Traveling along Bayfront Parkway to the Pensacola Bay Bridge, two concrete structures are visible in the bay. Though they now stand isolated, they were once part of the Louisville & Nashville Railroad’s Muscogee Wharf.
Several incarnations of the Muscogee Wharf existed from 1880 to 1955, as changes in technology and damage from fires and hurricanes resulted in multiple reconstructions. The wharf consisted of wooden docks that through the years extended between 1,700 and 2,440 feet into the bay. Rail lines ran the length of the wharf to facilitate the loading of coal and cargo onto ships docked on either side of the structure. Over time, elevated rail lines and coal chutes were added, and the concrete structures visible today supported towers constructed to more efficiently load coal onto ships.
Coal was the primary fuel in the era of steam ships and steam locomotives, and newly opened coal mines near Birmingham, Alabama provided a fresh and plentiful source in the 1880s. Access to the ports of Pensacola, Mobile, and New Orleans was beneficial to the success and expansion of the Louisville & Nashville (L&N), which eventually connected coal mines in Alabama, Kentucky and Tennessee to the Gulf Coast.
Documents indicate that a structure was in place at the site of Muscogee Wharf when the L&N purchased the Pensacola Railroad in 1880. The Pensacola Railroad was one of several the L&N acquired or constructed in order to expand its reach to the Gulf of Mexico. In 1881, the L&N rebuilt the existing structure at Muscogee Wharf and added sidetracks and warehouses.
The first major damage to the wharf occurred in 1894 when a substantial fire destroyed offices, a warehouse, coal chutes, and much of the wharf itself. The L&N rebuilt the facilities with a number of elements for firefighting. The wharf remained intact until the 1906 hurricane, during which it split in two and the tracks, along with 38 coal cars, were washed away. Again, the wharf was rebuilt as coal exports continued to be lucrative, with ships taking on 5,000 tons of coal weekly in 1913.
The hurricane of 1926 caused significant damage to the wharf, completely washing away the coaling facilities and large portions of the deck. Only two months after the storm, over 50,000 tons of coal was leaving Pensacola monthly, much of it on temporary equipment. The L&N rebuilt the wharf, and installed a mechanical coaling plant in 1927, which rose 117 feet above the bay and was capable of dumping entire rail cars full of coal at a time.
The improvements made after the 1926 storm were utilized for a relatively short time. The Great Depression and the rise of the diesel engine in the 1930s signaled changes in the wharf’s historic function. Diesel burning ships became preferred to steam ships, and the coal facilities became increasingly obsolete. While Pensacolians fished from the wharf to provide food during the difficult years of the depression, the usefulness of the structure for the shipping industry steadily declined.
During World War II, coal exports from Pensacola picked up slightly, but after a large fire on the wharf in 1955, the coaling facilities were not rebuilt. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Southern Terminal and Transport Company utilized the wharf as a dock for barges and tugboats, but by 1971 the wood portion of the structure had deteriorated significantly.
Though the majority of the deck disappeared over time, Pensacolians have consistently sought uses for the remnants of the wharf. In the early 1990s, the Northwest Florida Arts Council initiated a project to create a public artwork on top of the two concrete structures, but the project did not come to fruition. Construction of private homes on a surviving portion of the wharf began in 2003, and has introduced a new use for the once bustling industrial site.