A Twist of ‘Phate

One curious aspect of Florida history is the recurring theme of booms and busts the state has experienced over the decades. We hear often about booms and busts in land sales, but commercial enterprises have had their own business cycles. One lesser known industry that was critical to Florida’s economy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was the mining of phosphates.

Light colored phosphate pebbles embedded in

Light colored phosphate pebbles embedded in “matrix” (1915).

Phosphorus is a crucial element in fertilizers. Credit for discovering it generally goes to a German alchemist named Hennig Brand, who first isolated the substance from urine in 1669. Later scientists found the same element in bone and guano, and determined that it played a significant role in the lives of plants, animals, and people.

Phosphorus was favored as a fertilizer as early as the 19th century, but it could be expensive to produce. Phosphorus does not naturally occur as a free element; it must be extracted from other substances. Guano was an early preferred source, but supplies were limited. That all changed in the 1880s when beds of phosphate-enriched rock were discovered in parts of the United States, especially South Carolina and Florida.

1913 Map of Florida showing phosphate deposits - Florida State Geological Survey.

1913 Map of Florida showing phosphate deposits – Florida State Geological Survey. Florida Map Collection, State Library.

A real Florida boom resulted. In 1888, an estimated 1,000 tons of phosphate rock were shipped from the state. By 1892, that amount had increased to 354,327 tons. Prospectors descended on Florida from the Panhandle to the Everglades, piercing the sand with long probes that collected soil samples from deep within the ground in hopes of finding traces of valuable phosphate rock. These hopeful explorers had all sorts of superstitions to guide them. Some said the height or shape of a pine tree was a good indicator of phosphates below the ground. Others swore there was a certain variety of grass that only grew over rich phosphate deposits.

A phosphate prospecting crew (1913).

A phosphate prospecting crew (1913).

It wasn’t long before large companies, bankrolled in part by Northern capital, began buying up land and extracting phosphate rock. The State of Florida established a Board of Phosphate Commissioners in 1891 to supervise the activities of these companies. A series of their records (Series 22) is available for research at the State Archives of Florida, by the way.

Early pick and shovel phosphate mining near Dunnellon (1889).

Early pick and shovel phosphate mining near Dunnellon (1889).

Two preferred methods for mining phosphate quickly developed. “Land pebble” mining involved extracting phosphate directly from the ground either by hand or by using dredging equipment. Also, some Florida rivers, most notably the Peace River that empties into Charlotte Harbor and the Gulf of Mexico, contained large beds of phosphate material washed in from the surrounding watershed. Some companies used pumps and suction pipes to extract this “river pebble” phosphate from the water and strain out the surrounding sand. In both land pebble and river pebble mining, the material would be taken to a processing plant, where it would be refined, dried, and sent off to market.

Painting depicting the Florida Phosphate Mining Company dredge at work on the Peace River (circa 1890s).

Painting depicting the Florida Phosphate Mining Company dredge at work on the Peace River (circa 1890s).

Elevator and drying works at the Peace River Phosphate Company's plant near Arcadia (circa 1910s).

Elevator and drying works at the Peace River Phosphate Company’s plant near Arcadia (circa 1910s).

The impact of the phosphate industry on Florida was immense. Production increased steadily during the twentieth century, so that by 1956 the state’s mining companies were putting out over 10 million short tons of phosphate per year. In the early days, entire towns were formed around phosphate companies. Polk and Hillsborough counties offer a few memorable examples, including “Pebble,” “Bone Valley,” and “Phosphoria.” Concerns about the environmental impact of phosphate mining, especially strip mining, have led to changes in the extraction process. It is still, however, an important Florida industry, one that provides a number of much-needed jobs and economic growth.

Excerpt from a 1902 Cram map showing a portion of Polk and Hillsborough counties, including several sites named for their role in the phosphates industry. Note "Pebble," "Bone Valley," and "Phosphoria."

Excerpt from a 1902 Cram map showing a portion of Polk and Hillsborough counties, including several sites named for their role in the phosphates industry. Note “Pebble,” “Bone Valley,” and “Phosphoria.” Florida Map Collection, State Library.

What Florida industry has most affected your community? Tell us about it by commenting below or sharing this post with your friends and neighbors on Facebook!

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2 thoughts on “A Twist of ‘Phate

  1. There is some controversy in our county on Phosphate mining. If
    you have not already written about this I would love for you to
    do so. We have a wonderful history of our area written by Frasier
    Mountain but have none on Florida’s history. I would like that
    subject to be addressed. Jan Knowles, Hernando County

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