Stephen M. Sparkman (c. 1849 – 1929)
A member of a pioneer family with roots in Eastern Hillsborough County, Stephen Sparkman represented Tampa in the US House from 1895 to 1917. He was the first member of Congress from what then was considered “South Florida.” His tenure included the 1898 Spanish-American War, which brought tens of thousands of people to Tampa and made it clear that shipping improvements were needed. Troops headed to battle in Cuba had to assemble far south of downtown at Port Tampa, which was the only harbor deep enough for ocean-going steamships. Motivated by this, Congressman Sparkman brought millions of federal dollars that changed the very nature of land and sea in Tampa Bay. Those funds paid for digging deep-water channels from Port Tampa to Channelside, which allowed larger and more modern ships to come closer to the population center and to Ybor City’s new cigar factories. The transformation also created new landmasses, including modern Harbour Island.
The earliest of the Sparkman family came from England to the Carolinas prior to the American Revolution. The first in Florida arrived in the 1820s, and Stephen Milancthon Sparkman was born on a Hernando County farm on July 29, 1849, the son of Mary Cason and Nathaniel Keightley Sparkman. Eventually the extended family centered in and around Plant City, initially on land just north of where the Dover railroad station later would be built. Although some young men of the extended family were educated in prestigious institutions elsewhere, Stephen Sparkman attended only local schools.
Credentials for teaching at the time were very low, however, and he began teaching school at age 18. Because Florida had no law school, he also apprenticed in the Tampa law office of Alabama native Henry Laurens Mitchell. Admitted to the Florida Bar in October 1870, he married Mary Ellen Hooker in Polk County in 1875. She had been born on June 3, 1858, and was a member of the family of Merobe Hooker Crane, who was honored with a Riverwalk statue in 2016 because of her work in founding Tampa’s first hospital. Stephen and Mary Ellen Sparkman would have nine children: E. Lamar, Mary C., Julia, Ellie Louise, Stephen M., Jr., Cuthbert Wayne, Curtis Lanier, Frances Eugenia, and Nathaniel Keightley.
Sparkman’s first public office was that of prosecutor, to which he was elected in 1878. During the 1880s, he provided legal counsel to Henry Plant’s new railroad, was a founding member of the Board of Trade that helped develop Ybor City, and served on the Board of County Commissioners. The political careers of young lawyers Henry Mitchell and Stephen Sparkman developed contemporaneously, and Mitchell would be elected governor of Florida in 1892.
Some historians credit Sparkman for that campaign victory, as at the time, he chaired the powerful State Democratic Executive Committee. He also led Florida’s delegation to the to the 1892 National Democratic Convention, which nominated William Jennings Bryan for president. The Florida connections would continue: Bryan later retired to Miami, and in 1928, his daughter, Ruth Bryan Owen, would be the first female member of Congress from the South.
Having elected Mitchell as governor, Sparkman ran for the US House at the next opportunity, in the mid-term congressional elections of 1894. Winning election to Congress was much harder than his previous races, however, because as late as the 1930s, Florida’s population was so small that it was entitled to only two US House seats. The eastern district ran from the Georgia border to Key West, while the western one encompassed everything to the Alabama border.
The size of the district can be seen in the fact that before Sparkman won the seat, it was held by Stephen Mallory of Pensacola, hundreds of miles away. Election to the US Senate required even more political influence, as until 1913, senators were elected by state legislators, not by the (male) voters. Even though Tampa had begun in 1824, the same year as Tallahassee, political power long was concentrated in the northern part of the state — and decades passed before Stephen Sparkman became, in his own words, “the first representative from South Florida in either branch of Congress.”
He concentrated on two goals affecting Tampa, saying: “One, a federal building, and the other, harbor improvements.” The federal building opened in 1905 at 601 North Florida Avenue. Added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974, this former US Courthouse now is Le Meridian Hotel. The harbor project, which involved dredging multiple channels, took much longer.
Turning Tampa into a strong center of ocean-going commerce was Sparkman’s priority, and so he climbed the ladder of congressional seniority to chair the US House Rivers and Harbors Committee for the last six years of his career. In that position, he traveled to Europe to study artificial waterways that long had supported transportation systems there. He took the information home to Tampa, and “with the first development,” Sparkman later said, “the port commerce jumped to over 300,000 tons per annum and then…to 2,000,000 tons per annum and was growing until the European war broke out.” He was referring to what later was called World War I, as all international shipping slowed when German U-boats began attacking in 1914.
Mary Ellen Sparkman died in 1912, and Stephen Sparkman announced his retirement from Congress during the presidential election year of 1916. On March 19, 1917, hundreds of people attended a dinner in his honor. Like many older statesmen of his era, he was given the honorific of “Colonel,” and in a speech at the gala, Mayor D. B. McKay lauded him: “Colonel Sparkman had the vision to look into the future and plan for a great seaport.” The mayor put these navigational improvements into perspective by saying that prior to Sparkman’s election to Congress, “Nothing worthy of the name of a channel existed.” He added that funds were available to complete portions of the planned projects, “in spite of the failure of the 1917 bill carrying appropriations for Tampa.”
Hugh MacFarlane, a native of Scotland who developed West Tampa (then an independent municipality) and also is a Riverwalk honoree, was the next speaker. He “declared that the Tampa harbor was discovered more than 400 years ago, but that the true discovery dates back to the day that S.M. Sparkman was sent to Congress.” Another of Sparkman’s law partners, Judge W.A. Carter, added that during Sparkman’s many election campaigns, never once “had he heard a criticism of his integrity.”
The former congressman resumed the practice of law in Tampa and served as president of the Board of Port Commissioners until 1920. He was in Washington, DC, when he died on September 26, 1929, at age 80. His body was returned to Tampa, and he was buried with his wife in Woodlawn Cemetery. The Sparkman family monument there is one of the cemetery’s grandest.
Sources include newspaper clippings at the John Germany Public Library in downtown Tampa, as well as archives at the Plant City Historical Society. See also Shelby Bender and Elizabeth Dunham: Tampa’s Historic Cemeteries.