“Colored” troops disembarking from a steamer returning from the war in Cuba

Rare footage recorded on Thomas Edison Moving Picture paper film in May 1898 at Tampa, Florida.

This film records African-American troops walking down a steep plank as they disembark a troop steamer in May 1898 returning from fighting in Cuba during the short-lived Spanish American War. The plank was especially steep because the disembarkation occurred during high tide. The white men in command seem to ‘encourage’ the black troops down a very steep and dangerous plank.

Henry Plant, his railroad, and the Port of Tampa on the west coast of Florida won the battle against Henry Flagler, his railroad and the Port of Miami for the lucrative contracts associated with the Army and Navy staging the American disembarkations to Cuba.

News accounts reflect that the Army dispatched survey parties to determine which coast and railway would serve the military better. One of the east coast surveyors, Captain David Gaillard, a cousin of the Florida canal company’s Henry Gaillard, would later supervise the grueling work of cutting through a mountain in constructing the Culebra Cut in the Panama Canal.

The Florida canal company also won a lucrative contract over Henry Plante to move mortars and large guns via the unfinished Florida east coast canal, later to be known as the Florida portion of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway.

The Steamboat “Courtney”

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One of the older steamboats plying the waters of what was then called the Florida East Coast Canal, the “Courtney” carried mostly passengers on short trips along the Florida East Coast in the 1890’s. Henry Flagler, then president of both the Florida East Coast Railway and the Florida canal company, cruised into Miami on the “Courtney” (also called the “Sweeney”) just before he arrived in Miami in one of his FEC Railway cars on April 13, 1896. Upon completion of the railway,Flagler liquidated his holdings in the Florida canal company and resigned as president. For the next thirty years, the Florida canal company and Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway would compete for passengers and freight in providing transportation down the east coast of Florida. And both companies would compete for settlers buying the millions of acres of state land the Florida legislature promised these two companies for extending transportation into the southern tip of the Florida peninsula.