My grandfather told me about an old steamship called the Tarpon that made regular stops in Pensacola. What’s the story behind that?
In the early part of the 20th century, a lack of paved roads and bridges created isolation among the larger cities along the Gulf Coast. As a result, commerce and communication between coastal communities was almost totally dependent on water-borne traffic. Although several ships made regular stops along the Gulf Coast, none is more notable than Tarpon, captained by Willis G. Barrow.
In 1902, the newly incorporated Pensacola, St. Andrews & Gulf Steamship Co. bought a 160-foot freight and passenger steamer called Tarpon to service the coast of Northwest Florida. Beginning in 1903, Capt. Barrow piloted the ship to weekly stops in the ports of Mobile, Pensacola, Panama City, Apalachicola and Carrabelle. Barrow and his ship developed a reputation for reliability and dependability, transporting passengers and essential supplies while maintaining a strict schedule regardless of the weather. Despite storms, hurricanes, groundings and fires, Tarpon continued her weekly schedule year in and year out. After 20 years, Barrow and Tarpon celebrated their 1,000th voyage, having missed only one trip on account of bad weather.
On Aug. 31, 1937, after 35 years in service, Tarpon made her final trip out of Pensacola. As was the custom, Barrow loaded as much cargo as he could onto the steamer. Carrying over 200 tons of flour, sugar, canned goods, beer and iron, Tarpon left port with only five inches of clearance between the deck and the Gulf. En route to Panama City, a storm developed, and the Tarpon began taking on water. Capt. Barrow kept the ship on course, but ordered the crew to jettison 15 tons of cargo in an attempt to lighten the load. Unfortunately, there was no reversing the damage done. The Tarpon sank less than ten miles from shore. The ship had no radio, and no distress flares were fired.
The ship’s crew donned their life jackets and took to the Gulf. With no help in sight, one of the crewmembers, Adley Baker, spotted land and started swimming. After 25 hours in the water, he emerged onshore where he was picked up by a passing motorist and taken to Panama City to report the wreck. The Coast Guard dispatched a search plane and two cutters to rescue the survivors. In the end, 18 of the 31 people onboard drowned, including the 81-year-old captain.
The ship came to rest in 100 feet of water just outside of Panama City. Over the years, the wreckage developed into an artificial reef, creating a popular destination for fishermen and divers. In 1997, Tarpon became the sixth State Underwater Archaeological Preserve, and in 2001 was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The remains of Capt. Barrow are buried in Pensacola.
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