Scottish Chief, the Pride of Tampa Bay


Published: Wednesday, April 11, 2012 at 11:47 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, April 11, 2012 at 11:47 p.m.

She was, in her time, the most famous ship on Tampa Bay.

A side-wheeler steamship, she plied the waters between Tampa and Havana delivering cattle, tobacco and other goods on behalf of Central Floridians. She was best known during the Civil War as a blockade runner, hunted by the Union and valued as a lifeline by Confederate residents of Central Florida.

She was the Scottish Chief, the pride of Capt. James McKay. And almost 150 years ago, she was the cause of Tampa's only Civil War battle.

McKay, a Scottish sea captain who followed his younger sweetheart to the United States, was one of Tampa's earliest entrepreneurs and community leaders. He arrived in the tiny community in 1846, having studied Florida's West Coast and seeing the untapped potential that Tampa Bay held.

"He demonstrated an indomitable courage, a Scottish firmness of purpose, and a faith in the future of the little town," Tony Pizzo wrote for the Tampa Historical Society's Sunland Tribune in November 1982. "He became a dominant factor in the building of Tampa."

McKay built a courthouse, a church, a sawmill, a salt works and a mercantile store, among other business ventures. He established a bank, held both county and city offices and generally became the town's leading citizen, Pizzo wrote.

"If Capt. McKay were living today, he would be classified as an entrepreneur," he wrote. "He was an amazing man -- a natural leader with great ability and an uncanny flair for business."

Principal among his businesses, however, were his boats. The old sea captain saw Tampa's future as a shipping port.

"His first schooner was the Lindsey, and within a few years he had accumulated a fleet of steam and sailing vessels," Pizzo wrote. "The Scottish Chief, Flying Cloud, Southern Star, Kate Dale, and Valley City connected Tampa with New York, Havana, and Central America, carrying the mail, passengers, and freight. McKay transportation ventures at sea were complemented by a four-horse stagecoach route between Tampa and Gainesville."

When the Civil War came in 1861, McKay was undeterred. He continued his shipping business under the British flag -- the then-Tampa mayor was not, in fact, an American citizen -- and earned a reputation as a daring blockade runner.

"Beginning in the summer of 1862 and ending in October 1863, James McKay made six runs in his steamer, Scottish Chief, through the Union naval blockade to Havana," Canter Brown Jr. wrote in "Florida's Peace River Frontier." "At first he carried primarily (Bartowan Jacob) Summerlin's cattle, but as time went on he shifted to cotton, a commodity at once more profitable than cattle and more easily handled. On return trips McKay brought back commodities and supplies needed by local civilians, much of which was sold through Summerlin's house at Fort Ogden."

Unappreciative of McKay's blockade running skills -- not to mention his interference in the Union's spying and fishing activities off Tampa Bay -- the U.S. military was determined to destroy his small fleet.

On Oct. 17, 1863, the Union started shelling Tampa. It was merely a diversion, however. As residents scrambled, a 100-man expedition of Union forces sneaked its way up the Hillsborough River where it found two of McKay's ships, the Kate Dale and the Scottish Chief, near his Jean Street Shipyard, states the shipyard's website. Both McKay's ships, which were loaded and nearly ready for another run to Havana, were burned.

It wasn't a clear win for the Union. Some of the troops tangled with Gen. Braxton Bragg and a small but powerful group of his Confederate forces. The Hillsborough River Raid became the Battle of Ballast Point, with heavy casualties on both sides, the Jean Street Shipyard website states.

Just the same, "blockade running, along with everything else, had pretty much come to a stop in Tampa," the website states.

McKay remained a leading Tampa resident until his death in 1876, and the influence of he and his family continues to be felt in the Tampa Bay area.

As for the Scottish Chief, it was not forgotten. Researchers working with the Florida Aquarium located the sunken remains of the 124-foot oak and pine steamer in 2009. The badly burned ship had apparently stayed afloat after the attack, allowing the Confederates to tow it away and strip it of anything of value that remained, the Tampa Tribune reported in 2009. It sank near what is now Blake High School, not far from where I-275 crosses the Hillsborough River near downtown Tampa. It remains there to this day.

"This is a fairly major find, researcher John William Morris told the Tribune at the time. "This is a major component in the history of this area."

[ Cinnamon Bair, a Polk County native, can be reached at cinbair@gmail.com. ]

This story appeared in print on page B7

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