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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 E.O. Fertilizer Company was one of many industries located near the present day Acosta Bridge and McCoys Creek culvert. The fertilzer company was owned by Edward Okle Painter, a New York born agriculturalist.  E.O. Painter also operated The Florida Agriculturalist printing company which started in Jacksonville but is now in Deleon Springs, FL and still in operaton. Courtesy of the State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/53025

By the time the McCoys Creek Improvement Project was completed on September 11, 1930, $610,000 had been spent by the City of Jacksonville to bulkhead the creek, construct seven bridges, and park. In addition, the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad contributed $50,000 for a new concrete railroad bridge crossing the new channel and McCoys Creek Boulevard.

Quote
"The creek whose waters once made myriad lakes and stagnant pools is harnessed into a channel and the channel takes its cargo of water to the St. Johns River.

Cleared away now are the swamps where once mosquitoes were hatched to swarm out at night in search of human blood.  Now there is a beautiful lake and many acres of wonderful park land available for the city."
Source: Wild M'Coys Creek Is Put Into Channel, Jacksonville Journal, 9/11/30


This image taken shortly after the improvement project shows a McCoys Creek bordered by little vegetation in Brooklyn.


McCoys Creek through Brooklyn in 1946. Courtesy of State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/33832


A wide McCoys Creek can be seen separating the Dennis Street warehouse district from North Riverside in 1950.


The Impact of Neglect

Like Klutho's Hogans Creek project, this grand greenway was not meant to last.  Time would quickly prove that the great dreams and deeds of Jacksonville's political and cultural leaders of yesteryear were not reciprocated by future generations. With no continuing maintenance, McCoys Creek quickly fell victim to the industrial environment it stimulated and was meant to support. While the creek is approximately 3.48 miles long, its 5.34 square mile drainage area was arguably home to the highest concentration of heavy industrial facilities within Duval County. Stretching as far south as Murray Hill and north to Grand Crossings, run off from large factories and railyards such as Tropical Glass & Box Company, the Jacksonville Terminal Company, and West Jax yards drained into the channelized creek years before the creation of United States Environmental Protection Agency (1970) and the Clean Water Act (1972).


This Sanborn map highlights the location of Draper's chicken processing plant in relation to the McCoys Creek Improvement Project.  Also illustrated is the location of the original mendering McCoys Creek.

If that wasn't bad enough, major pollution occurred from industries lining the creek in North Riverside, where neighbor children used to swim in the once untamed creek. For years, North Riverside residents complained about animal blood running off into the creek from the adjacent Draper's Egg & Poultry Company's chicken processing plant on McCoys Creek Boulevard. This now defunct company gained a lot of attention when in 1978, as a part of his workdays program, Governor Bob Graham spent a full day cutting the hearts and livers out of chickens at Drapers. A few blocks east, stood the Jones-Chambliss meat packing plant, whose waste flowed into the creek.  To top it off, the City of Jacksonville operated a municipal solid waste incinerator on the banks of the creek from the 1940s until the 1960s. Being fouled by an incinerator, meat packers, poultry processors, and other industrial polluters have turned this public amenity into one of the dirtiest waterways in Duval County. Furthermore, 82 years of poor maintenance, bulkhead failures, downed trees, trash, and heavy silting have made the channel difficult to navigate, according to its original design.  


Westbrook Creek, feeding McCoys Creek at Hollybrook Park.  Hollybrook Park separates North Riverside from Lackawanna. The City acquired the park’s north three-quarters from the developer in 1922, and the south quarter from four different parties between 1922-52. The Hollybrook neighborhood, developed in 1921 and 1926, surrounds much of the park. It remained a large passive park until the period 1975-79, when a softball field, tennis courts, barbecue grills, and benches were added. The park winds in a north-south direction, following Westbrook Creek in the upper part before it joins McCoys Creek in the lower portion.


Recently installed playground equipment in Hollybrook Park just north of the Leland Street Bridge.




McCoys Creek Boulevard originally connected Hollybrook Park with Myrtle Avenue.  The boulevard was a part of McCoys Park, which was a result of 29 acres of original creek bed and wetlands being filled.  Similar to a century ago, this area is notoriously known for severe flooding.


In 2007, this 1,330' long multiuse path was constructed within the McCoys Creek Greenway (originially McCoys Park) as a part of the McCoys Creek pond project.  If the mobility plan and fee structure is allowed to operate, the fee will generate funds necessary to make the McCoys Creek Greenway a part of a trail network that would connect downtown Jacksonville with the Baldwin Trail.  As apart of the pond project, two large ponds in the vicinity of King Street were constructed to help alleviate flooding in the area.  A third pond is proposed on former Linde Company property on Stockton Street. Linde manufactured Liquid oxygen and acetylene acid gas dating back to the 1930s.




The King Street Bridge.


The now closed Smith Street Bridge once connected McCoys Creek Boulevard with Heywood Dowling Drive, at the steps of what was the old Technical High School.  Smith Street, north of McCoys Creek was removed and replaced with this pond (below) in 2007.




The former Technical High School.  For many years, this area was home to a "lover's lane."


Looking at Corbett Street from Stockton Street in 1954.  The bulkhead of naviagable McCoys Creek is clearly visible to the right.  Liberty Marine Services now occupies the buildings in the image.
Courtesy of the State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/167539



The Stockton Street Bridge.


The remains of what was once a large reservoir for flood waters and basin for barges and boats just east of Stockton Street.




Over the last decade, a failed bulkhead and continuous flooding has resulted in the stretch of the greenway between Osceola and Copeland Streets reverting back into wetlands.


After eight decades of neglect and silting, Joseph E. Craig's vision of an inland waterway for barges and sport boating can still be seen from the Cash Building Materials bridge.


Cash Building Materials is one of the largest companies still operating in the Dennis Street Warehouse District.




Jones-Chambliss Meat Packing Company on Forest Street in 1949.  This slaughterhouse opened one block south of McCoys Creek in 1937. In 1966, the company expanded its complex with the construction and opening of Henry's Hickory House, a meat and bacon slicing plant, on the opposite side of railroad.  In 1988, the Goedert family sold the entire meat processing complex to William "Billy" Morris. Courtesy of the State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/52878


In 2001, the business produced 600,000 pounds of bacon week or more than 31 million pounds annually. Today, Henry's Hickory House is Florida's largest bacon producer. However, the original slaugtherhouse and cattle pens that drained into McCoys Creek are gone.  Instead, Henry's buys the pork bellies, then does the rest of the process at the North Riverside facility.

The company also has a plant in Georgia that produces Bubba Burgers, the official hamburger of the Jacksonville Jaguars.  In early 2012, William "Billy" Morris purchased another Jacksonville landmark company, Peterbrooke Chocolatier.



The site of the former Forest Street Incinerator.
Quote
The former Forest Street incinerator site occupies approximately 10.5 acres in an area of mixed residential and industrial land use, approximately one mile west of Jacksonville's central business district. The City of Jacksonville operated the Forest Street municipal incinerator from the 1940s until the 1960s. Although some of the ash waste was taken to other dump sites for disposal, a considerable amount was apparently deposited at and near the incinerator location. The former incinerator area is now enclosed by a chain link fence to prevent access. The site also includes adjoining land used or potentially affected by waste handling or ash disposal activities, including the present location of the Forest Park Head Start School on the west portion of the site and a city park facility in the south portion of the site.
http://www.flickr.com/photos/grifray/384912781/


The Atlantic Coast Line Railroad spent $50,000 in 1930 to construct this concrete bridge over McCoys Creek and McCoys Creek Boulevard.  Today, the structure is still used by CSX.



The Myrtle Avenue Bridge.


Lee Street Viaduct with Prime Osborn Convention Center in background.


Failing bulkhead in the vicinity of Riverside Avenue.


Inside the 800' long Riverside Avenue culvert.



Despite the cleanup challenges ahead, a visit to the creek enables one to visualize the vision of Jacksonville residents eight decades ago and hope for the future.

Source: Wild M'Coys Creek Is Put Into Channel, Jacksonville Journal, 9/11/30

Article by Ennis Davis




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17 Comments

fieldafm

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

Noone

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.

thelakelander

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?







Overstreet

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.

stephendare

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?

thelakelander

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

thelakelander

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.

fonz

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.

avonjax

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

thelakelander

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 - http://berriencounty.smugmug.com/Families/Fletcher-Griner/Gress/2518595_X2jHPG/1/132293633_b5dxz#!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:

http://grantpark.org/history

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. http://www.shaylocomotives.com/data/lima/sn-419.htm

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:

Quote
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.

http://genforum.genealogy.com/gress/messages/67.html


Also an interesting story from the New York Times:

ABDUCTED HIS HALF SISTER: Morgan Gress Arrested for Obeying Instructions Given Him By His Father
http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=F20E10F8355911738DDDAB0994DF405B8785F0D3
 

fonz

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.

spuwho

November 28, 2012, 01:23:54 AM
Lake,

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.

JaxNative68

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.

thelakelander

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.

ricker

November 28, 2012, 03:53:06 PM
Lake,
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!

GoldenEst82

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.
 ;D
I'm so happy to hear this side of town's history, and to see that other people care about it.
Fabulous Job!!

Slankinship

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