Saturday, May 31, 2008

18. St. Augustine - our oldest city

We learned in school about Chris Columbus discovering America in 1492. Nearly 30 years later, a group of settlers was greeted by friendly Indians when they landed at Plymouth Rock. They shared a Thanksgiving dinner of turkey, corn-on-the-cob and pumpkin pie. My memory is a little hazy, but it was something like that. I also vaguely remember the name Ponce de Leon, but the history books didn’t give him the credit he deserved for his role in the history of Florida and the U.S. Here’s a little background:

Columbus landed in the West Indies and never actually reached the mainland. Ponce de Leon accompanied Columbus on his second voyage to the “new world” in 1493. They landed in Hispaniola, now the Dominican Republic. About 15 years later, Ponce was sent to explore and conquer the island that is now Puerto Rico. He succeeded and was appointed governor of the island. He later heard about a garden island called Biminy. It had a fountain of youth. He obtained a permit from King Ferdinand to look for the island. He set out with three ships and landed in what is now St. Augustine on Easter Sunday, 1513, thinking it was the island of Biminy. He named the land La Florida (the flower) and claimed the territory for Spain.

Near his landing location, Ponce de Leon found a large spring and a band of extremely health Timucuan Indians. They drank the water, lived twice as long as the average Spaniard, and grew to an average height well over six feet (Ponce was 4’-11”). He believed he had found the “Fountain of Youth.” He didn’t know that it was tribal tradition that the tallest man married the tallest woman and they gradually created a tall tribe. Ponce took vast amounts of the water back to Puerto Rico to drink and bathe in, and he lived 61 years, which was old for that time. He might have lived longer, but he died of an infection from a wound following a struggle with the Calusa Indians. They didn’t want Spanish settlers moving into their territory on the west coast of Florida and fought long and hard to keep them out.

Today, the Fountain of Youth Park is an interesting collection of historical data about Ponce de Leon’s life and discoveries, as well as the story of the Timucuan Indians. A celestial planetarium explains early astrological sailing techniques that Ponce used to find his way around, and there's a monument at the original landing site (photo). The spring has been preserved and all visitors get a free cup of water. We feel much younger now.

The first settlement of St. Augustine took place about 50 years after Ponce de Leon’s first visit. Another Spanish explorer, Pedro Menendez de Aviles, brought soldiers, priests and colonists to the site in 1565 and established what is now the oldest continually occupied European settlement in North America. During the next couple hundred years, the British, French and Spanish fought over the territory. In an attempt to save the city, walls and moats were built around it. The original gates to the city have been preserved (photo). Still, the city changed hands several times. Many settlers died and the community was burned down or severely damaged by Sir Francis Drake and others before finally becoming part of Florida and the United States.
We took the trolley tour of the city, did the walking tour of the old section and saw the oldest schoolhouse, oldest drugstore, first Catholic church and many other interesting buildings. The oldest house (below) was originally built in 1650 and rebuilt after the city was burned down in 1702.
The oldest masonry fort in the U.S. is the Castillo de San Marcos. It dates back to 1672 and is still standing solid on the waterfront. It was built with coquina, a soft shellrock formation that was mined nearby. The rock is full of shells and gets very hard when exposed to air. It was used extensively for foundations, walls, sidewalks and other purposes. A similar building material called tabby used oyster shells in its mix and was used primarily for walls.

Downtown St. Augustine is a grid of narrow streets. One street is only six feet wide. St. George Street (below) has been turned into a pedestrian-only street and is full of shops and restaurants. The less busy residential streets are quiet and full of character. Preservation is a high priority in St. Augustine. Strict design controls make sure that new development doesn’t corrupt the character of the town.
The most influential of early St. Augustine developers was Henry Flagler. He was also a railroad pioneer and co-founder of Standard Oil (with J.D. Rockefeller). The Flagler name is everywhere. One of his greatest achievements was construction of the Hotel Ponce de Leon. It was built in 1887 with amazing craftsmanship and intended for the rich and famous. Many Tiffany windows still surround the dining hall. Ornate murals, tile and hand-carved woodwork are everywhere. This was one of the first major buildings wired for electricity by Thomas Edison himself. The clock above the fireplace was made and installed by Edison. The hotel was originally wired for DC current and visitors were getting shocked. Since that wasn't acceptable, Flagler hired a staff whose only job was to turn light switches on and off. The hotel eventually deteriorated and was purchased by Flagler College which spent $23 million restoring the building. Today, it’s a beautiful showplace and a great campus for the 2,000 student private college.

A couple miles outside St. Augustine is Anastasia Island with long beautiful beaches. We packed the sunscreen, beach chairs, towels, sunglasses, etc., and set out for an afternoon of cooling off in the surf.
As we were leaving the beach, a big storm cloud was building off the coast. It dropped two tornado type funnels, like long black hoses. It was well off shore but caught the attention of everyone on the beach and even made the evening news on Jacksonville TV. You might be able to see it in the following photo. It got much closer, but we were driving away . . . fast.

On the way to the beach, we stopped at the St. Augustine Lighthouse (1874) and climbed the 219 steps to the top. Great views from up there.

We ended our stay in St. Augustine with a relaxing Memorial Day jazz concert in the plaza. The "Plaza de la Constitucion" was the first public space in the country. It's design was laid out in a 1573 Spanish ordinance that required "a prolonged square, the length equal to one and one-half times the width." The square was intended to be the center of the community with only businesses and churches facing it. Today it's still a beautiful plaza and the center of community activities. We had a great time in St. Augustine and recommend it highly as a vacation destination.