Grave shafts from the 1800s unearthed during Water Street construction

With each groundbreaking, the city of Tampa moves toward the future, but every shiny shovel in the dirt also has the potential to dig up the past. 

"Every now and then, when new things occur and you start to dig up the earth, the earth produces some amazing chapters of our history," said Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn.

The latest chapter was unearthed north of Channelside Drive, in the midst of the $3 billion Water Street Tampa project. Workers discovered the long-abandoned Estuary Cemetery.

"We're talking about people who passed away here in Tampa sometime in the 1830s and 1840s," said Rodney Kite-Powell, Tampa Bay History Center curator. "They had families and, often times, the soldiers that were here were not from Florida."

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Development company Strategic Property Partners said they planned for this.

Before any work began, a team of archeologists researched the relevant history of the area formerly known as the Fort Brooke Army post. Careful mechanical and hand excavations are helping to identify any significant findings while ensuring those findings are handled with dignity and respect.

"The key will be how we excavate it," Buckhorn said. "How we determine, if possible, whose remains they are, whether they are Indian remains, whether they are U.S. soldiers, whether they are civilians or settlers. And, each of those [has] different requirements of how you then inter them appropriately."

Remains discovered during southern downtown development in the 1980s and 1990s were reinterred in historic cemeteries. The same will happen for the remains of the Estuary Cemetery, if identifications are able to be made.

Contents of the grave shafts are believed to be deteriorated due to environmental factors and prior development that occurred during the 1960s and 1970s.

"What might be found archeologically, quite possibly, won't really be intact," Kite-Powell said. "It will be very difficult to identify what some of these pieces are."

So, as Tampa pens new chapters in history, progress must occasionally pause to preserve the past.

"This is not an obstacle," Buckhorn said. "This is part of who we are. This is our history and we just have to make sure we treat that history with reverence."

Strategic Property Partners said the archeological testing, which has gone on for months, will continue as construction advances north of Channelside Drive. The company says the findings are not expected to have a significant impact on timelines.