February 7, 2015 2 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

From EU Jacksonville and written by Erin Thursby.

Traveling through Arlington today, you might be surprised by its rich history and former cultural distance from Jacksonville proper. Geographically, some of its elevated land makes it unusual for North Florida. For early residents, that high land meant beautiful views and excellent drainage, a highly valued commodity when it came to public health through the 1900s.

Kalem players 2

Like a lot of the land around the St. Johns River, Arlington shows evidence of human occupation by Native Americans, dating as far back as 5000 B.C. The most notable evidence in Arlington is several Indian mounds, such as the Shields Mound, a hill so large that it was often taken for one of the bluffs common to the area. The remains of the mound can be found off Ft. Caroline Road and Hartsfield. The mound stood in the Gilmore settlement, was owned by a Mr. Shields, and was excavated by Clarence B. Moore in 1895 or 1896. Moore excavated a number of mounds throughout Florida, and because the mound was so large (summit plateau of 115 by 133 feet with a diameter of 214 feet), he only partially excavated it, finding evidence of both a midden and human burial. Today, according to local historian Cleve Powell, you can also find the giant Grant Mound near the Church of Latter Day Saints off of Ft. Caroline on the river.

Although there is some argument about where the French settlement of Ft. Caroline stood, you can find Fort Caroline National Memorial across the river, north of Arlington. It commemorates the some of the earliest recorded European settlers in America, before they were routed by the Spanish in 1565.

Plantation Period

The Kingsley Plantation isn’t in Arlington (it can be found near Ft. George) but the legacy of Zephaniah Kingsley certainly influenced the Arlington area. Though Kingsley was a slave owner, he was remarkably progressive, allowing slaves to earn money during their “off hours.” He married one of his slaves, Anna Madgigine Jai.
After his death in 1843, his widow lived on land in Arlington, as did the daughters of Anna and Zephaniah. Both of Kingsley’s daughters married local white men and settled in the Arlington area, pre-Civil war.

One of the men who married a Kingsley daughter was John H. Sammis, an up-and-comer who managed the Strawberry Mill and Plantation in Arlington. The hydraulic mill was powered by a dam at the junction of Red Bay and Strawberry Creek, creating a kind of “island” you can see today at Tree Hill. A letter survives from the owner of the Strawberry Creek Mill and Plantation, Francis Richard II, to Sammis in which he is asked to keep the workers from “going to Jacksonville often…as they will only learn vices, and probably no good.” This attitude speaks to the rural isolation of Arlington at the time. It was a much smaller community than Jacksonville, and because only hired boats connected it to the city, Arlington was necessarily self-contained.
Sammis owned slaves, but he was passionately against secession from the Union, so much so that he even helped set up a Florida government opposed to secession. Though Florida did break from the Union, it was a state divided. When Sammis made his views publicly known, he had to flee the area, fearing that his life was in danger from loyal Confederates.
Union troops did occupy Jacksonville on and off during the war since the Confederates were spread thin, but since they sometimes lost territory their strategy was often less about keeping a position and more about destroying the resources the Confederacy might use, and vice versa. Before the war the business of Arlington was devoted to plantation lands and sawmills. In 1850 Arlington saw the assembly of the first steam-powered saw mill in North Florida at Empire Point (then known as Hazzard’s Bluff). Like all the sawmills and many of the plantations in the area, it was destroyed by soldiers before the end of the war.

Arlington Eggleston School 1916

Eggleston school from AVF

Oranges, Winter Homes & Religious Communities

From Reconstruction in the 1870s through about 1900, Arlington became part of the winter home and resort movement of Florida. Northerners built winter homes and resorts for tourists. As odd as it might seem today, religious communities sprang from the resort movement. Real estate promoters marketed to Christians, encouraging them to buy land in Arlington, as a winter retreat surrounded by like-minded residents. Most of the members of the Clifton and Eggleston religious-based communities hailed from New Jersey.
William Matthews formed the Arlington Bluff Association, which did seek out Christian buyers. The relative isolation of Arlington was a selling point, but it was also a deterrent, so the Association provided a steamer which took four daily trips to Jacksonville as an enticement for Northerners. Matthews was also part of Arlington’s other major endeavor of the time, the profitable orange groves which surrounded his estate.

Other communities consisting of freed slaves also made their homes in Arlington, and some of the ancestors of those slaves still live in the area today, although a great many lost their land to unscrupulous developers in later eras.

When it came to tourism, North Florida began to lag behind the rest of the state by the late 1890s for a couple of reasons. First, disaster came in the form of the Great Freeze in 1894-95, with another bad winter in ‘99. William Matthew’s orange groves, along with all the others in Arlington, withered and died. News of this freeze and the devastation of the North Florida citrus industry made South Florida more attractive. The freeze had another effect: it dropped property values. When the citrus industry in North Florida froze over, never again to heat up to its former glory, it devastated the local economy. Suddenly, buying a winter home in North Florida didn’t seem like such a good investment. Added to that was the completion of the railway down the state to Key West, and the lure of Southern Florida.

There were some efforts to connect Arlington to the Southbank via railroad tracks across the Arlington River. This section of tracks was only in use from 1893 to 1895, because of low revenue, and by 1900 was dismantled. During the five years it wasn’t in use by the railway, local historian Cleve Powell says that individuals used mechanical handcarts on the track to run mail and packages to the inhabitants of the area. The railway company responsible for this bit of line, JM & P, had the unfortunate nickname of “Jump, Men & Push Railroad” because on one of its first runs the engine stalled on one of the nearby bluffs Arlington is known for. The male passengers had to get out and push it over the hill. JM & P ran twice a day starting in 1888, from Arlington to Mayport (specifically in the bounds of what is now Hannah Park), stopping at Eggleston, Verona, Cohasset and Gilmore (all of these are small neighborhoods within what is considered Arlington today).

While development was spurred in other areas after the Jacksonville’s Great Fire in 1901, because of Arlington’s placement and lack of a direct bridge connection, it was largely unaffected, though residents did have a view of the evolving Jacksonville skyline, as Downtown was rebuilt, better and higher than ever.

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