Copyright Florida Monthly magazine and reprinted with permission.


Festive, Fabulous

Fernandina Beach


By John Paul Jones


Fabulous Fernandina Beach!

Why is it fabulous? For one thing, it has a lot of “onlys.” It's the only area in the United States that has been under eight flags. Florida itself was under five flags, but Amelia Island, where Fernandina Beach is located, between 1562 and the present was under eight.

The first, last and only bullfight on the North American continent was fought there around 1815, according to a pamphlet published by Fernandina in 1890.

It boasted the first and only railroad in Florida. The Florida Railroad Company was organized in 1853 and construction was begun at Fernandina in 1855.

Called the Florida Central and Peninsular R.R. Co., it was advertised as the “shortest and quickest route to all points in south, middle and west Florida, Mobile, New Orleans and the southwest.” Speed in those days was not a reality. For example, the train left Cedar Key at 8:30 AM and arrived at Fernandina at 7:00 o'clock that night, taking ten and a half hours to go about 155 miles.

It's the only city I know of in Florida that was moved, lock, stock and barrel from its founding site to a new site because of the need to build a railroad and the original site was not suitable as a “taking off” point for the railroad planned by Senator David Yulee.

Fernandina had been named by the Spanish in honor of Ferdinand, the consort of Queen Isabella, “of blessed memory, the patroness of Columbus and the foundress of European settlements in the New World,” according to the 1890 pamphlet.

The town was ordered re-zoned by the Spanish governor on May 10, 1811 at its original site but in 1853 the “new Fernandina” was laid out at its present location, beginning at the docks in the Amelia River and extending east on the main street called “Centre Street,” that you see today.

Ship and rail transportation brought such an influx of tourists to Fernandina that in 1877 the railroad built Florida's first and only major tourist hotel, the 75 room Egmont. Then followed the Florida Hotel and the Tourist's Hotel.

Today the original site of Fernandina is called “Old Town,” and you can see the original Spanish plaza and a number of Victorian-style homes that were built out there during the shopping and transportation boom before 1900. Drive east on Centre Street until it becomes Atlantic and turn left on North 14th St. and pass the cemetery. Old Town will be just ahead, on your left.

In the center of Old Town is San Carlos Plaza which was a parade ground for Fort San Carlos, completed by the Spanish in 1816. This historic marker in the Plaza reads:

This land high above the Amelia River was a campsite for Indians in prehistoric times, as early as 2000-1000 B.C. In the early history of the state, it assumed military importance because of the fine protected harbor on the northern boundary of Spanish Florida. In the first Spanish period a village of Franciscans and Indians was established here by 1675, and a Spanish sentinel's house was documented in 1696. From 1736 to 1742 James Oglethorpe stationed Highlanders on this site. After the withdrawal of Oglethorpe's troops in 1742, the area served as a buffer zone between the English and the Spanish until 1763 when Florida became a British possession. When Spain regained possession of Florida in 1783, this harbor was an embarkation point for British Loyalists leaving Florida. The U.S. Embargo Act of 1807, which closed all U.S. ports to European trade, made the border town of Fernandina a center for smuggling. On March 17, 1812 a group of Americans known as patriots overthrew the Spanish battery but the U.S. flag replaced the Patriots' standard after one day. Spain regained control in May, 1813, and completed Fort San Carlos in 1816. As the fort's parade ground, this site was named Plaza San Carlos.


Eight Flags

The first flag over the area was French. Jean Ribault arrived in May of 1562, explored the waterways around Amelia Island and claimed the area for France. He named present-day Amelia Island the Isle of Mai. What is now the St. Mary's River, dividing Florida and Georgia, was named the Seine.

The Spanish came along in1565 and remained during their first occupation until 1763, almost 200 years. The third flag was British, during an occupation of only 20 years, from 1763 until 1783, when the Spanish regained Florida and remained until 1821.

During this 38 year period (the second Spanish period), however, three other flags flew over the area, the Patriots, 1812, the Green Cross of Florida, 1817, and the Mexican, 1817.

The last two flags were those of the United States, from 1821 until the present, and the Confederacy, during the period of the Civil War.

Between 1565 and 1763 the Spanish did little more than maintain its Isle of Mai as a buffer between the Spanish claimed territory and the American colonies. It did establish a Franciscan mission, called Santa Maria on the island in 1675.

In 1734 James Oglethorpe explored the area and claimed it for England, giving as the basis for his claim an old Indian treaty. While there, Oglethorpe named the island “Amelia,” after Princess Amelia, second daughter of King George II. For six years between 1736 and 1742 he stationed Highlanders on the site of Old Town, as indicated on the historic marker, but when he left the area it returned to its old status of serving as a buffer zone.

It was during the second Spanish occupation of Florida that Fernandina was established on the “Old Town” site.

In 1807 President Thomas Jefferson created a situation that changed Fernandina's place in the world from a quiet Spanish town to a place where you could get your throat cut, a place where fortunes were made and lost, a place the Spanish could not control.

Jefferson closed all American ports to foreign trade and then the U.S. Congress forbade further importation of slaves into the country in 1808.

Those actions turned Fernandina almost overnight into a haven for smugglers, freebooters, soldiers of fortune, and pirates. From Fernandina it was a short run by boat into Georgia with slaves for the plantations and European goods for major cities in the United States.

Out of that era and its dazzling and naughty history came today's designation of the strip of coastline south of Fernandina known as the “Buccaneer Trail.”

The U.S. used these “times out of control” to finance at least two “undercover” attacks on Spanish Florida in an effort to take over the territory.  One group, called “The Patriots,” crossed the St. Mary's River and captured Fort San Carlos. Their blue and white flag was one of the eight raised over the area. The Patriots left in 1813, however. In 1817, Gen. Gregor MacGregor arrived with his Green Cross of Florida banner and seized the island.

Failing to get expected financial assistance from the U.S., MacGregor turned the enterprise over to his lieutenant, Jared Irwin. Irwin turned back one large Spanish force sent from St. Augustine to reclaim the area but he eventually turned the command over to a pirate, Luis Aury, who ran up the Mexican flag and claimed the island was annexed to the Republic of Mexico, without telling anyone in Mexico about his act.

That happened in September of 1817 and gave the U.S. its opportunity to send in a force to capture the area and hold it “in trust” for Spain. This was in December, 1817. The U.S. kept troops on the island until Spain ceded Florida to our country.


Victorian Era

By 1890 Fernandina had begun to advertise itself as “the largest, most beautiful and deepest harbor on the coast of Florida.”

The pride of local manufacturers was evidenced in the following advertisement, “To our patrons, we are glad to announce that by new and improved machinery, we are enabled to present to them a finer fibre than heretofor. We study to please and can point to our Nassau Plaster and Adamant Fibres as the  best on the market. Old fogeyism dies hard. New ideas in a trade that was practiced under Moses in Egypt are not expected, but we have proved that a vegetable fibre can be made that cannot be burned by hot lime. Our fibres are cheaper than hair, as two pounds of fibre do the work of seven pounds of hair. Out of 52 houses built in the city of Fernandina, 51 were plastered with Nassau Plaster fibre. H.B. Plant's Great Tampa Bay Hotel used 1-1/2 tons of Nassau Plaster.”

The Florida Central and Peninsular R.R. boasted of having large, “fireproof” warehouses and extensive dock room for steamship service. The city boasted of its creosote works that produced distilled oil and creosote for pilings and cross-ties and bridge timbers. Lumber mills and fibre factories were mentioned, as well as cigar factories and an oyster canning plant. The city was second in the state in the exporting of lumber, had its own waterworks and an electric light plant.

The population in 1890 was 4,000 and two triweekly newspapers were published in the town: The Florida Mirror and the Fernandina News.

The question was asked: “Why is not Fernandina the commercial metropolis of Florida? Fernandina with the finest harbor on the Atlantic coast, large enough to float all the navies of the world at once, with 20 feet of water on the bar at high tide, with a climate which is absolutely superb, with its magnificent sea beach, and its hard-beaten, smooth surface, stretching a distance of 20 miles in almost a straight line, its delightful sea breezes and ringing shell-rock roads--why is not Fernandina the metropolis? She certainly ought to be.”

The 1890 pamphlet extolled the virtues of farming in the Fernandina area, saying that since the city was in the most northern county of the state, her farmers could beat them all to the New York, Boston and Philadelphia markets.

“Tea and coffee have been raised with good results here, but as this city can employ 1,000 hands in raising the one article of asparagus for Northern cities at a profit of $300 to $500 per acre, it would be folly to stimulate any fancy product. Lawty for strawberries, Gainesville for beans and cabbage, Waldo for celery, Fernandina for asparagus and the balance of North Florida for all five.”

Concerning Florida's only bull fight, the pamphlet said: “The territory now covered by Fernandina was 75 years ago (and many years afterward) a plantation owned and cultivated by a Mr. Domingo Fernandez. Certain Spanish hidalgos got permission of Mr. Fernandez to have a festival, or a picnic, in one of the groves on the plantation, to which a large number of guests were invited. Worst of all, the banquet and ball were given on a Sunday! After the feast the guests were conducted to an arena, where seats in tiers encompassed the sawdust.

“At a given signal, a young Spaniard, dressed a la matador, entered with the conventional red flags, being afoot, however, and armed only with a stiletto. After a while a half-grown bull of fierce aspect, but insignificant weight, was turned in and the sport began.

“The red flags were shaken in the face of the bull, which plunged wildly at the matador, who got in a number of sharp wounds on the sides and flanks of the enraged animal.

“My octogenarian informer says the fight was at last voted a draw. The bull was led out bleeding, but not seriously hurt. Altogether it was not as bloody as like escapades in Spain and Mexico.

“Thus ended the only bull fight ever seen in Florida, and we have in the midst of us many descendants of those who witnessed it.”


Fabulous Fernandina

Out of this tempestuous background came the fabulous Fernandina we see today.

How would you describe it?

First, it's a city of many, many faces. It grew into a lovely, Victorian American town from the 1870s on through the turn of the century and it's much the same today. You will have the feeling that somehow time has handed us this city intact from another century, its beauty to savor and enjoy.

One reason for this is the 30-block Centre Street Historic District which has been named a Historic District in the National Register of Historic Places. If you need a reason to visit the city, the Centre Street area should be attraction enough. You can spend hours marveling at the energy and imagination of the citizens who dreamed this dream, created and restored until they had brought Fernandina back from the past.

There’s another face to the city.

If you visit it on a blustery winter day, you can almost imagine it is a New England commercial fishing town on the north Atlantic, except the temperature will be in the mid 50s even though the sky may be grey and the Inland Waterway spotted with whitecaps around the fleet of shrimp boats tied up at the Centre Street docks.

Fernandina Beach is one of Florida’s best known commercial fishing ports because of its position in the history of the development of the commercial fishing industry. Modern shrimping began in Fernandina Beach and has spread all over the world.

You see signs of this past, today in the shrimping fleet, their masts like a garden of matchsticks against the setting sun, and the line of boats heading into the Atlantic.