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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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