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COVER STORY | Vol. 8, No. 31, Augst 2, 2007
(On the Pensacola Waterfront)

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On the Pensacola Waterfront

by Scott Satterwhite
Long before Pensacola had a name, this area's waterfront has been an attractive place for people to live. Natives of the area made their homes here and lived for hundreds of years on a piece of land known as Hawkshaw. They disappeared long before anyone who spoke languages we recognize today could ask them "Why here?" Truthfully, we can only guess that they chose the area for many of the same reasons people today decide to live in Pensacola.

The sea draws people. It isn't a stretch to say that, throughout history, the sea lured most Pensacolians to the city. Some traveled here by boat as explorers or immigrants, others in slave ships that may have docked nearby. More recently, the Navy brought people to Pensacola, fishers moved here from Greece or Vietnam, and others found work on the docks and in the various industries and economies that grew around Pensacola Bay. South Palafox and the vast stretch of waterfront extending east and west have almost always been a rich and diverse source of life with an interesting tale to tell.

Today, Pensacola's downtown waterfront is undergoing another massive transformation with the coming of the Community Maritime Park and the removal of the ECUA's Main Street sewage plant. The actions promise to rejuvenate the decaying area and bring people and businesses back to the waterfront again. Often the epicenter of Pensacola, it's a place with a rich and diverse history that spans about 2,000 years.  

In some of its earliest days, the Hawkshaw area was the home of ancient Native Americans who disappeared before the Spanish first came to Pensacola. The Florida Historical Marker commemorating the importance of Hawkshaw says the "site has supported prehistoric and historic occupations which span a period of nearly 2,000 years. (Hawkshaw) was inhabited around A.D. 150 by groups of Native Americans whom archaeologists call the Deptford Culture." Today, the marker stands on the grounds of Gulf Power's Pensacola offices off of Main Street.

When Spanish explorer Tristan de Luna and his crew landed in "La Florida"—drawn by the deep waters of what they thought was one of the best harbors in the "New World"—another tribe of Natives may have been residing near Pensacola. However, contrary to local legend, there is no evidence of contact between Natives and the original Spanish expedition in the 1500s. Hurricanes drove the conquistadors from Pensacola, and the Spanish would not return for more than 100 years.

By the time Europeans came back to Pensacola in the 1700s, Creeks and other tribes populated the area. Trade began between the peoples.

Pensacola was an attractive spot for European colonizers, and it changed hands a number of times. With each invasion and retreat, always some people remained and helped shape the city as it known today.

Early Trading Center
Pensacola was and is a seaport filled with diversity. Along the Pensacola waterfront in the colonial era, people of many different cultures interacted, speaking European, African and Native languages. It wouldn't have been uncommon in colonial times to see sailors, soldiers and civilians from the far reaches of the European colonies, free blacks, and Indians, men and women, congregating along the streets near the wharves. During this period, merchants and traders were the key to Pensacola's economic life and well-being.

A number of merchants and small tradesmen operated along the waterfront, but one business dominated in the newly established trade with Native Americans—Panton, Leslie, and Company Trading Post. It started in the late 1700s and was a crucial economic mainstay in the region.

Through a partnership with Creek Indian leader Alexander McGillivray and a few European businessmen, the trading post opened in Pensacola in 1785 to be closer to the lucrative Native market. Skins and furs were exchanged for guns, clothes and other European goods.

According to Lucius and Linda Ellsworth's "Pensacola: The Deep Water City," the diverse trade of goods, occasionally, included African slaves among the "goods."

"The slave trade did make the Americas," says Sheila Flanagan, of the Museum of Mobile, which is currently hosting an exhibit on the Transatlantic slave trade. "We who live here now need to understand the profound effects that the enslaving of millions of people had on the development of our land and culture."

The corner of present-day Main and Spring streets, where the trading post once stood, is today the site of McGillivray's grave and a small replica of the Leslie, Panton, and Company trading post.

American Rule
Though Pensacola changed hands between the Spanish, French and English several times, the Europeans were taken out of the picture when the Americans, led by General Andrew Jackson, set their sights on the city. Pensacola was captured by Jackson in 1818 and Florida would be officially ceded from the Spanish to the Americans in 1821.

With Jackson and the Americans came harsh laws, especially for Natives, blacks and Creoles. For the Natives, the early 1800s brought the beginning of several wars and eventually attempts to ethnically cleanse them from the land. The Creeks who remained found it in their best interest to hide or risk removal from their lands on the Trail of Tears. For those with African descent, these years brought risk of enslavement.

Although slavery was not unknown to this area by any means, the American form of slavery has been historically viewed as unique and incredibly violent. Furthermore, it was not uncommon for once free blacks to find themselves in bondage under the strict American racial codes.

This even happened a few times in Pensacola. Sensing trouble ahead, several black residents of the city used the seaports to leave Pensacola in fear of losing all they had, especially their freedom. Some, it was said, went to the newly formed black republic of Haiti, while most set up African-American communities in Mexico. Of those who went to Mexico, most remained there for decades until the Post-Civil War Reconstruction Era and the promise of life without the fear of chains beckoned them back.

The free blacks who remained in Pensacola were given white guardians. Those who were less "fortunate" were held in bondage until emancipation. Many of Pensacola's new slaves worked to build the Navy Yard or did manual labor in the timber industry and along the waterfront at the young port.

Slavery was legal, but many weren't content with this "peculiar institution." One person in particular, an abolitionist named Jonathan Walker, lived for a short time in Pensacola during the 1830s and 1840s. After living in the city for sometime, Walker had decided that he didn't want his children to grow up seeing slavery as the norm. Walker decided to move his family back to the North, but planned to return to Pensacola one more time. On June 22, 1844 Walker sailed his small ship, loaded with seven black slaves that he planned to liberate, out of Pensacola harbor en route to the British Bahamas (Britain had recently abolished slavery).

Tragically, especially for the seven slaves, Walker was apprehended at sea and brought back to Pensacola to face charges of "slave stealing." For his "crime," Walker had his hand branded with the letters "SS" for Slave Stealer. Walker's punishment gained him and Pensacola national attention, especially after the book on his trial and imprisonment was released. On his death several decades later, Frederic Douglas called Walker "a brave but noiseless lover of liberty."

Boom and Bust During The Civil War
When the Civil War began, Pensacola was seen as an important strategic location by the Union forces. Pensacola was seized by the Union early in the war and became a virtual ghost town, except for the U.S. military and a handful of Confederate guerillas. Much of the population left for Alabama and elsewhere, only to return after hostilities ended.

After the war, the economy throughout the South was in shambles. Many Northerners took advantage of the financial hard times and established business ventures in the South. A few trades and industries in particular, along with the growth of the railroads, played major roles in the Pensacola waterfront's revitalization.

Financed heavily by businessmen from the North, several fishing companies opened and flourished as the commercial use of ice was introduced and the railroads opened lines heading north and to the interior of the country. Hundreds of sailors left the port every day for the coasts of Mexico to hunt Red Snapper and other popular fish. A great number of these sailors were Scandinavian.

These migrant sailors would eventually open several missions and businesses along and near South Palafox that catered to this Northern European community. Other immigrants from Greece, Ireland, Italy and Germany joined the fishing trade and worked along the wharves as well. These immigrant communities would eventually intermingle with local residents and go on to establish themselves deeply into the community along the water.

By 1880, another industry was booming—timber. For years the pine trees of Northwest Florida provided an enormous boost to the local economy. The height of this boom was around the turn of the century. Much of the timber that was taken from Northwest Florida was exported via the railroad and the port throughout the country and to much of the world. By the late 1880's, hundreds of ships from all corners of the planet were coming and going from Pensacola's active port, most filled with local timber.

Although efforts were made at timber reforestation, some would say that it was too little too late to save the industry. By the end of the first decade of the 20th century, the timber industry, along with the Red Snapper fishing industry, was in serious decline.

Several factors would contribute to the demise of these two industries in Pensacola. As Tom Garner, a local activist and member of the Pensacola Historic Society, puts it: "They cut down all of the trees down and fished out all of the fish. I don't think there's any question about that."

Another major factor in the decline of these industries, particularly the fishing industry, was Pensacola's unfortunate location in the middle of "Hurricane Alley." In a recent book written by the Pensacola Historic Society, the hurricanes of 1906 and 1916 not only did severe damage to the wharves and the port, they also nearly destroyed the entire fishing fleet.

Ten years later, one of the most devastating storms to hit Pensacola would wash ashore, killing 137 people.

Red Light District
As the port became more active, another more taboo major waterfront industry would establish itself. In Ray McGovern's book, "Emergence of a City in the Modern South: Pensacola 1900-1945," a great deal of space is dedicated to Pensacola's infamous red light district, located close to the city's waterfront. The district was roughly located near the wharves starting at about Zarragossa, going from Palafox to Barcelona, then onto Baylen from Main to Government Street.

The district, although never legal, was seen as somewhat tolerable by the city's government. Part of the rationale was rooted in the belief that if it could be contained to the waterfront area prostitution would stay out of the rest of the community. Certainly, another reason was also that it was frequented by a number of community leaders, including many of the people in charge of writing, interpreting and enforcing the laws. According to McGovern, much of the city's elite, judges and even the chief of police were known to frequent the district. That said, not everyone was welcome. These were the Jim Crow years and even the illegal trades were expected to comply with societal "norms."

The women at the bordellos were mostly segregated by race. One of the more famous bordellos of the time was "La Casa de la Gattas Negras"—the house of the black cats—which was mostly made up of black and Creole women. Furthermore, it was not acceptable for African-American men or "good" women of any race to walk those streets unless they wanted to be arrested.

Pensacola's red light district not only thrived, but was somewhat "decriminalized." The women working in the district received frequent medical checkups. Bordellos operated with relative impunity until America entered the First World War.

As the local military presence grew, many servicemen began to frequent the waterfront bordellos. Then-Gov. Sidney Catts and the Navy, fearing a VD outbreak, pushed the city government to enforce its prostitution laws. In one major raid, 150 women were arrested on charges of prostitution. The bordellos still operated, although less openly, until the next World War.

It wasn't long after the start of World War II that Pensacola gained somewhat of a reputation in the national media, Time magazine specifically, as a "bad spot" for sailors because of the amount of prostitution and venereal disease that surrounded the city's red light district.

The city, eager to shed this image, moved quickly to close the remaining active bordellos. Interestingly, the Pensacola City Council even passed an ordinance against the spread of venereal disease. This ordinance worked as well as one could imagine, as it is known that viruses rarely adhere to the law.

The concern over Pensacola's image as a town rife with prostitution and venereal disease, prompted the city to arrest nearly any woman who wandered unaccompanied downtown in certain areas for "vagrancy."

The crackdown effectively shutdown the red light district.

Waterfront Struggles in 1900s
Like much of America, Pensacola saw its share of labor unrest in the 1920s. President Woodrow Wilson's first "Red Scare" led the local police to patrol the wharves looking for members of the Industrial Workers of the World, or IWW, and other radical unions.

However, according to Walter LeFavre of the Wayne State University's labor library, neither the IWW nor similar unions had a strong foothold in the city at the time. The allegation was that labor unions were spreading "Bolshevism" along the docks. However, this was shown to be little more than fear mongering by some authorities and business leaders fearful of unions and workers organizing.

When dock workers of the Pensacola Shipbuilding Company went on strike against the company in 1920, a compromise between labor and management was never reached. The Pensacola Journal reported that 800 workers lost their jobs in that strike, severely crippling the union. Two years later, the International Longshoreman's Association lost another strike, which eventually splintered the union in Pensacola.

Several missed opportunities for industrial expansion and the rapid growth and popularity of Mobile's port brought hard times for the Port of Pensacola. Industry's inability to find compromise with its workers during crucial strikes, the dwindling of natural resources and a series of hurricanes didn't help matters.

Another major blow to the port came in 1959 with the Cuban Revolution. Pensacola had been a major destination for Cuban ships, but with the U.S. embargo against the new Cuban government, the Port of Pensacola suffered. The embargo continues to this day.
Waterfront Living
The idea that waterfront property is valuable is a relatively recent phenomenon. Advances in construction and engineering have only recently improved the chances that a waterfront home will survive a devastating storm.

Residents of Pensacola in the first half of the 1900s were well aware of the devastation of hurricanes and saw the damage firsthand on several occasions. The more well-to-do lived out of the flood zone in North and East Hill. It was the lower- to middle-working class of Pensacola who worked and lived in the neighborhoods on the waterfront.

The Tan-Yards was one of those working-class neighborhoods.

One of Pensacola's oldest historic Creole and racially mixed neighborhoods, the Tan-Yards was located along the waterfront until most of the land was bought out to build government buildings over the past few decades. At the height of Jim Crow's rule over Pensacola, the Tan-Yards were a strange anomaly of racial relations in the Deep South. Blacks, Creoles and whites lived side by side, went to the same church, and played together—at least while they were in the Tan-Yards.

"Though integrated, it was not entirely protected from the storm of racism that blew across the South," says Diane Gaines Jackson in the book "Images in Black," edited by Ora Wills. "White children and black children did not acknowledge one another when they came in contact outside the Tan-yard. In spite of the fact that this was an unspoken code of conduct generally accepted by both groups, black youngsters deeply resented what we saw as 'two-faced' behavior on the part of our white neighbors." Gaines writes that there were courageous exceptions to this double-standard, but those that made the exception were rare.

Yet, in the segregated South, it was indeed a rarity to live in a mixed-race neighborhood. At the center of this multi-ethnic community was St Joseph's Catholic Church. The church was founded by Mercedes Sunday Ruby during the Reconstruction Era on land donated by John Sunday, an African-American veteran of the Civil War.

St Joseph's was built as a church for anyone living in the neighborhood, regardless of race—a rare event even by today's standards. And the Tan-Yards were some of the most diverse, cosmopolitan and international city blocks in Pensacola. A large section of the immigrant community, especially Irish, German and Italian Catholics, lived side by side with Pensacola's black, Creole and white citizens. Many of these same people who lived in the neighborhood and worked in the sea-going trades attended St Joseph's.

The church's role in the lives of the people working off the docks and at sea went deep. In St Joseph's cemetery, an obelisk is dedicated to sailors lost at sea and bears the names of the parishioners whose bodies were never recovered etched on its side. Beside the obelisk are the graves of sailors from around the world who died in our waters and were known by the people of St Joseph's.

Martin Lewis, author of a history of the church, says that one of the early missions of St. Joseph's was to take care of the "seafarers and wayfarers." In fact, the Lumberman's Stevedore Association and the Shipworker's Benevolent Association were consistent donors to many of the church's social functions.

"St Joseph became the beacon of light for people in the Tan-Yards," Lewis says. "Immigrants, Italians, Irish, Creoles, Black Catholics and longshoremen alike. For the children of the area, (St. Joseph's) became their light. It became the center of the world for the Creole and black Catholics. It was the center."

Throughout the years, the church would remain active in the care of its parishioners and those in need of help. St. Joseph's was a mainstay at protests in the Civil Rights era, and currently operates a free clinic that helps a great deal of the area's needy.

Environmental problems, too, have long been an issue for people living on the water. Since colonial times, regulations have been made, and often broken, concerning the dumping of waste into Pensacola's waters.

Ernie Rivers of Emerald Coastkeepers and Bream Fisherman's Association, two local environmental organizations, describes what the bay looked like from memories of his youth: "White sandy bottom, the water, everything was so clear then. You could see hundreds of porpoises swimming in the bay. Bald eagles. It was very pristine back then. Not so much these days."

 Companies like Gulf Power, Monsanto and Escambia Chemicals were some of the main culprits of this pollution. The Main Street sewage facility and the Naval Air Station were also guilty parties.

What started in the 1940s went on for decades unchecked until knowledge of the devastating effects of this pollution became known.

It was around the 1960s that the waters off of the coast of Pensacola had one of the largest fish kills anywhere in the world. It was said to go for seven miles.

"That damage will be with us for a long time to come. Probably much longer than either you or I will be alive," says Rivers, who became involved in the fight to save the bay then and has been involved ever since. 

Past, Present and Future
Today, we can see much of this waterfront legacy in the people that make up Pensacola. Whether it was the descendents of slaves who were brought here in chains to build the waterfront or the great-grandchildren of Greek fishers who continue in their family's trade, these people have become the face of Pensacola.

In many ways, life on the waterfront today is similar to how it has always been. One is just as likely today to hear people speaking Vietnamese, Chinese or Spanish on the waterfront as they would have heard Greek, Italian or Yiddish 100 years ago.

The Tan-Yards are gone, but St Joseph's is still there.

Ironically, the old red light district and some of its famous bordellos have interestingly become historic sites.

The fishing fleet is smaller these days and the port is less busy but still going.

And the water, although more polluted and in need of serious help, is still a draw.

For better or worse, the waters that brought many people to Pensacola still has its hold on people. And most likely that will continue and more rich history will be made into the foreseeable future.

150 A.D. - Pensacola inhabited intermittently by Native Americans from at least 150 A.D.
1559 - Spanish explorer Tristan de Luna arrives in Pensacola area.
1561- Destroyed by hurricanes and famine, first Spanish colony leaves area. Original Native Tribes die off most likely because of diseases brought by Europeans. Creek Indians would eventually settle area.
1696 - Spanish return.
1719 - Spanish leave, French take over.
1722 - Hurricane forces French to leave, Spain comes back.
1763 -Britain takes control of Pensacola.
1781 - Spain comes back for final round.
1785 - Panton, Leslie, and Company Trading Post founded.
1793 - Creek Indian leader Andrew McGillivray dies in Pensacola.
1818 - Andrew Jackson captures Pensacola.
1821 - Florida transferred from Spain to United States.                           
Many black and Creole citizens leave Pensacola for Mexico and Haiti to escape racist American laws. Native Americans leave area to join Seminoles, among others, or go into hiding to avoid forced relocation or worse.
1844 - Jonathan Walker sails out of Pensacola harbor with seven liberated slaves. Walker is caught and returned to Pensacola for branding.
1861 - Florida secedes from the Union.
1862 - Pensacola captured by Union. Most citizens leave Pensacola.
1865 - Civil War ends. Reconstruction Era begins. People slowly start to return to city, including African-Americans who fled to Mexico.
1870s - Timber and fishing industry rejuvenate economy.
1877 - St Joseph's Catholic Church founded.
1905 - Jim Crow laws enacted, segregating much of city. Waterfront neighborhood Tan-Yards not effected by laws.
1906 - Hurricane hits Pensacola, damaging wharves.
1916 - Hurricane. Fishing fleet destroyed.
1917 - WWI begins. President Woodrow Wilson's Red Scare targets radicals and unions. 150 prostitutes arrested in crack down on Bordellos in red light district.
1920 - Dock workers strike Pensacola Shipbuilding Company, 800 workers lose jobs.
1922 - International Longshoremen's Association loses strike, splinters union.
1926 - Major Hurricane hits Pensacola killing 137.
1940s - Early '40s is roughly time when waters off Pensacola begin to be polluted by companies dumping toxins and waste into Pensacola Bay.
1941 - U.S. Enters WWII. Second major crackdown on prostitution begins on waterfront.
1959 - Cuban Revolution sparks embargo of island nation. Port of Pensacola drastically affected.
1960s - Civil Rights Era at height. St Joseph's Catholic Church at forefront of movement. And environmental damage to waters off Pensacola became apparent. Efforts to curb pollution begins.

Photos courtesy of Deborah Dunlap's Historic Pensacola Photographs