If you have lived in Gulfport long enough, you have probably heard the story of the wreck of the Mary Disston. It goes something like this: On an ordinary day in 1892, the 83-foot steamboat is docked at the town’s wooden wharf, pausing in her regular circuit of delivering mail, passengers and freight to Gulfport (then known as Disston City). By the shore stands the town’s small general store and some rustic homes, dwarfed by towering pine woods where bears and panthers still occasionally prowl. The wide sweep of Boca Ciega Bay is uncomplicated by the man-made shapes of finger islands and sky-scraping condos. The confectionery pink towers of the Don CeSar are still another thirty-six years in the future.
Suddenly, tragedy strikes. A fire, sparked by causes unknown, flares into life at the end of the pier and, before anyone can stop it, licks the timber decks of the Mary Disston. The ship is quickly swallowed by a conflagration that, according to one account, could be seen from a mile away. Villagers assemble and push the fiery vessel out into the bay. They watch in anguish as the Mary, their link to the outside world in a time when roads are perilous and rail lines pass them by, burns and sinks, along with their hopes of becoming the thriving city of their founders’ dreams.
Years afterward, at low tide, old timers will point to the still-visible hulk of her boiler and sigh, “There lies the Mary Disston.”
As local legends go, the story is a fine one. And like many local legends, it may not be entirely true.
One thing we do know: the Mary Disston was built in Pittsburgh in 1885 and came south to serve the growing village of Tarpon Springs. The 71-ton ship was specially designed with a recessed and enclosed paddle wheel and a 3.8-foot draft that made her perfect for navigating the shallow, mangrove-lined bayous of the Anclote River that separated Tarpon Springs from the Gulf. Her first assignment was ferrying between Anclote Key and Tarpon Springs, serving what today’s transportation engineer might call a “last mile” role for larger vessels from places like Cedar Key.
When the Orange Belt Railway arrived in Tarpon in early 1888, Mary was reassigned to a daily route that included Tampa, St. Petersburg and Bradenton ($2 fare). Notably, a stop at Disston City is not mentioned in advertisements for this route.
Tarpon Springs, Disston City, and St. Petersburg were all growing as a result of the Disston Land Purchase: a colossal real estate deal through which Hamilton (“Ham”) Disston, son of a Philadelphia industrialist, acquired four million acres of Florida land, helping the state shift a massive debt and transacting what the New York Times called the “largest purchase of land ever made by a single person in the world.” The Disston Purchase opened the way for railroad development in Pinellas County and gave Ham with the idea for “Disston City”: a 25-square-mile model city of 50,000 covering much of today’s Gulfport.
Any man who names a city after himself should name at least one ship after his mother, and that is precisely what Hamilton Disston did. But he may have come to regret this, as the Mary Disston quickly acquired the nickname “Dirty Mary” due to the foul smoke that belched from her stack, sometimes covering everything aboard with soot. In fact, complaining about the Dirty Mary’s prodigious exhaust as well as her habit of delivering the mail late became something of a pastime for readers of the Manatee River Journal in the 1890s, leading one weary scribbler to exclaim, “I shall have to quit loving you if you don’t keep quiet about the Mary Disston.”
Another certainty is that there is a wreck located about 250 yards off Williams Pier – just about where residents’ stories place the sinking of the Mary. A 1998 archaeological survey of Gulfport’s coastline used metal detectors to trace the size and shape of a debris field that matches the dimensions of the Mary Disston (adjusting for tides and decomposition). However, the site’s poor visibility and a reluctance to destroy whatever evidence may be hidden under the muck prevented archaeologists from excavating, so no identifying features or artifacts were found. Researchers named the spot the Mary Disston Site, but could not positively confirm that it was her. The survey, combined with local accounts of the incident collected by the Gulfport Historical Society, was enough to convince Gulfport’s Historical Preservation Committee to erect the unique “Window on the Past” exhibit that allows Williams Pier visitors to visualize a ghostly etched-glass Mary Disston right over the waters into which she reputedly sank.
But there are conflicting accounts. In the 1950s, Wesley F. Russell and Walter Topliff, two “old salts” from northern Pinellas, shared tales of riding on or seeing the Mary Disston on her route, most likely after 1892, suggesting that the ship was a victim of obsolescence, not fire. Still other accounts claim she sank near Key West. Perhaps the most telling argument for an alternate fate for the Mary Disston is the lack of contemporary newspaper reports of the fire, which certainly seems like a newsworthy event. The Mary did make the headlines in May of 1892, but not for sinking. In a daring rescue, she saved the lives of four people whose sailboat had capsized in a storm near Gadsden Point.
Did a steamer really catch fire and sink in the early days of Gulfport’s history? And was that ship the Mary Disston?
What strikes me most in this enduring history-mystery is that, wherever she drifts, the Mary Disston seems to say something significant about those founding days of Tampa Bay: In Tarpon Springs, she was a technological marvel that helped to build a prosperous new town; in Bradenton, she was a nasty and outmoded inconvenience of pioneer life. And in Gulfport’s poignant story of being “left behind,” there are echoes of other losses: of St. Pete, not Disston City, winning the Orange Belt railway, of model city schemes failing to fly. And for all the real heartache in those stories, Gulfport has time and again found its own unique way to grow in spite of circumstance.
Float on, Mary Disston – we will be just fine without you.