Neighborhoods: Clifton

October 5, 2009 10 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Despite being in existence for 136 years and in close proximity to downtown, Clifton remains an isolated and quiet historic waterfront community.

About Clifton

Clifton is a small residential neighborhood across from Empire Point and Oak Haven, where the Arlington River flows into the St. Johns.  For many years the Clifton area was known as "Arlington Bluff" and until recently was considered part of Arlington.  Since the completion of the Arlington expressway in 1953, however, the peninsula of Clifton has been relatively isolated as a separate community.

Settlement of this area began in 1817 when the Spanish government granted Francis Richard a large tract of land along Pottsburg Creek, where he established one of the first water-powered sawmills in Duval County.  Known as Strawberry Mills, Richard's operation there included a lumber mill, cotton gin, and a grits mill.  By 1837, his son turned over the management of Srawberry Mills to John Sammis, a New York ship builder.  Francis Richard II died two years later, and Sammis bought 6,000 acres from Richard's estate, including the mill and Arlington Bluff.  Sammis continued operation of the mill until 1860, when he advertised this land for sale.

The Civil War postponed his sale of the property.  In 1873, it was purchased by the Ocean Grove Association, a New Jersey religious group, which established a sectarian resort on this site.  They used the former Sammis home as a hotel, and divded parts of the property into lots for long-term lease to form pleasant Winter Residences without the inconveniences, undesirable associations and great expenses of ordinary hotel life.  The colony was known as "The Florida Winter Home" and was short-lived, due to its exclesiveness.

William Matthews, a Philadelphia businessman who had put up a large share of the money for the resort, then acquired most of the property and formed the Arlington Bluff Association.  "Christians of all denominations" were invited to come to the new settlement.  A steamer named Clifton, which was owned by the association, made four trips daily to Jacksonville.  The docking point for this boat became known as Clifton Landing, from which the present Clifton subdivision derived its name.

Around 1880, the Matthews family began spending their winters in the house adjacent to the old Sammis residence.  They cultivated an extensive grove of orange trees, loading their oranges onto steamships from a long dock in front of the house.  The devastating freeze of 1895 wiped out most of these trees, but the names of Orange Avenue and Grove Street still commemorate that grove.

The old Clifton cemetary near the corner of Magnolia and Garrison Streets contains the graves of several people associated with the Florida Winter Home, as well as members of the Sammis family.  Also included is one of the oldest tombstones in Duval County, erected in 1841 for Julia C. Baxter, the six-year old granddaughter of Zephaniah Kingsley.

Source: Jacksonville's Architectural Heritage Landmarks for the Future

Clifton Today

Isolated by the Arlington Expressway, yet bordered by two rivers, Clifton has avoided many of the urban ills that plague adjacent neighborhoods.  The neighborhood today is dominated with a mature landscape and a mix of historic and modern custom-built residences, both big and small.

University Blvd. is the main thoroughfare through Clifton, providing a direct connection with the Arlington Expressway and neighborhoods south of the Arlington River.

University Blvd. crossing the Arlington River.

Looking west down Floral Avenue, just west of University Blvd.

John S. Sammis Residence

Located at 207 Noble Street, this residence was constructed by John S. Sammis in the 1850s.

Sammis was born in New York in 1807, and various undocumented stories explain why he moved to Duval County.  One version says that he answered a New York newspaper advertisement placed by Zephaniah Kingsley, who offered lucrative incentives for a white man to marry one of his two daughters by his African wife Anna Jai.  Another explanation states that Sammis came to Florida to work in Kingsley's shipyard.  Whatever the case, it is well established that he married Kingsley's younger daughter, Mary, in about 1830 and became the owner of numerous plantation properties in northeast Florida.  He also owned extensive real estate in downtown Jacksonville, including the Sammis Block, and was an important merchant.

Sammis lived at this residence until the family moved to Mandarin around 1870.  Between 1873 and 1909, the building served as a hotel for the Florida Winter Home and William Matthews' Arlington Bluff Association.  

Looking north along Magnolia Avenue.

Old Clifton Cemetary

The Sayre Residence and Arlington Bluff Store

B.C. Sayre moved to Clifton during the Florida Winter Home era and became storekeeper for the settlement.  Although he referred to this building as a general store, his wife conducted religious services in the upper story.  In addition to his store, Mr. Sayre conducted a "root business," buying up various roots, berries, and leaves gathered in the woods by local black citizens.  He shipped them to the Eli Lilly Company and other pharmaceutical firms.  Ginseng, deer tongue, cherry bark, briar root, vanilla leaves, elder bark, and palmetto berries were among the commodities he sold.  Sayre operated this store until his death in 1900.  Now used as a garage, the building features board-and-batten construction.

source: Jacksonville's Architectural Heritage Landmarks for the Future

The old Sayre Residence (background) and Arlington Bluff store (foreground) can be seen peaking out of the lush landscaping of a private estate.  Both structures were completed in 1883.

Bounded by the St. Johns River, Arlington River and Arlington Expressway, Clifton is located at the south end of Arlington just east of downtown Jacksonville.

Article by Ennis Davis