The Port of Tampa has come to find worldwide recognition as an important port for commerce and trade. Yet, the Port of Tampa we know today is not the original Port of Tampa. The creation of the original Port Tampa can be traced back to the entrepreneur and rail line magnate Henry B. Plant. Plant recognized the potential Tampa held as a Port city and extended his rail lines all the way down the southwestern tip of the Interbay Peninsula and onto the pier. Guests exited their train cars on the pier, in front of the Inn at Port Tampa and St. Elmo’s Inn which was added in 1890. The Inn was built on stilts a half a mile from the shore and was Plant’s only hotel that was open year round. Guests were able to fish outside of their windows and have the cook serve it to them at lunch. Guests would arrive on Plant rail lines, to stay at hotels and resorts that Plant owned while they waited for Plant steamships to carry them to Cuba, Key West, Fort Myers, Jamaica, and Mobile: this came to be known as the Plant System. In order for Henry Plant to build the Plant System in Tampa he needed a bridge that connected both sides of Hillsborough River, making Lafayette Street Bridge or as it is known today, Kennedy Boulevard Bridge.
The Spanish-American War broke out in 1898 and Henry B. Plant was able to successfully lobby that Tampa be used as the point of disembarkation for the army. Plant offered up The Tampa Bay Hotel as headquarters for the military and the seven military camps that were set up throughout Tampa. Once the orders were given for soldiers to move out they headed to Port Tampa and the Inn at Port Tampa to go to Cuba. The Spanish-American War brought many prominent people to Tampa, as the small city received national attention, but one that stands out is Clara Barton. Clara Baton had gained renown for her work during the Civil War and became the founder and president of the Red Cross. Barton was in Cuba the day of the USS Maine explosion and aided and helped the soldiers injured. After the explosion she moved the headquarters of the Red Cross to Tampa. This was a logical choice as Port Tampa had become recognized as being efficient and well organized. While Barton did not make the Inn at Port Tampa her headquarters she did spend a few nights there as she traveled to and from Tampa, and she even picnicked on the grounds of the Tampa Bay Hotel.
Henry B. Plant may not have been able to foresee the long lasting impact of his desire to help establish a port in Tampa but he was able to establish Tampa as a deep water Port. Today, Port Tampa is not the state’s main port but is still the entry point for fuel for MacDill Air Force Base and the Tampa airport. The Inn at Port Tampa was demolished in a hurricane in 1921 and no longer stands. The success of Port Tampa led to the dredging of the bay to create the largest port in the state of Florida, Port Tampa Bay.