Sniffing Along The Jacksonville Waterfront

July 31, 2009 38 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

During the Summer of 1969, the following editorial by Malcolm Johnson was printed in the Tallahassee Democrat. Mr. Johnson grew up in Jacksonville before moving to Tallahassee in 1937. Fifty years later, it offers us an incredible glimpse into the character of Jacksonville's historic urban waterfront.

A boast, once, that I could sniff my way blindfolded from one end of the Jacksonville waterfront to the other if they hadn't gone and sterilized it into a comely civic center has come to roost.

A friend over there says they're trying to reconstruct the old hometown at various periods of its history for a new Children's Museum, and she challenges my scented memories to help recall Bay Street during the twenties.

Commodore's Point. Today, the same warehouses still stand as a part of the North Florida Shipyards.

I can smell it all now, from the sharp, clean redolence of pine lumber and gum rosin loading at Commodore's Point to the foul stench of guano ships unloading at McGiffin's docks, and the acrid fumes of coal-fueled steam locomotives switching under the Broad Street viaduct.

An image of the railyard from the Broad Street viaduct.

I don't know how they are going to reproduce it for a museum, but it can be done because the Coca Cola exhibit at the most recent New York World's fair took us around the world through the scents of jungles and teeming cities in 30 minutes.

I'd start eastward from Broad Street past the wholesale produce markets with the scent of onions in crocus sacks over-riding the fragrance of fresh vegetables, then to the docks beyond where banana boats were unloading perfumed cargoes.

A shipment of potatoes being stored inside of a waterfront warehouse.

On, then across the street to the Casino theater, from which the fried onions at the hot dog and hamburger stand at the entrance beckoned with as much allure as the shootem-up advertised on the marquis.  Inside, admission 10 cents, hawkers sold peanuts, popcorn, candy up and down the aisle without disturbing anyone's reading of the silent movie titles. (You didn't sit too far down front, unless you didn't mind fat rats darting out of the orchestra pit over your feet to forage for dropped tidbits.)

One the same side of the street was Osky's, a souvenir shop whose tanks of baby alligators and turtles gave an odor all their own to mingle with burning incense.

Back, then, to the south side of the street past Hubbard's hardware store, where an unsold grindstone had stood so long out front that the top side of it had been worn flat by people pausing to sharpen pocket knives.

Hubbard's Hardware on Bay Street. This is the present site of the MODIS Tower.

The ferry slip at the foot of Main Street was an entryway to a clean breathe of fresh air on the Southside, but first you had to clear the fetid stench of fish and floating oil from the shoreline flushed with the sewage of a thriving city.

The ferry slip can be seen from the intersection of Main and Bay Streets.

That odor was stronger as you went eastward on the waterfront past the Red Star market where, for a nickel, you could get a couple of cold wieners to munch out behind where Negroes caught catfish from a rickety dock.

A bartender inside of the Red Star market.

Nearby was Martin's seed and feed store, with puppies always in the window, and a stock of merchandise that put a country boy in mind of the prairie far away.  Seeds smell the same everywhere.

There was the National Lunch, all white and clean, and through the open door drifted the savory fragrance of the specialty - a big bowl of beef stew, 20 cents.

A fish market at the end of Ocean Street. Today, this area is a parking lot for the Jacksonville Landing.

More fish and oil fumes arose through the shanty warehouse (Trenary Fish Company) at the foot of Newnan Street where we used to pick up our quotas of Saturday Evening Post to peddle, and farther along at the dock where the polished fireboat - the John C. Calhoun - was berthed near the venerable Three Friends on which Napoleon B. Broward rode to the governorship with intrepid running of guns for the Cuban revolution.

The Three Friends.

To the big, cleaner docks of the Clyde Line, merchants, miners and P&O passenger ships then, where few cargoes overpowered the rank emanation from stevedores slapping cards down incessantly in a mystifying game of "skin" played atop a stack of cross-ties.

There, if the wind blew from the land, though, the air would be filled with the aroma of roasting coffee at the Maxwell House plant a few blocks north (and it's still there).

The Maxwell Coffee plant is now the downtown waterfront's last link to its industrial past.

The New York Laundry, all steaming, cast off the rancid stench of dirty clothes coming clean as a wandering boy would bend back westward on the north side of the street past the ship chandelries with their keen attar of rope and okum among the glistening brass hardware in the stock.

There was a Kenny's tea and coffee shop on that side, with spiciness that was a pleasure to sniff (we have in our house two nine-sided tea chests which came from that place), and closer to Main Street, Harkisheimer's market and delicatessen with all the delights of good food nidor compounded.

If they're going much further along the waterfront in their exhibit, they should follow the river all the way to Talleyrand, where the fertilizer plants poured a choking fog of sulfur and phosphate fumes into the air to make your eyes water and set you to coughing uncontrollably.

National Container Corporation's Tallyrand paper mill.

There was real pollution in our cities in those days.  You have to think back to realize how bad it was, and how much we have done to clean it up.

So museums shouldn't be too realistic in their reconstruction of the scents of yesteryear. We couldn't stand it.  Let's only recall the pleasanter scents.

Merill-Stevens Shipyards (The Shipyards site).

Images from the State Library & Archives of Florida: