader’s Digest once explained, “For bulk delivery, nothing has ever been as cheap as water.” Recently the crude oil tanker “Eagle Sibu” docked at the Port of Pensacola and, like large ships often do, the imposing vessel drew people to the waterfront for a closer look. Everyday, however, smaller tugs and barges move coal, petroleum, and other materials through nearby waters largely unnoticed, along a system many of us don’t typically spend time pondering: the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway.
The Santa Rosa Sound, Big Lagoon, and a portion of Pensacola Bay connect local waterways to a system that extends from the U.S./Mexico Border to New England, and has carried the majority of fuel used in Pensacola over the last 60 years.
Originally conceived in 1905, the Intracoastal Waterway was a project the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) endorsed and saw through Congress, and which the USACE constructed and currently maintains.
Proponents in the 1920s and 1930s touted the Intracoastal Waterway for its recreational and industrial potential, but industry was the primary driver, as the canal would provide a faster, protected route to ship fuel and other goods on shallow draft vessels, i.e. barges. The larger system consists of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway (AIWW) and the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway (GIWW). The AIWW extends between Key West, Fla. and Norfolk, Va.; the GIWW has segments between Fort Myers, Fla. and Brownsville, Texas.
Army engineers recommended construction of the stretch of canal between Mobile, Ala. and Pensacola in 1929 stating that both were “important ports” and the canal would supplement the railways and highways in the area, which they deemed inadequate. The route between Mobile, Ala. and Pensacola was complete by 1935, and by 1949, the GIWW between Texas and Carrabelle, Fla. was open and operating.
The GIWW developed just in time to accommodate industrial growth in Northwest Florida during the 1950s. The Chemstrand Corporation nylon plant opened in 1953, and Gulf Power’s Crist Steam Plant was expanding. Each facility required a significant amount of energy to operate, and fuel coming in along the GIWW was essential. A channel was dredged in the Escambia River to accommodate barge traffic to those facilities. During the early years of its operation, Chemstrand officials estimated it brought in approximately 40,000 tons of petroleum-based products from Louisiana and Texas annually via the GIWW.
In the following decades, the GIWW provided the route for nearly all of the military and civilian fuel shipments to Pensacola. One barge is capable of bringing in approximately one million gallons of fuel, or over 1,500 tons of coal. Numerous industrial plants sprouted up along the GIWW and its tributaries throughout the region, enjoying the reduced shipping cost of fuel and industrial materials arriving through the canal.
Despite its integral role for industrial ventures and transportation in the region, the public rarely has cause to consider the GIWW. Occasionally incidents occur that put the canal and its significance to business-as-usual in the spotlight. In January 1963 a barge struck the Canal Bridge on Gulf Beach Highway over the GIWW. A slight logistical ballet ensued, rerouting tugs and barges to the Gulf of Mexico until they could move back into the protected waters of the canal.
Other than barges passing to and fro, not much indicates the industrial use of the GIWW apart from the occasional dredge maintaining the standard channel dimensions (125-feet wide and 12-feet deep, should one like to know). Recent studies have reported that shipments along the GIWW have declined somewhat over the last decade, though less so in this area. As of 2006, the northwestern portion of the GIWW was the most heavily used section of the system in Florida, with slightly more coal being transported than petroleum.
Jessica is a Pensacola resident with a Master’s degree in Public History. When she’s not digging up history facts, you can find her at Music Box Pensacola.