Photo Credit: Aerial view of Palmetto and Terra Ceia, Manatee County Public Library System
By Cathy Slusser
As motorists travel over the southern end of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, many do not realize that they are crossing an island called Terra Ceia. Terra Ceia is about 1,000 acres of land and extends out into Tampa Bay and beyond US 19 across to Terra Ceia River which separates the island from the mainland. It is bordered on the north by Tampa Bay, on the west by Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico and on the south by Terra Ceia Bay.
There have been many spellings of the name Terra Ceia, but by 1897, when the name appeared in the General Directory for Manatee County, it was spelled as Terra Ceia, the way we currently spell it today. There is some question about the name’s meaning. While it cannot be literally interpreted from either Spanish or Portuguese as Heavenly Land, this is also the commonly held meaning and dates back to over 100 years ago.
The island was known for its rich soil and ability to produce crops of all kinds from citrus to vegetables including celery and peppers to flowers. At one time, Terra Ceia grown produce was known throughout the world. Asters grown on Terra Ceia were even used in the inaugural parade for President William Howard Taft.
In 1897, the general directory listed 120 heads of household on the island. Most were vegetable or citrus farmers, some were laborers. Sixteen years later in 1913, the local newspaper reported 700 people lived on the island. At that time, land was valued at $500 to $1000 an acre which was considered high.
The first settlers to arrive, Julia and Joseph Atzeroth and their three year old daughter, Eliza, settled along Terra Ceia Bay on the island’s south shore. From their arrival, island activity focused on the area around Terra Ceia Bay because early settlers were depended upon the water for transportation of people and goods.
Bayshore Drive east from Center Road was the heart of the commercial district of the island from the 1840s until the railroad arrived in the 1910s. During that period, stores and homes lined the road. The stores were actually out on docks over the bay so that goods could be directly loaded from the steamboats and sold to residents.
In the 1910s, when the railroad became the major means of transporting supplies, the importance of the steamboats and water routes decreased. A railroad spur line ran from the main line onto Terra Ceia. Emphasis shifted from the waterfront to inland areas closer to the railroad. Then, the intersection of Terra Ceia Road and Center Road held a packing house, general store and bank.
In 1926, after a tidal wave washed over the island flooding it with saltwater and making if difficult to grow crops, the Seaboard Airline Railroad discontinued service to Terra Ceia. The tracks were pulled up and the depot abandoned. In 1931, the Bank of Terra Ceia failed as a result of the Great Depression. Now, the building houses the Terra Ceia Post Office.
Today, Terra Ceia is mostly a residential area, but at one time, it was a thriving agricultural and business community.