I’ve been putting it off too long. Time to go on and on about the bestest and most historical place in the state, St. Augustine. I’m only half-joking when I tell people I’m going to retire there and become a tour guide in my spare time. I’ve been there so many times, and yet there are still lots that I feel I’ve not seen or done there. Also the section of A1A between it and Ormond Beach is nearly as scenical as what’s on Amelia Island.
Some history. St. Augustine is the oldest continuously inhabited (by Europeans) city in the continental United States. I have to add that qualifier, since there are settlements in Puerto Rico that are older. The city was founded in 1565, after Pensacola. But as I mentioned previously, Pensacola was struck by a hurricane just after the Spanish landed there, and it didn’t survive long after that. St. Augustine has been hit by various calamities, but somehow managed to continue on. They’ll be celebrating the 450th anniversary of the founding in 2015, and I’m sure the city will feature prominently next year in the celebration of Ponce de León’s landing in 1513. Take that, Jamestown!
St. Augustine, not surprisingly, has the highest concentration of NHLs in the state. There are six of them, including the original town limits as a historic district. Also, Florida’s only two National Monuments are here. Both are forts; one in St. Augustine itself, the other about 15 miles south.
We’ll start some ways north, in Ponte Vedra. There are a couple of the Florida Architecture: 100 Years. 100 Places in the area, but they’re both private residences. You mayn’t be able to see much from the road. Going down A1A, you’ll be going through one of the rare undeveloped Atlantic coast stretches, thanks to the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve. Very popular with beachgoers, but not quite as much as Daytona Beach and such. Before you get to St. Augustine, you’ll cross the Vilano Beach Bridge. It’s a high one, so you’ll get a great view of the area. The only better one is from the top of the lighthouse on Anastasia Island. We’ll get there in a while. (see Google map)
- Ponte Vedra Beach Chamber of Commerce (50 A1A South)
- Cultural Center at Ponte Vedra Beach (50 Executive Way)
- Williamson Residence (Ponte Vedra Boulevard?) (FL 100)
- Milam House (1033 Ponte Vedra Boulevard) (FL 100)
If you want to see all the NHLs in the area, though, you’ll have to get to US 1 north of the city. Deep Creek State Forest is up there, as is the current county courthouse. Which, unless you’re a courthouse completist, I’d not recommend visiting. It’s a fairly bog-standard modern building.
The NHL is in a state park east of US 1, Fort Mose. If the fort was still standing, it might be a National Monument too. But alas, no such luck, since it was an earthen and wooden fort. It was the first free black settlement in the New World, where escaped slaves from the English colonies lived. The Spanish allowed them to live there in exchange for defending the area against the English. So in a way the place was the ancestor of the Underground Railroad. The area was abandoned and forgotten, then rediscovered about 30 years ago. You can’t get close to the original fort site, but observe it from a distance on a platform. The boardwalk that gets you there is a bit of a walk, but I found going through the woods and over the grasses rather serene. They are endeavoring to build a replica of the fort, but don’t know how far along they are. (see Google map)
- Deep Creek State Forest
- St. Johns County Courthouse (4010 Lewis Speedway)
- Fort Mose Historic State Park (15 Fort Mose Trail) (NHL)
St. Augustine has seven historic districts, mostly clustered around downtown. To find the boundaries, check here.
- Nelmar Terrace Historic District (Roughly bounded by Alfred St., San Carlos Ave., San Marco Ave., Hospital Creek) (NRHP)
- Fullerwood Park Residential Historic District (Roughly bounded by San Marco, Macaris, Hildreth & Hospital Creek) (NRHP)
- North City Historic District (Roughly bounded by Castillo Drive, San Marco Avenue, Old Mission Avenue, and U.S. Route 1) (NRHP)
- Abbott Tract Historic District (Roughly bounded by Matanzas Bay, Pine, San Marco, and Shenandoah Avenues) (NRHP)
- Model Land Company Historic District (Roughly bounded by Ponce de Leon Boulevard, King, Cordova, and Orange Streets) (NRHP)
- St. Augustine Town Plan Historic District (Roughly bounded by Grove Ave, the Matanzas River, and South and Washington Streets) (NHL)
- Lincolnville Historic District (Bounded by Cedar, Riberia, Cerro and Washington Streets and DeSoto Place) (NRHP)
Leaving Fort Mose and heading south, you’ll come to a split in the road. Keep right if you want to circumvent St. Augustine and get to, say, Palatka or Bunnell. But you’re here for the history, eh? So take the left-hand path down San Marco Avenue.
You’ll pass by a couple of the historic districts (Fullerwood Park Residential Historic District and Nelmar Terrace Historic District), then arrive between the city’s two trolley services, Ripley’s Red Train Tours and Old Town Trolleys. If you’re in St. Augustine for more than a day, they’re the best way to see the sights. Each service offers a multi-day pass, which is usually good for about three days. Unfortunately, they don’t have a less expensive one-day price. I’ve only used one, Old Town Trolleys. Partly because they have an NRHP on site, the Old St. Johns County Jail Museum. They also have some other historic buildings that they moved there and preserve, and a history museum. So it’s a good package deal. Old Town Trolleys also does tours in other historic cities, like Key West and Boston and Savannah. If you visit those places, you’ll have some idea of the kind of the tour experience you’ll have. (see Google map)
- Old Florida Museum (254 San Marco Avenue)
- Old Town Trolleys(167 San Marco Avenue)
- Old St. Johns County Jail Museum
- Oldest Store Museum
- Florida Heritage Museum
- Tragedy in U.S. History Museum (7 Williams Street) (closed)
I’m going to stop here. Next time, we’ll venture into downtown St. Augustine. Prepare yourself for more concentrated history than almost anywhere else in the US. See you on the road!