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Lost Jacksonville: McCoys Creek

Today, McCoys Creek is a contaminated afterthought waterway known more for flooding North Riverside residents and businesses. 82 years ago, along with Hogans Creek, it was Jacksonville's answer to the City Beautiful Movement of the early 20th century. Join Metro Jacksonville, as we share the story of Joseph E. Craig's McCoys Creek Improvement project.

Published November 27, 2012 in History      17 Comments    Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article


The forgotten downtown waterway's tribuaries come from Murray Hill and from the former Seaboard Shops in Lackawanna, near McDuff Avenue and Beaver Streets.  A century ago, McCoys Creek was known as a wild, mendering waterway with associated swamps that caused routine flooding in the rapidly growing city.

At the time, editors of the Jacksonville Journal claimed that McCoys Creek was the "biggest swamp in any city the size of Jacksonville in the world."  In the years following the Great Fire, the creek flooded railyards at the city's new train station and Myrtle Avenue on a regular basis. The regular stagnation of water led to health hazards born from mosquito breeding. This environment had already proven deadly to the city via the Yellow Fever Outbreak of 1857.

An 1903 image of McCoys Creek flooding nearby railyards. Couresty of State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory,

As Jacksonville's population rapidly increased, resolving flooding and mosquito-based health hazard concerns associated with McCoys Creek and Hogans Creek became major issues. In 1927, the city approved a $500,000 bond issue to improve Hogans Creek as a response to years of lobbying by the Springfield Improvement Association. With that project finally underway in 1928, the city turned its sights to McCoys Creek. Like Hogans Creek, this project was intended to control and beautify three miles of McCoys Creek. While Henry J. Klutho and city engineer Charles V. Imeson worked to design the Hogans Creek project, city engineer Joseph E. Craig, designed what became known as the McCoys Creek Improvement Project. From Columbus, GA, Craig had graduated from the College of Civil Engineering at Cornell University in 1903 before relocating to Jacksonville.

The Creation of a Shipping Channel

Gress, one of the largest lumber businesses in the south was established by George Valentine Gress.  Gress' planing mill stretched near 1,500 feet along McCoys Creek from the present day CSX "A" Line to Myrtle Avenue. In 1909, Morgan Gress, then company president and son of G.V. Gress, purchased the former Hillman-Sullivan property on McGirts Creek for the construction of a larger mill.  That mill opened in 1912 and remained in business until 1955, when it was destroyed by fire.  Today, that site is in the heart of Jacksonville's Marina Mile.  In later years the McCoys Creek Gress site was operated by a number of industries including Ponsell & Son Lumber Company and Lemacks-Cannon Lumber Company.  Today, the Interstate 95/10 interchange consumes a part of the old planing mill property and the remaining land has reverted back to natural forestry

Despite their similarities,  there was a significant difference in the surrounding context of the two creeks.  While residential uses primarily lined Hogans Creek, McCoys Creek featured more heavy industrial and railroad uses. Some of the earliest industries lining McCoys Creek in the late 19th century included the E.E. Cain Sawmill, and George Valentine Gress' Gress Manufacturing Company. Of interesting note, G.V. Gress donated the animals to start of the Atlanta Zoo in Grant Park and his house was the original Tara of "Gone with the Wind." To better promote commerce along the waterway, Craig designed the channel to allow the creek to serve as an 36' wide inland waterway for sport boating and barges, drawing five feet of water, to ship products from adjacent industries.

Newly completed McCoys Creek bulkhead and Riverside Avenue culvert in 1930.

Both the Hogans and McCoys Creek Improvement Projects were manifestations of the City Beautiful Movement in Jacksonville. The City Beautiful Movement was an urban planning reform philosphy that flourished during the 1890s and early 1900s. The movement emerged in response to the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The fundamental idea was that the city was no longer a symbol of economic development and industrialization, but could now be seen as enhancing the aesthetic environment of its many inhabitants. However, City Beautiful was not solely concerned with aesthetics. The term ‘beautility’ derived from the American City Beautiful philosophy, meant that the beautification of a city must also be functional. When it came to McCoys Creek, Craig's design intended to control flooding and eliminate health hazards while also serving as the centerpiece for a linear greenway and inland shipping channel to stimulate economic development.

After Dr. M.B. Herlong, chairman of the city commission, signed a $415,000 contract with the Walter J. Bryson Company to channelize the creek, work commenced on December 27, 1928. As a part of the project, new stayed-girder and reinforced concrete bridges at Edison, Fitzerald, King, Leland, Myrtle, and Stockton Streets replaced againg 19th century wood-frame bridges over the mendering creek.  In addition, 29 acres of wetlands and former creek bed were filled to become a two-mile linear public park. Known as McCoys Park, the green space also included the construction of the two-mile McCoys Creek Boulevard. Furthermore, near the heavily developed St. Johns River waterfront, an 800' long concrete culvert was constructed to reroute the channelized creek under the Jacksonville Traction Company car barn and the Atlantic Coast Line Railway's terminal.

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November 27, 2012, 07:01:07 AM
WOW, great history Ennis!


November 27, 2012, 07:08:40 AM
You can actually see the 1929 marker when entering the perverbial light at the end of the tunnel.
Thanks for the history lesson.


November 27, 2012, 08:20:04 AM
Looking at aerials it appears for whatever reason, we let Craig's original reservoir silt to the point of being ineffective.  What is the reason for building additional ponds instead of dredging the creek?


November 27, 2012, 08:42:13 AM
Who owns the creek? 

They (Bldg Dept, SJWM, etc)  can force the owner of a project to build a seperate pond in that project property  easier than maintaining drainage systems on other's property..  How many agencies would be involved with cleaning out this treed wetland?

 There likely isn't any private entitity that will directly benefit from this clearing willing to put time and effort into getting it done.


November 27, 2012, 08:51:32 AM
Can you even imagine what would happen to the downtown if both these waterways were restored?  Hogan and McCoys?

How far away from Alex Coley's project does the creek run, Ennis?


November 27, 2012, 08:58:29 AM
About three blocks.  It's immediately adjacent to 220 Riverside's proposed neighbor, Riverside Place.


November 27, 2012, 09:01:15 AM
Who owns the creek? 

They (Bldg Dept, SJWM, etc)  can force the owner of a project to build a seperate pond in that project property  easier than maintaining drainage systems on other's property..  How many agencies would be involved with cleaning out this treed wetland?

 There likely isn't any private entitity that will directly benefit from this clearing willing to put time and effort into getting it done.

The City of Jacksonville owns most of the greenway surrounding the creek.  The three ponds (one is in Murray Hill) COJ constructed a few years back were all located in existing COJ parks.


November 27, 2012, 11:12:33 AM
Wow.  Morgan Gress was my great grandfather.  My family still owns a tiny vacant parcel on Myrtle Ave.  My grandfather passed before I was born and my father passed when I was in high school so I never learned the history of how we ended up with that property.  Could you point me in the direction of your research for this story?  I believe Margaret Mitchell (my fourth cousin I was told) was GV Gress' niece and that is how Tara came to be.  Sadly, my father and his cousins sold the house and property in the late 80's.  About the same time we sold the old Roosevelt Mall which is where the labor camp for the second Gress mill was located.


November 27, 2012, 11:56:13 AM
I went to Technical High School and when it rained watch out. It smelled bad too.


November 27, 2012, 12:27:37 PM
Cool story fonz. 

Over the years I've gotten pretty good at quickly digging up forgotten history.  All I typically need is a name/city or map to begin.

George Valentine Gress -!i=132293633&k=b5dxz

I first came across the Gress Mill by first looking at properties along McCoys Creek in various Sanborn maps in the main public library's Special Collections Department.  My goal at the time was to identify a few businesses that lined the creek in the late 19th century.

I then wrote the names of some of the major sites and then ran google searches to see what potential hits and images would pop up.  For Gress, "Gress Manufacturing Company" was my initial keyword.  I already know Gress had a large facility near Ortega, so I went back to Metro Jacksonville's Marina Mile article to get the blurb on that site.  The names G.V. Gress and Morgan Gress came up several times during various searches and I was able to trace George Valentine Gress back to Atlanta, where their zoo today still mentions his contribution to their existence:

With that said, some of the best information came from various century old lumber trade journals that had been scanned on Google.  Those old journals have everything from building permits and company incorporation information, to correspondence from Morgan Gress himself. That's how I found the link between the McCoys Creek site and Ortega.

A picture of an SN-419 locomotive constructed in 1892 and owned by Gress Manufacturing Company in the early 1920s.

There is another link I think you'll like but I'll have to dig a little harder to find it.  It had a ton of photos from the Gress Mill in Ortega in 1915.  Anyway, here are a few more that I just came across:

This one sheds some detail on the adult relationship between G.V. Gress and Morgan Gress:

Morgan Valentine Gress eloped with Eugenia Stephens, niece of Alexander Stephens, and was subsequently disineherited by his father, George Valentine Gress. Morgan was the second son. The older brother was John Hart Gress who ultimately lived and died in California.

Morgan and Eugenia founded a lumber city in southern Georgia near the Okefenokee swamp and ran the mill until the great fire in Jacksonville, Florida in 1901. They picked up and moved to Jacksonville to help rebuild the city. Morgan became instrumental in starting various charities (Community Chest, drive for WWI and WWII bonds, etc.) as well as helping the Daughters of Charity to start St. Vincent's Hospital.

His older borthe had left home and refused to help his parents when they became ill, so Morgan and Eugenia took care of his parents until their death.

They had 4 daughters, 2 of whom died shortly after birth. The oldest daughter, Alix, married a number of times but had 3 children by Morgan Sellars - Alexandra and Abigail Morgan who live in Ponte Vedra, Florida, and Peter, who committed suicide at an early age. The younger daughter, Gretchen, married Fontaine LeMaistre and had 4 sons, 2 of whom died shortly after birth. Fontaine LeMaistre III died suddenly in 1996, leaving 7 children. George V. Gress LeMaistre has 3 children and lives in Jacksonville, Florida.

George V. Gress left his Atlanta home to his son, Morgan. It has subsequently been acquired by the State of Georgia. It was the original "Tara" of Margaret Mitchell's "Gone with the Wind", which was written as a composite of various friends, family and acquaintances of the Stephens family, of which she was part.

Also an interesting story from the New York Times:

ABDUCTED HIS HALF SISTER: Morgan Gress Arrested for Obeying Instructions Given Him By His Father


November 27, 2012, 01:45:50 PM
Thanks Lake.  You have shared some pieces of my family hisotry of which I was unaware.  I look forward to delving into some of these links.  As you probably guessed, I am Fontaine LeMaistre IV.


November 28, 2012, 01:23:54 AM

Good research, good read, good write up. It is great that there are living connections to Jax history like this.

I agree with Stephen, how could such a great legacy built up by the city fathers be left to rot?

On the flip side, dredging McCoy's Creek based on what you have written here would no doubt pull up some undesirable stuff, probably worthy of federal scrutiny. 

This might explain some of the collective civic ignorance from Stockton Street all the way to the St John's. Keep people away from the risks and try to let nature resolve it. Unfortunately some of the compounds used back then (lead, phosphates, creosote) can't go away naturally, it would have to be removed.


November 28, 2012, 02:15:04 PM
I don't see the restoration of these creeks as a catalyst of downtown growth, but quite the opposite.  I think the density of downtown needs to be increased for anyone to consider the financial burden of the creek restoration, not to mention the industrial area surrounding the creeks would have to be relocated, prior to building a promenade along the banks. Unfortunately in this city, if it is not seen, it is forgotten - and this area goes unseen by for to many.


November 28, 2012, 02:30:21 PM
I don't think we can revitalize downtown by putting it in a bubble and ignoring the impact of the urban neighborhoods surrounding it.  We've been doing that for over 40 years and the results have been pretty bad, despite billions spent. This is one of the reasons why I'm a huge proponent of a starter fixed transit system that begins to tie downtown back with the neighborhoods surrounding it.  Besides, wouldn't money for a creek restoration come from a different funding pot?  It seems, that we should be able to improve downtown and other neighborhoods throughout the city simultaneously and through a variety of funding sources and public policy changes.


November 28, 2012, 03:53:06 PM
your questioning thoughts on re-dredging the overgrown widened portion of the creek vs. more retention ponds deserves an answer!

Your work on this site and for the betterment of this metropolis is staggering!


November 28, 2012, 11:40:51 PM
I drive down McCoy creek blvd regularly, and can clearly see that this boulevard was designed to "be something"- and something beautiful too!
There are some gorgeous 20-30's homes in the area- One I can immediately recall is on the corner of McCoy Creek and Cherokee- and unfortunately the majority of structures will not make it until that area sees attention.

I prowl those older neighborhoods- a drive down Commonwealth from McDuff takes you by School no.21- a fabulous brick school- and Broadway Ave has some brick bungalows that are extremely charming.
I'm so happy to hear this side of town's history, and to see that other people care about it.
Fabulous Job!!


December 06, 2012, 10:54:49 AM
This article is excellent! Thanks for sharing!
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