Drive the OST Florida!
(We are developing narrative travelogs for each state along the Old Spanish Trail. Since most history is local, we need your help identifying stories about the small towns, gas stations, motels, bridges, and points of interest along the Trail -- send us your news!)
St. Augustine to Lake City
The Old Spanish Trail has its start, fittingly, in St. Augustine, a city steeped in Spanish history and charmed by its narrow streets, old resort hotels, Spanish architecture and near-tropical climate. The early Old Spanish Trail Association struggled to identify a terminus for Florida, selecting at one time both Miami and Fort Myers. After working out a deal with the Dixie Highway Association, who marked Miami as their southern terminus, they selected St. Augustine as the beginning or zero mile of the OST. To celebrate completion of the Old Spanish Trail in 1929, the city hosted a three-day gala, including the dedication of a six-foot diameter coquina stone monument to mark the beginning of the trail. The impressive Zero Stone Marker has been moved two times and now sits at the southwest corner of San Marco Avenue and Castillo Drive, alongside a shield commemorating a 1955 legislative designation of the trail across Florida.
Established in 1565 (forty-two years before Jamestown), by Spanish admiral Don Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, St. Augustine became the Spanish military headquarters for North America, and is the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in the United States. Its age gives it bragging rights to the Oldest School, Oldest House, and even the Oldest Store Museum in America. Located at 14 St. Francis, the Oldest House (the Gonzalez-Alvarez house) dates back to the late 1500s. Purchased by the St. Augustine Historical Society in 1918, the house has been sensitively restored to reveal its many periods. An attraction since the 1920s, the Oldest House is must-see stop on the OST. Other notable house museums include the 1797 Ximenez-Fatio House, Zorayda Castle, and the Spanish Military Hospital museum.
Creating a formidable barrier between the city and the Mantanzas River is the striking Castillo de San Marcos National Monument. Taking nearly twenty-three years to construct, the solid coquina stone fort completed in 1756 is the largest Spanish fort in the United States, and a case study of 17th century military architecture. The fort is not only significant for its history of Spanish and British conflicts, but also for the role it played during the Seminole Wars, and during the 1870s, in holding in captivity Plains and Apache Indians transferred from Fort Sill, Oklahoma.
You cant imagine it today, but during the 1910s, folks used the grassy area around the fort to play golf.
Across the street to the west is the famous City Gates erected in 1804. Made of two square coquina pylons topped with stone pomegranates, the gates historically guarded the city entrance and became the symbolic beginning of the Old Spanish Trail highway during the 1920s.
St. Augustine would not be what is today without the vision and money of Henry Morrison Flagler, a retired oilman who was Floridas first great promoter. Flagler (1830-1913), came to St. Augustine a sleepy Spanish community discovered by Northerners in 1883 on a belated honeymoon with his second wife. During this trip, Flagler saw a great change to the city that he first visited in the late 1870s. At that time, the city was a warm-weather haven for invalids, mainly consumptives, prompting Flagler, who disliked the sickroom ambience, to return to Jacksonville the next day.
In 1883, Flagler found that St. Augustine attracted a new class of visitors the wealthy but thought it otherwise dull and in need of a few first-class hotels. This prompted Flagler to hire his ministers son, Thomas Hastings, and his partner John Carrère two young architects with little experience to design his first hotel, Ponce de Leon.
Influenced by the nearby Villa Zorayda, the Ponce de Leon Hotel (now Flagler College) and the Alcazar Hotel (now the Lightner Museum), both completed in 1888, were constructed of concrete. The more impressive of the two, the Ponce de Leon, had a red tile roof, overhanging balconies, domes and spires, and an interior designed by Louis Tiffany. It hosted presidents, and remained the social center of St. Augustine until its closure in 1967. (Today one can visit the lobby of Flagler College and stare up into high dome, gazing at the Tiffany glass and murals depicting St. Augustine history; tours are also available).
Also completed in 1888, the Casa Monica Hotel was designed by Franklin Smith and later taken over by Flagler to become the Cordova. Flagler then went on to develop much of South Florida, including Palm Beach, Ormond Beach, and West Palm Beach. To pay respect to this pioneer of Florida tourism, visit the Flagler Memorial Presbyterian Church, where his remains are kept in a domed mausoleum next to the church.
Leaving St. Augustine to the north on San Marco Avenue (once the alignment of US 1 and the Dixie Highway), take time to browse the antique shops housed in old garages, service stations and luncheon counters. This was St. Augustines auto service row. Near the end of the strip is Borrillos Pizza & Subs, serving tasty New York-style Italian food out of a former Getty gas station.
Indian River Fruit Market, claims to be Floridas largest fruit and gift shippers, and is indeed a block-long business selling sacks of oranges, plastic pink flamingos, sea shell curios, and unknowingly retro 1980s beach wear. Built in the 1940s, Indian River is one of a number of diminishing roadside seashell shops. Once common up and down US 1, these shops have become a thing of the past, superseded by the ersatz surf and cheap sunglass shacks of today. So, stop by and pick up an icy cherry cider and a box of Don Featherstone flamingos.
Old US 1 continues as a two-lane road through north St. Augustine, passing the occasional mom-and-pop motel, gas station and garage from the 1930s and 40s.
Just north of the modern City Gates is the turn off to the Fort Mose archaeological site. Established by the Spanish in 1783, Fort Mose was a fortified town for runaway black slaves. Santa Teresa de Mose is important as the first legally sanctioned black settlement in the United States.
Say adios to the stoic conquistadors beyond the gates old US 1 transforms into a modern four-lane highway. Much of the historic roadside architecture is gone, so you can accelerate, turn up the radio and forget about photographing that vintage motor court.
In truth one can take the old alignment to South Jacksonville, but dont expect to see much, as it now passes through mostly a subdivision landscape. If youre so inclined, make a left at Bayard a former stage stop and depot town for the Florida East Coast railroad to take the Old St. Augustine Road to South Jacksonville.
Completed in 1918 as a nine-foot-wide brick road, this section of the Dixie Highway (and later the Old Spanish Trail) holds distinction as the first paved highway down Floridas Atlantic Coast opening the state to an unstoppable rush of tourist traffic and development. (Sections of the old brick road are still identifiable in Hastings, south of St. Augustine).
Before leaving, pause at the old Bayard Country Store. Erected in 1899 by the window of a Union soldier who died in a sawmill accident, the three-story, frame building opened as a general store, with The Wing Hotel occupying the second and third floors. The hotel boomed in the 1920s with automobile tourists using it as a rest stop midway between Jacksonville and St. Augustine. In the 1930s the building was pushed back to make room for a wider highway; the store closed in 1947, and a brothel and post office occupied the first floor. Currently shuttered, the old hotel is again threatened by highway expansion.
Entering South Jacksonville on current US 1 (the Phillips Highway), the older motels and roadside architecture pick up again. Chopstick Charleys Restaurant, a squat brick building with swooping pagoda-roof neon, apparently still serves food. Across the highway, the bright yellow and green Gator Lodge features a grinning gator about ready to snap at a Western Union sign.
The only way into Jacksonville is by modern highway. Built in 1921, the Old Acosta Bridge, Floridas oldest vehicular lift bridge carried US 1 traffic for years, until finally demolished in the late 1980s. Replaced in 1994 by the New Acosta Bridge, a span with little distinction, the better choice is take the Blue Bridge or Main Street Bridge, a long, sleek vertical lift bridge built in the 1940s.
The Blue Bridge dumps traffic into the older part of the city where frumpy business blocks are occasionally interrupted by landmark buildings which give a sense of Jacksonvilles earlier prominence as Floridas commercial center.
The relative newness of Jacksonvilles building stock is due to a catastrophic fire in 1901 that started at the corner of Beaver and Davis streets and worked its way across the city, burning a total of 466 acres and 2,600 buildings, leaving 8,677 people homeless.
The new jewels erected after the fire include the lavish 1927 Florida Theater (128 E. Forsyth Street), where in 1956 Elvis performed his first concert in Florida. During the performance, Juvenile Court Judge Marion Gooding sat observing Presleys movements to ensure that his trademark swivel did not become overly suggestive.
Several of the large hotels of the Old Spanish Trail era still stand downtown, but no longer offer room and board. Of them, the Seminole Hotel on West Forsyth is the most noteworthy. Designed by architect Henry J. Klutho, the ten-story building was the foremost tourist and commercial hotel of its day.
African-American history runs deep in Jacksonville, home to labor leader Asa Philip Randolph and poet James Weldon Johnson. At 410 Broad Street is the six-story, red brick Masonic Temple Building, built by the Black Masons of Florida in 1912. The Romanesque-style Mount Zion A.M.E. Church (201 E. Beaver) is the replacement to the original 1866 church destroyed by the Great Jacksonville Fire of 1901. Edward Waters College at 1658 Kings Road is the oldest African-American institution for higher learning in Florida, created in 1886.
Teachers from New England instructed former slaves in church basements, boxcars, jails and other spare spaces before moving into a school built by the African Methodist Episcopal Church. This building, like so many others, was destroyed in the fire of 1901. The current school, erected in 1904, includes within its legacy of graduates Asa Philip Randolph, a national leader in the black labor movement.
Modern 1964-Worlds-Fair-style architecture influenced the design of the Cathedral of Faith C.O.G.I.C. church at 2591 West Beaver. Founded in 1897 by Elder Charles Harrison Mason, The Church of God in Christ (COGIC), a Pentecostal body, emphasizes holiness as essential to the salvation of mankind, and frequently practices Divine Healing.
From Jacksonville, the OST follows US 90 approximately 403 miles to its finale in dusty Van Horn, Texas. In its early days, US 90 started in Jacksonville at the intersection of Main and Beaver, or the Dixie and Old Spanish Trail highways. In the 1950s, the highway was pushed back to Jacksonville Beach, a small resort town of rental cottages, hotels, and amusement parks and arcades. Renewal efforts have erased much of the charm of the resort community, replacing the once unbroken line of beach cottages with tall, soulless condominium towers. Still, it is worth the approximately one hour drive from Jacksonville to begin US 90 at the shores of the Atlantic Ocean.
The highway begins inauspiciously as a local road at the end of Beach Boulevard. Covered with sand along its last 50 feet, the road gives no sense of its former role as the start of Americas southernmost trunkline highway.
From Jacksonville, the OST heads west on Beaver Street, passing through a once predominantly African-American neighborhood much changed by urban renewal. West of the jumble of new government office buildings and modern parking garages are large swaths of cleared land historically populated by single-family homes, but evidenced today only by concrete walkways leading nowhere.
The highway at this point is a modern four-lane facility. Trucks churn up and down its roadway, passing through West Jacksonvilles industrial sector. Evidence of older roadside architecture is rare. After its intersection with Florida 111, US 90 returns to a narrow, two-lane highway. From here to Tallahassee, the OST cuts across a landscape made monotonous by endless pine plantations. Fortunately it is interrupted every ten miles or so by a small town or county seat.
This is the part of Florida settled mainly by people from the Southern United States, giving it a wholly different culture and economy than Miama and South Florida. Off the main highway, expect to see the Stars and Bars flying proudly, and barbeque and beans, not crab cakes, served on the table.
West of White House is the shuttered Old Spanish Trail Store. Finished with buff and red brick, and accented by arches and terra cotta tile, the store up until a few years ago sold antiques, hand-made furniture, and real coonskin caps but now sits quiet. Local legend has it that behind the brick is an earlier building dating to 1839. This building, which served as a tavern and rest-over for the stage line, evolved over the years into a boarding house, restaurant, and much later a bawdy house run by the local sheriff, where cheap booze and laughing women were both for sale.
During the OST trail era, the building welcomed travelers with chilled drinks and cheap gas. The current owners purchased the property in 1959 and covered the old wood frame structure with brick. Shaded by ancient palms, the Old Spanish Trail Store, though closed, is an important landmark of the old highway, and according to the owner, is constantly threatened by highway expansion. See it now!
Macclenny is a crossroads community and the seat of Baker County. The 1908 courthouse, now a library, is a handsome Classical Revival edifice designed by Atlanta architect Edward C. Hosford. On US 90, the towns Main Street, are a few reminders of the OST era. The former Hotel Annie above the Chamber Commerce (20 E. Macclenny Avenue) is the third incarnation of this local landmark.
Originally facing the railroad, the hotel moved near the highway in the 1930s, only to burn down in December 1937. The hotel reopened in 1938 and folks drove from miles around to savor its famous fried chicken dinners.
For real Southern-style ribs, save your tithing dollars for Preacherman Bar×Bq he is not a preacher, but something heavenly inspired the food.
A mile west of Macclenny is the small community of Glen St. Mary, named after Glen Saint Mary Nurseries, a nursery known throughout the Southeast for its oranges and ornamental horticulture. During the nurserys heyday, acres of citrus and flowering shrubbery bordered US 90. Although Macclenny is no longer the horticultural capital of Florida, and orange trees no longer grace the highway, it is still one of the most important nursery areas of the state. The large wholesale nurseries, Blair and Southern States Nurseries, ship woody ornamentals across the country.
West of town, US 90 a concrete girder bridge ascends above the railroad below. Constructed in 1936, and ornamented with a balustrade railing, this is one of a few early highway bridges surviving on US 90 in Florida.
East of Lake City is the Olustee Battlefield State Park Historic Site, commemorating Floridas largest Civil War conflict. Here on February 20, 1864, twelve Union regiments, including two Negro units, sustained heavy losses during a five-hour battle against General Joseph Finnegans troops. The losses prevented Federal troops from reaching their goal of dividing Florida in half. Two monuments and a small museum recount the story. West of the battlefield is the crossroads community of Olustee, a former naval stores shipping point. Here, in the OST days, travelers camped under live oaks.
Lake City was once called Alligator, after Seminole Chief Halpatter Tustenuggee (Alligator). It shed its reptile title in 1859, taking its more prosaic current name from its proximity to numerous recreation lakes.
The seat of Columbia County, Lake City is the quintessence of a North Florida town along the Old Spanish Trail. Entering from the east on the improved four-lane highway, remnants of earlier roadside culture barely register a glance. A ragged neon sign announces the Tall Pine Motel, but no motel remains. Marginal motels of the 1940-50s, the Triangle, Columbia, Hillcrest, hang on for dear life. At the city limits, the roadside trinity of the modern South Family Dollar, fluttering American flags and barbeque stands greets the motorist. Ahead, the citys baby-blue water tower hovers over the bustling community.
The center of town is formed by the intersection of US 90 and US 41 - the latter once part of the western branch of the Dixie Highway. A Chicago writer in 1925 captured the crossroads scene:
"Cars from outside states were passing through today at the rate of two a minute...The crossing cop, who is busy as a Chicago traffic officer, said was an ordinary day's run, and that, in fact, travel had been slackening up a trifle."
At the northeast corner of the intersections, the three-story, Classical Revival Columbia County Courthouse crowned with a clock tower provides gravity to the burgeoning city. Just a block north on old US 41 are two OST era hotels, the Powell and Blanche, though neither still a hostelry, each survives with new use.
To learn more about this crossroads community, visit the Columbia County Historical Society, situated in an 1870 Italianate-style house at 105 South Hernando Street. The museums rooms contain the usual dressed-up mannequins, Civil War memorabilia, and donated farm implements all worth stopping to admire but be sure to visit the small display on Aunt Aggies Bone Yard.
The garden, featuring gateways, arches, and trellises, all made of dried animal bones, bleached snow-white by rain, sun, and wind, was the work of Aunt Aggie Jones, a former slave from South Georgia. The Bone Yard became a popular attraction between 1900 and 1918, as a popular spot for Sunday family outings and for courting couples to stroll. It included a museum of oddities snakes preserved in alcohol and alligator skeletons and on special occasions, Aunt Aggie donned an Indian outfit and danced. Aunt Aggie died in 1918; her famous creation is buried under the local elementary school.
West of Lake City, US 90 bloats to six lanes, cluttered on both sides with chain motels and restaurants. After passing under Interstate 75 an important migratory route for snowbirds fleeing the wintry north the road returns to a manageable two lanes. Here, US 90 departs from the flat terrain of the past 60 miles and begins to traverse rolling country dotted with small farms and shaded by oak trees. Pastures defined by board fences gives the impression of Kentuckys Bluegrass Region. Evidence of the areas former role as a major tobacco-growing area is difficult to discern today. Current US 90 diverts south of the original 1920s alignment of the Old Spanish Trail until Wellborn, where it rejoins the original alignment to Tallahassee.
Lake City to Tallahassee
Twelve miles west of Lake City and north of US 90 is a rare section of the 1920s Old Spanish Trail roadway. The town of Wellborn, population 2,597, is situated along the tracks of the former Pensacola & Georgia Railroad. Much of its right-of-way, charted in 1856 from Lake City to Pensacola, became the path of the Old Spanish Trail. South of the railroad tracks, along E. 8th Street, is a brick section of the Florida State Highway 1 and the Old Spanish Trail. Though only 2/10ths of a mile, the short segment provides an authentic feel of a vintage highway with its narrow nine-foot roadway and grass shoulders. The road continues to the east beyond First Avenue for 7/10ths of a mile, terminating at a barricade. Beyond, the old road continues on private property. Gazing down this moss-covered corridor gives a glimpse of how the Old Spanish Trail must have appeared in the 1920s.
The Real Spanish Trail
Despite the highway associations claim, the Old Spanish Trails link to historic Spanish Colonial roads was tenuous. However, the stretch across Floridas Panhandle roughly follows a historic Spanish Colonial mission trail from St. Augustine to Tallahassee. This Spanish trail is believed to approximate Hernando De Sotos 1539 route through Floridas interior. Referred to as the Spanish Trail or St. Augustine Road, the 1920s auto highway ran north of this historic trail.
The Spanish Colonial road, like the modern highway, started in St. Augustine, heading north to Piccolata, near present-day Bayard, where it forded the St. Johns River six miles south of Green Cove Springs. From there it moved in a southwest direction to Santa Fe Lake at Melrose. It then headed toward Fairbanks, Alachua, High Springs and Ichetuckue, following the Suwannee River to Wilmarth, Dowling Park and Monticello, terminating at Mission San Luis in Tallahassee. After Governor Moore destroyed San Luis in 1703 one of 14 mission towns Moore leveled the trail diverted southward to the newly erected St. Marks fort on the Gulf. This new road followed what officially became in 1825 the Bellamy Trail, the first Anglo-American road across Florida.
The 1939 Florida WPA guide described Live Oak as a town which seems to drowse away more than 11 months of the year, [and] suddenly becomes a hurly-burly city, crowded with thousands of visitors, during the first two weeks of August. The oldest and largest bright-leaf tobacco market in Florida, it has 6 auction warehouses at which are sold 11,000,000 pounds of tobacco in 1938, approximately four-fifths of the states crop.
Today, Live Oak, population 6,500, is still Florida's main market for bright-leaf tobacco market a tobacco that is flue- or or fire-cured, after which the leaves turn light yellow to dark orange in color. North of US 90, along the 200 block of North Ohio Avenue, stands the 1903 Union Depot and the 1909 Atlantic Coast Line Freight Station, reflecting the towns prosperous railroad period. Of the same vintage is the 1908-1909 two-story, Italian Villa-style Old Live Oak City Hall, at 12 North Ohio. Unfortunately, the Hotel Suwannee, a large, brick hotel from the Old Spanish Trail period, was razed c.1976. Representing the highways influence is a handsome Mission Revival-style service station on the south side of US 90, locally called Howard Street.
The early alignment of Old Spanish Trail most likely headed west out of town on Railroad Street. West of Live Oak, US 90 passes through a sparsely settled landscape characterized by contrasting oak openings and pine plantations.
Ten miles west of Live Oak is the tiny community of Falmouth, formerly known as Peacock Springs. According to tradition, Colonel Duval renamed the hamlet after his favorite pointer, Falmouth, killed on a hunting trip. A small park is somewhat hidden on the south side of US 90. A series of wooden steps lead down to a natural pool, part of an underground stream that is a tributary of the Suwannee River. It is probable that this oasis was a stopping point along the Old Spanish Trail, as its refreshing water still soothes the road-weary traveler.
Ellaville on the Suwannee River is the meeting of the historic St. Augustine Road and the twentieth century automobile trail. A boomtown of the late 1800s, once boasting a population of 1,000, Ellaville today is little more than a collection of abandoned houses and a roadside park. The town named after a servant of Governor George F. Drew, once boasted a large sawmill built by the governor in 1868. Lumber was sent down river from this point to market before the railroad arrived. Declining in the early 1900s, the town succumbed to multiple floods, finally closing its post office in 1942. The ruins of the sawmill and the governors mansion are still evident.
The Suwannee River Park Store just west of the river dates to the Old Spanish Trail period. Roadside entrepreneur Henry Charles Noegel constructed the concrete store in 1928. There he operated a Gulf filling station, store, café and post office. Nearby, Noegels famous Camp Suwannee, a campground for vacationists and travelers, offered free campsites and cottages. Though today without windows or doors, because of its solid construction the former store still stands.
Just east of the store begins a long concrete approach to the abandoned Hillman Bridge. Constructed in 1925-26, by the R.H.H. Blackwell Co. of East Aurora, N.Y., the four-span through truss bridge is one of the last truss spans surviving along the Old Spanish Trail, and the only one in Florida. Just a year after its construction, a massive flood deluged Ellaville, halting traffic for more than ten days.
Madison is one of the most pleasing towns along the Old Spanish Trail in Florida. Its oak-shaded streets, fine Southern plantation-style homes, and prominent courthouse square provide an air of timelessness. At the intersection of US 90 and North Range Street is a block-long, two-story Colonial Revival complex housing an antique dealer and the Manor House bed-and-breakfast. During the Old Spanish Trail period this c.1883 brick edifice housed the Madison Hotel, a fine hostelry offering steam heat and air cooling. Just south of the Manor House and fronting US 90 is a long, concrete colonnaded building a bit down on its luck. Years ago travelers stopped here to stay at the Hancock Hotel, another popular rest stop along the Trail. Three blocks west, at 103 North Washington Street, is a c.1860, two-story Greek Revival building that served as a hospital following the Battle of Olustee.
At Greenville, a small town historically built around several lumber mills, stands one of the last country hotels along the Old Spanish Trail in Florida. The Bishop-Andrews Hotel at 109 Redding Street, is a grand three-story Queen Anne house with wraparound porch and stacking gables. Functioning as a hotel until 1954, the building was recently restored and is now open as the Grace Manor Bed and Breakfast Inn. West of Greenville, black gum and cypress trees border the highway.
US 90 spans the Aucilla River on a 1930s concrete bridge. In 1928, Charlie Hamilton, a half-breed Creek Indian chief, set up a roadside stand west of the bridge. There he sold maple and white-oak baskets made by members of his tribe living in a camp several miles down river.
A few miles to the south is the location of a Spanish plantation established in 1640. From the plantation, consignments of honey, dried venison, salted wild turkeys, corn, and deer hides were sent to St. Augustine for use in the city and as supplies for Spanish ships. (Florida WPA Guide).
Monticello, described by the Old Spanish Trail guide as a nice old southern city, lives up to this description. Founded in the early 1800s by planters from Georgia and the Carolinas, Monticello boasts a large historic district of predominantly nineteenth century Greek Revival, Victorian and Classical Revival homes. As a result of fires in 1875 and 1886, most of Monticellos commercial buildings date from the late nineteenth century and are constructed of brick. Placed right in the center of the intersection of US 90 and US 19 is the Jefferson County Courthouse, creating a traffic circle a rare occurrence along the Old Spanish Trail. In the center of the circle is the 1909 Neo Classical-style courthouse modeled after Thomas Jeffersons home in Monticello, Virginia.
Across the courthouse circle is the 1890 Perkins Opera House, built during Monticellos boom years. A new railroad spur to town brought anticipation of resort trade from Northern tourists wintering in Monticello. The boom soon faded and Monticello returned to its role as a rural county seat, which accounts for the large stock of extant nineteenth century buildings.
US 90 continues as West Washington Street to Tallahassee. Just beyond Monticello the highways right-of-way bursts with the color of pink crepe myrtles, planted as part of a Depression-era road beautification program. In 1932, Fred Mahan, owner of the Monticello Nursery Company (the second largest ornamental shrubbery and shelled pecan nursery in the southeast) donated thousands of plants to be planted along the highway. Two years later, the Coastal Roads Company of Miami started an ambitious program to beautify US 90 between Monticello and Tallahassee. The project employed 35 work relief laborers who earned 30 cents an hour. Along the right-of-way they planted nearly 40,000 specimens, including pyracantha, arbor vitae, liqustrum, crepe myrtle and palms. The eight-year, 25-mile-long project is the most impressive road beautification effort along the Old Spanish Trail. In his honor, the section of highway was named Fred Mahan Drive in 1953. The roadside landscape continues to be maintained and delights the traveler with its brilliant show of color.
The black and white historical photos in this section come from the Florida Photographic Collection of the Florda State Archives: www.floridamemory.com