Jacksonville: A Rich & Vibrant History
(The best written work covering Jacksonville history is Old Hickory’s Town by James Ward. For a thorough and readable review of the city after consolidation in 1968, see Jacksonville: The Consolidation Story by James B. Crooks, Ph.D.Jacksonville’s Architectual Heritageby Wayne Wood holds a treasure trove of historical photos of Jacksonville’s urban landscape.)
The first human inhabitants reached the area of Jacksonville between 12,000 and 16,000 years ago. At that time, the coastline was approximately one mile further east than it is today because the Ice Age in progress at the time locked up more of the earth’s water in glaciers.
The best known Native Americans to inhabit this area were the Timucua, who probably numbered about 150,000 at their peak. Following the appearance of Europeans in the 1500s, the Timucua numbers declined quickly as they succumbed to diseased introduced by European explorers and settlers and died in conflicts. By 1763, the Timucua were probably gone from the area completely.
European Discovery and Settlement
Northeast Florida was “discovered” by Ponce de Leon in 1513. He and his Spanish crew landed about 25 miles from today’s Jacksonville, and named it Pascua Florida as a reminder that his landing occurred during the Feast of Flowers. He claimed the territory for the Spanish crown, then sailed off in search of a magic potion of eternal youth rumored to be a hidden treasure of this new land.
The French arrived on Florida’s east coast in 1562. Jean Ribault met the native Timuqua, exchanged gifts, and claimed possession in the name of the king of France by implanting a stone monument visible to subsequent ships.
A colony was established in 1564, only to be eliminated by Spanish forces from nearby St. Augustine in 1565. Florida’s northeast coast was under Spanish control. The French did not attempt another colonization. Nothing remains of the original Fort de la Caroline. And St. Augustine, not Jacksonville, is now known as the nation’s oldest city.
In 1702, James Moore, the interim governor of Carolina colony led a force of 500 English colonists and Yamasee Indians in an attack on Spanish Florida.
When the colony of Georgia was established in 1733, its governor, James Oglethorpe, built a small fort on St. George Island to enforce his belief that the new English colony extended all the way to the St. Johns River. He later moved through the area on the way to attack St. Augustine during the 1740 conflict between the English and the Spanish known as the “War of Jenkins Ear.”
The first Africans in the area may have been escaped slaves from the Carolinas in the 1680s that sought refuge with the Spanish. The Spanish practice of slavery, influenced in part by the Catholic church, was less onerous than the slavery practiced by English settlers who considered slaves chattel property. As the area was settled, much of the back-breaking work building the area was done by slaves whose labor made prosperity possible for some.
Growth of permanent settlements
Cattle were once driven across the river at a narrow place where a marker now stands at the foot of Liberty Street. From the south bank, an Indian trail led to St. Augustine. The Native Americans named the area Wacca Pilatka, which was translated to Cowford by English settlers. Before 1820, the larger settlement was on the south bank, where the guns of Spanish Fort St. Nicholas, erected in 1740, guarded the passing ships. A stone marker beside Atlantic Boulevard points to the fort’s location.
Between 1763 and 1783, the area was a British colony known as British East Florida, but it was returned to Spain as part of the Treaty of Paris which ended the revolutionary disagreement between England and 13 of its North American colonies.
In 1819, what became Jacksonville became part of the United States when Spain ceded the area to the United States in return for $5 million as part of the Adams-Onis treaty.
Florida became a U.S. territory in 1821 and was granted statehood in 1845.
The earliest use of the name “Jacksonville” was in an 1822 petition to the U.S. Secretary of State asking that the town be officially recognized as a port of entry. While Andrew Jackson never visited Northeast Florida, he was the first military-governor of Florida following Spain’s ceding of Florida in 1819.
Jacksonville’s first charter, creating a town government, was approved by the Florida Legislative Council on Feb. 9, 1832. Jacksonville’s first mayor was William Mills. At that time, the office was called Intendant, which was a holdover from Spanish times.
The Civil War
While Jacksonville did not witness the bloody battles which ravaged the country during the effort to prevent its division and, ultimately, to end slavery, it was important to both sides as a southern port. During the war, union forces occupied and then left the city on four separate occasions. No land battles were fought in Duval County, but one thunderous engagement occured between Union ships on the river and Confederate forces on St. Johns Bluff.
The Great Fire of May 3, 1901, scoured more than 146 city blocks and turned 2,368 buildings to cinders. The fire left nearly 9,000 people homeless. A glow could be seen from Savannah, Georgia, and smoke was reported in North Carolina. (The most thorough account of the fire is found in The Great Fire of 1901 by Bill Foley and Wayne Wood, published by the Jacksonville Historical Society.)
After the Fire
After the Great Fire of 1901 “there seemed to be nothing left save a fringe of houses around the municipal periphery, like hair on a friar’s head,” reported H.L. Mencken in the Baltimore Sun.
But Jacksonville got back on its feet quickly. Piers, docks, shipyards and terminals were quickly rebuilt. More than 13,000 buildings were constructed from 1901 to 1912. Architects flocked to the city, whose civic district was now virtually a blank slate. The most noted among them is Henry J. Klutho, who relocated to Jacksonville from New York in 1902. One of Klutho’s biggest claims to fame was the St. James Building, for nearly a century the home to Cohen Brothers department story, later May-Cohen’s and now City Hall.
The city still had its rail lines. Before the fire, Henry Flagler, a former Standard Oil partner of John D. Rockefeller’s, began buying small regional lines and in 1912 merged them into the Florida East Coast Railway. By the 1960s the city had become home to three major railroad lines: FEC, Atlantic Coast Line and the Seaboard Coast Line.
After the fire, the city reinvigorated its maritime commerce. The city government took control of the ports in 1912 and began building its own terminals. In 1907 the river was dredged with help from the federal government to allow bigger ships into Jacksonville’s terminals. Jacksonville has one of the best natural seaports in the South, and, after the turn of the 20th century, shippers took advantage of distribution lines going north, south and west.
Geography and mild weather also helped Jacksonville become the Hollywood of the South. The “Metro” in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) was a small studio that began alongside the St. Johns River where Metropolitan Park now sits. By 1916, Jacksonville boasted more than 30 movie studios, including Metro, Vim, Kalem Garrick, Eagle, Motograph, Gaumont and Norman Studios. Comedian Oliver Hardy, who started as a ticket taker, was probably the city’s most famous film star at the time.
During this era Jacksonville became a banking and insurance center. Barnett National Bank was already a major powerhouse, and its success spurred Atlantic National Bank (1903), Florida National Bank (1905) and others. One of Jacksonville’s first insurance titans was the Afro-American Insurance Co., founded in 1919 by Abraham Lincoln Lewis. Later, when state law created a favorable environment for insurance companies, Jacksonville’s skyline became dominated by insurance-company logos: Prudential, Gulf Life, Independent Life and American Heritage Life.
The U.S. Navy had a minor presence protecting the ports but did not have an official installation in Jacksonville until 1940, shortly before WWII. With the addition of two other bases, the Navy became a major employer as well as an economic force in the area.
Downtown Jacksonville after Consolidation (1968): A Portrait in Progress
Imagine a canvas on which successive artists paint an unfinished portrait, with each artist adding a unique feature. The canvas is downtown Jacksonville, and the artists are mayors who served the city under consolidated government.
Hans Tanzler (1968-1979), Jake Godbold (1979-1987), Tommy Hazouri (1987-1991), Ed Austin (1991-1995) and John Delaney (1995-2003) worked their political and artistic magic to create an economically vibrant, culturally colorful, and dynamically developing downtown. The picture isn’t complete. But broad outlines and unique details of a fascinating portrait have emerged.
During his nearly 12 years as mayor, Tanzler set the tone for downtown development by professionalizing city government and moving away from a good-old-boy system fraught with corruption and mismanagement. As the first mayor under consolidated government, he planned a revived downtown to compete with suburban shopping strips and giant shopping malls. Although his vision has not been fully realized, during his administration a downtown community college campus was created, a new public health facility was built and the private sector changed the city’s skyline with the Independent Life Tower (later the Modis Building).
Tanzler’s greatest contribution to downtown was healing a sick and neglected St. John’s River. In 1968, industrial and agricultural pollution, toxic chemicals and 15 million gallons per day of untreated sewage flowed from 77 untreated outfalls into the river and its Duval County tributaries. The city increased sewer taxes, replaced outdated sewer lines and closed ineffective sewage treatment plants.
The mayor celebrated the closing of the last of the untreated outfalls in June 1977 by skiing on the river with performers from Cypress Gardens. Although pollution continued to plague successive administrations, bold brush strokes on the downtown canvas had been made.
The 1980s was the “Billion Dollar Decade” in Jacksonville as downtown development capped the Godbold years. Hampered early in his first term by a nationwide recession, Godbold nevertheless made solid progress transforming downtown, using the river as a focal point.
Godbold worked to convert the empty Union Station on the western fringe of downtown into a convention center, helping gain City Council approval in 1982. A beautifully restored Florida Theatre re-opened in 1983, and the Mayport Jazz Festival moved to newly developed Metropolitan Park.
Focusing on the St. Johns River, the 1.2 mile Southbank Riverwalk opened in 1985 with the promise of parks, restaurants and a beautiful view of developments on the north bank of the river. Those developments included the completion in June 1987 of the Rouse Company’s Jacksonville Landing with its distinctive orange roof, retail stores, eateries and a courtyard perfect for entertainment. The city covered nearly half the $43 million cost of the Jacksonville Landing, including $10 million in infrastructure improvements, a $10 million second mortgage and the promise of a new parking garage.
The downtown canvas had changed during Godbold’s two terms, but work remained when Mayor Tommy Hazouri took office in 1987. Hazouri had campaigned on two issues crucial to a vibrant urban core: eliminating the city’s infamous stench and removing traffic-choking toll booths on downtown bridges.
The primary contributors to the odor problem were two paper companies, two chemical producers and the city’s own Buckman sewage treatment plant. Hazouri asked City Council for an anti-odor ordinance with teeth, and in March 1988 the Council increased fines from $500 to $10,000 per offense. Noticeable improvement to the city’s noxious air began soon thereafter.
Traffic flow to and from downtown was necessary for sustained growth and development. In March 1989, voters narrowly backed a Hazouri-supported referendum to replace toll booths with a half-cent sales tax increase; by the end of the year, tolls on the Mathews, Fuller Warren, Hart and I-95 Trout River bridges were a thing of the past.
Hazouri’s support of county-wide projects such as parks, environmental cleanup, public safety, libraries and senior centers tempered his effort to remake downtown. Nevertheless, before his loss in the 1991 Democratic primary to Ed Austin, he had accomplished his odor- and toll-related campaign promises, saw the building of a new Duval County jail and gained Council support for a $60 million refurbishing of the Gator Bowl.
Austin’s contribution to the downtown portrait was the River City Renaissance. Overcoming opposition from suburban developers, Austin promoted urban renewal in LaVilla. He succeeded in removing dilapidated housing, but the demolished structures were not replaced with the anticipated medium-income housing or with significant business development in LaVilla.
Two important Austin contributions to downtown came with the new City Hall at St. James, built in the shell of the vacant May-Cohen department store, and the Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts, a project that combined public and private funding and added cultural sparkle to the river’s north bank. Moving city hall from its riverside location to Hemming Plaza initiated development of a downtown “government center.”
One project that stretched across downtown also stretched across several administrations. Today’s 2.5 mile Automated Skyway Express was planned and partially funded during the Godbold years, but the first section from downtown to the new convention center wasn’t completed until the Hazouri years. Under Austin, the initial 0.7 mile east-west line grew with the addition of the 1.8 mile north-south section from the Florida Community College at Jacksonville station to the King’s Avenue station south of the river. The effort to extend the line east along the north side of the river never materialized, although it would have ended at the site of what some residents considered the most important downtown development of the 1990s: the home of the new Jacksonville Jaguars National Football League franchise, announced Nov. 30, 1993.
Austin chose not to pursue a second mayoral term. His replacement in 1995, Mayor John Delaney, envisioned a comprehensive. $2.2 billion Better Jacksonville Plan, including major downtown developments. Working as hard for passage of a half-cent voter-approved sales tax increase to fund the ambitious program as he did on his own election campaign, Delaney packaged the program to include something for everyone. Under the plan, the urban core would gain a state-of-the-art sports and entertainment arena, a classic-styled minor league baseball stadium, Florida’s largest public library and, ultimately, a new county courthouse. Pushing hard on the projects, Delaney opened the arena and baseball stadium before leaving office in 2003 and saw the new main library open in October 2005.
Seeking to make downtown more tourist and pedestrian friendly, Delaney added four downtown “pocket parks” and oversaw construction of the $8.2 million dollar extension of the Northbank Riverwalk from the CSX Building to the Fuller Warren Bridge.
Continuing development of the government center begun by Austin, Delaney negotiated with the Government Services Administration to build a new federal courthouse on land west of Hemming Plaza provided by the city. Construction began in April 1999 on the $86 million, 14-story courthouse and was finished in 2002.
Downtown Jacksonville remains a work in progress, and the administration of Mayor John Peyton has contributed to the portrait with improvements such as the Bay Street renovation that proved popular during Super Bowl XXXIX festivities. The current administration will continue artfully wielding its brush and successive administrations will no doubt do the same. Downtown Jacksonville remains a receptive canvas on which to paint the future.
Jacksonville’s Military Connections
French garrison at Ft. Caroline, 1563
Spanish garrison at Ft. Nicholas, ca 1740 near today’s Bishop Kenny High School
One Revolutionary War battle. The Battle of Thomas Creek, May 17, 1777 (fought in the vicinity of the Nassau River Bridge over U.S. Highway 17)
No Civil War land battles in Duval County, but there was an engagement between Union ships on the river and Confederate forces on St. Johns Bluff.
Camp Cuba Libre was established as the Commisary Depot for the 7th Army Corp during the Spanish American War (1898) and housed nearly 30,000 volunteers from across the country. In addition, 8 inch breach loading rifles were laboriously hauled up St. John’s Bluff in 1898, only to be removed in 1899.
What later became NAS Jacksonville was known as Camp Johnston during World War I. The complex had more than 600 buildings and the second largest rifle range in the country. After WWI, the Florida National Guard took over and renamed it Camp Foster. When abandoned by the National Guard, Camp Foster served as a residence for homeless men during the Great Depression.
In 1940, what had been Camp Foster became Naval Air Station Jacksonville, which boasted an assembly and repair shop covering 1,500,000 square feet with doors 160 feet wide and 45 feet tall.
Naval Station Mayport was commissioned in 1942 and has since grown to be the third largest fleet concentration area in the United States.
The history of Cecil Field dates to the early years of World War II when new military bases were built across the United States to fight a two-front war. The base was named for Commander Henry Barton Cecil who died in 1933. The Defense Department decommissioned Cecil Field in September 1999.
The United States Coast Guard’s Helicopter Interdiction Tactical Squadron (HITRON) Jacksonville, Florida is America’s first and only airborne law enforcement unit trained and authorized to employ Airborne Use of Force (AUF). HITRON is charged with conducting two missions; interdicting and stopping suspected drug-laden, high-speed vessels known as ‘go-fasts,’ and Maritime Homeland Security.
Business & Industry
Lumber was a major business in Jacksonville prior to the Civil War, though Jacksonville consisted of only about 350 residents in 1850. Tourism was big business in the 1880s as wealthy northerns sought to escape winter in warmer climes. After the building of the jetties in the late 1890s, port business grew. Jacksonville was the first film center during the silent movie era. The development of military bases after World War II had a dramatic effect on the economy, as did the attraction of insurance and banking headquarters.
In 1986, the Mayo Clinic opened its Jacksonville facility, the first extension of the famed Mayo Clinic outside of Rochester, Minn.
In 1994, the National Football League awarded its 30th franchise to Jacksonville. The Jaguars began play in 1995 in Alltel Stadium, which also played host to Super Bowl XXXIX in 2005.