Fernandina Beach; time-machine magic

(Following is the first of two installments about experiencing the route of the East Coast Greenway between Jacksonville, Florida, and St. Marys, Georgia. © 2010, Herbert L. Hiller, Inc.)

Herb Hiller
Southeast Region Program Consultant

I slipped loose of a century in Fernandina Beach. It wasn’t the historic downtown alone that carried me away. It was arriving by car on a car ferry and leaving by bicycle on a passenger ferry. Everywhere, recycled history and flowers to slow anyone down.

I liked that locals three times had rallied to save the car ferry across the mouth of the St. Johns River at Mayport, and that for the moment it wasn’t at risk. Meanwhile, for the first time in 92 years, the passenger ferry had re-connected Fernandina by water with St. Marys across the state line. Both were part of the East Coast Greenway connecting Georgia through far northeast Florida.

I liked imagining cars as something Americans might be getting over, and bicycles as something we might be getting back to. Ferries of any sort rank high in my magical time machine.

But I’m also realistic. Although one morning I joined a group riding horseback beside the sea, I also knew that Fernandina prefers its horses harnessed to sightseeing buggies and otherwise already relies on non-pooping golf carts for gadding about.

Fernandina Beach at the north end of Amelia Island will also slow you down by its no-fuss attitude toward visitors. Likes ‘em; same as always, but locals guard the town look and pace for themselves. Can you say, Yep?

When more than a century ago Fernandina turned down a bid by Henry Flagler to bring his railroad, it kept its economy focused on timber, fishing and waterborne tourism, which, same as a cross-Florida railroad, it already had. During the Depression, paper mills moved in, and although the town’s Queen Anne mansions got subdivided into apartments, they stayed in place.

More southerly destinations out-performed Fernandina until Amelia Island Plantation started up in the 1970s. At first, land sales agents brought visitors from Jacksonville Airport by a road that avoided Fernandina entirely. Town remained unchanged by tourist marketers.

But after the Ritz-Carlton also opened, along came posh retirement housing that relocated retailing midway to the new scene.

Visitors warmed again to downtown when locals fixed up the historic district. They recycled the Queen Annes as bed-and-breakfasts and put up window boxes. They filled temporarily vacant downtown shops with one-of-a-kind boutiques that they themselves ran.

So that even though a long-in-place net-maker and a men’s clothing store recently closed, art studios and restaurants ranging from family style to high end have continued to open. One grocery became the Eight Flags Antiques Mall, where you find thrifty bargains (maybe a Christmas-colored reversible tablecloth with flowers, a flower pot to match, and happy straw flowers on an old purse for $45 altogether).

Fernandina mutes its self-trumpeting. No big thing Florida House Inn, the oldest continuous lodging in Florida (from 1857, although temporarily closed)), the Fernandina Beach News-Leader Florida’s oldest weekly (from the 1850s), the Palace Saloon the oldest bar (from 1876),

Over and over, Fernandina reveals itself by historical markers instead of by tour trolleys, for example, with their amplified spiel.

And although its historically-styled lamp posts and distinctive street signs mark Fernandina pretty old (also plain old pretty), there’s also Old Fernandina nearby. Markers point out that you’re standing at the site of the last city founded by Spain in the New World, 1811, 246 years after Spain first came ashore.

There’s an open field where part of a fort once occupied a bluff overlooking the Amelia River. A few old houses remain; a few new ones have gone up. Asparagus fern spills over unhinged wooden gates. Cactus winds up house sides, Virginia creeper up electric poles.

From the bluff you scan a small work boat tootling toward the harbor. Rusty sheds linger in weedy yards where a pogy plant once out-stank the pulp mills. A dredge keeps the channel clear where pirates once hid up creeks and where privateers exploited a weakening Spain and equally an expansionist early America, until 1821 willing to wait for Florida’s bargain sale.

(to be continued February 27th)

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