A brief history of the Port of Port St. Joe

Published: Thursday, August 8, 2013 at 10:26 AM.

(Editor’s note: With the Port of Port St. Joe Port Authority prepared to launch a public outreach/educational campaign in support of the port, this article, taken from historical documents and recent interviews, offers an overview of the rich history of the Port of Port St. Joe as well as its potential for the future.)

Port St. Joe is located on the site of a deep water natural harbor that has served twice as a thriving port over the last 180 years.

The first port development was during the 1830s and early 1840s.  The town of St. Joseph was formed by a group of wealthy promoters so that it could compete with Apalachicola for the export of large cotton crops from Georgia and Alabama as well as other locally-produced commodities such as naval stores and lumber.

Florida’s first railroad was built from Lake Wimico to St. Joseph Bay.  Much of the cargo that would normally be shipped to the Port of Apalachicola was now detoured into the lake where it was off loaded and transported by rail to ships docked at St. Joseph. 

During this boom period between 1832 and 1842, the sea shore along St. Joseph was defined by long wharves extending almost 4000 feet into the sea.  The port also had a ship yard with many large warehouses scattered about. During the height of the first Port’s existence, it easily competed with well-established ports such as Charleston and New Orleans. Most of the exports from the Port at St. Joseph were shipped to New England or to overseas ports in Europe.

The port was the growth engine for Old St. Joseph, and a growth engine it was. In a few short years after establishing the port, the town of St. Joseph soared to a population of near 12,000 people and became the largest city in this new territory.  The city was so charming and well-known that in 1839 it hosted an assembly of statesmen for the purpose of establishing a state constitution.

The fate of St. Joseph and its port however had only a short existence. In the summer of 1841 a ship sailed from Cuba into the Port of Port St. Joseph.  Along with its cargo, it carried a passenger infected with a disease transmitted primarily from the bite of the mosquito.  It was the dreaded disease, yellow fever, and it quickly spread throughout the town.  Within a short month, the town was all but deserted.  Those the yellow fever did not kill escaped to faraway places, never to return to this former city of death.  The town of St. Joseph never recovered from the loss it sustained during this epidemic of yellow fever.  The long docks and the waterfront buildings that dotted the shore line began to deteriorate from lack of maintenance and upkeep.  It wasn’t long however before they were completely destroyed. 

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