Historic Mayport Village

March 12, 2010 16 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Metro Jacksonville explores Mayport, a historic fishing village at the mouth of the St. Johns River.

Mayport Village History.

Mayport's history began with the Timucuan Indians, who lived in what is now the southeastern United States for more than 5,000 years.  These Indians developed a high level of technological achievement compared to otherNorth American Indian cultures.  Their life styles were recorded by Jacques Le Moyne, an artist who accompanied French explorer Jean Ribault.  

When Ribault arrived to explore the area of Mayport and the St. Johns River of Northeast Florida, his landing site was Batten Island, across from present day Mayport Village.  Ribault entered the river on the first day of May in 1562 with three ships.  Upon Ribault's arrival he was met by the Timucuans, led by Chief Satouriba.  After a short settlement, the French were expelled by a Spanish force from St. Augustine.  Spain then ruled Florida until 1821 when it was ceded to the United States.

Historians have no recorded date for the original settlement of Mayport Village.  The suggested dates range from 1562 when the French first settled to 1828 when the area really began to grow.  Early settlers of Mayport came from France, Portugal and the island of Minorca.  These people were fishermen and they thrived due to the close proximity of the continental shelf and large quantities of fish.  

Fishing has been the major economic base for the Village, but in the early days Mayport also supported itself through the lumber industry.  Mayport Mills was the name of the fishing village until the end of the Civil War.  Mayport was also a well known resort town during the 1800s, gaining a bold reputation with its hotels, prize fighters and taverns.  Tourists from Jacksonville would cruise down the St. Johns River for a scenic ride along the Mayport coast.  Boats would then dock and the passengers would dine or stay overnight.  

Until 1899, boat transportation was the major access into and out of Mayport.  Since Mayport was important for incoming and outgoing cargo, the Jacksonville and Atlantic Railroad was built to connect Mayport with Jacksonville.  A railroad dock was then built where cargo would be transshipped inland.  The dock stood where the present day U.S. Coast Guard Station now stands.  The railway lasted until 1919 when it was abandoned.  The fishing village became semi-isolated until Word War II with the construction of the U.S. Naval Air Station.

Full Mayport Timeline: http://www.savemayportvillage.net/id5.html

What makes a shrimp a Mayport Shrimp?

It's known to be delicious. But you can't always be sure it's what you're eating.


Because I'm both a new resident of Jacksonville and a food writer, locals haven't been shy in giving me lots of advice on where and what I should eat (who doesn't like to talk about food?).

And the welcomed suggestions, while varied, almost always include a plug for one of the region's culinary staples: Mayport shrimp.

For folks from the Midwest like me, fresh shrimp that didn't come from a fish farm is unheard of. Discovering the joys of recently caught crustaceans has been a real treat.

But ask what Mayport shrimp is, or what makes a shrimp a Mayport shrimp, and you'll likely get some conflicting responses.

Ben Williams, owner of Fisherman's Dock fish markets and a former shrimper, is a bit cynical about the whole Mayport label.

"To call something a Mayport shrimp is both at the same time a lie and a marketing tool because what you're telling the customer is, 'This is Mayport shrimp.' Well, you have to define terms. To say something is a Mayport shrimp tells you nothing."

Mayport, of course, refers to the coastal village east of Jacksonville that is home to about 20 of the state's shrimping boats. Four types of shrimp live in the waters off the coast here, commonly called brown, white, pink and rock shrimp. Brown and white shrimp make up the lion's share of what's caught locally.

Though it seems logical that a Mayport shrimp was caught near Mayport, that might not be the case, said Gerald Pack, owner of Safe Harbor Seafood, a major fish processing plant in Mayport.

"It all depends on where they're finding the shrimp and the size of the boats; the bigger boats stay out for longer trips and could have come from North Carolina or Key West," Pack said.

And just because a shrimping boat sold its bounty to a Mayport plant doesn't mean the boat and crew are local. Processors don't discriminate based on a boat's origin.

To further complicate things, there's nothing to stop a retailer from labeling shrimp processed in other areas such as St. Augustine or Fernandina as Mayports.

Pack said policing such labeling would be "pretty much impossible."

Besides, "It's all the same species of shrimp you're talking about," he said.

Right now, brown shrimp are in season and will be until September, when the whites start dominating the catches. Some rock and pink shrimp, which are found in the deep waters off the coast, are also coming in.

Although the pinks are more common in Florida and waters south of here, the browns, whites and rock shrimp can be found from Norfolk, Va., to Brazil, in an area known as the Caribbean Province, said Quinton White, executive director of the Marine Science Research Institute.

White said it's no wonder Mayports developed such a stellar reputation here.

"For people who had never eaten really fresh shrimp, Mayport shrimp offered something far superior," he said. "There's no doubt when you catch a shrimp and cook it quickly, it is much better than a frozen product."

Williams said he's made a decision in his fish markets not to label any shrimp as Mayports. For him, it makes more sense to call a shrimp a shrimp.

"What people really want to know is, 'Is it fresh, and is it from the East Coast?' "

Safe Harbor Seafood Market and Restaurant


Hours Of Operation
Mon - Sat 10am to 6pm
Closed Sunday

Pick Your Fresh Seafood & Take It Over To The Restaurant Side & Let Us Cook It For You.

Dine-In, Dock Side View Or Take-Out. View Of St. Johns River From The Dockside Of Restaurant.

Enjoy, Crab Cakes, Spinach Cake, Freshly Smoked Seafood & Fish Daily, Snapper & Grouper Available & More


This place has a lot of charm... being able to walk around the expansive market side while waiting for your number to be called was enjoyable - you can see dozens of large fish on ice spread out. They had several varieties I have never even heard of before like Milk fish and Pompano. There is seating outside and inside to enjoy your food. Outside you can see some people's fresh catch of the day being cleaned and chopped up (the scraps being tossed to patiently waiting pelicans) and gaze at some of the old fishing boats.

Mayport Waterfront

The majority of Mayport's waterfont is the proposed site of the controversial JAXPORT cruise terminal. If constructed, the 90,000 square foot terminal would include a 1,400 car capacity parking deck and retail space along Ocean Street. Today, outside of Safe Harbor Seafood and Singleton's Seafood Shack, not much remains along Ocean Street, Mayport's main thoroughfare.


Mayport Union Station, at the zenith of the railroad era at the Jacksonville Beaches, Mayport boasted 3 railroad companies.  First to enter was the Jacksonville and Atlantic Railroad, which ran from South Jacksonville east along the Beach Boulevard alignment to Pablo Beach (early name for Jacksonville Beach), Ruby, and Mayport.  Originally narrow gauge, purchased by the Florida East Coast Railway and converted to standard gauge, a large coal terminal was developed at Mayport.

The second railroad to enter the village was the Jacksonville, Mayport and Pablo Beach Railroad, a standard gauge line, developed by logging interests in Arlington Heights, initially without a single connection, the JM&P was a comedy of errors. The first train was a family picnic  excursion for The Knights of Pythias and their families. It broke down in the hill's above today's Regency Square, and the good knights were obliged to push a lone passenger coach back to the Arlington ferry landing. Though the little railroad finally extended from Arlington over the Arlington River through Saint Nicholas to South Jacksonville, it was too late to save themselves from ruin. The laborious JM&P never lived down it's "Jump Men and Push" moniker.

The last railroad at Mayport came about soon after the Jacksonville and Atlantic went to standard gauge and all of the trackage at the port was consolidated under The Mayport Terminal Company. With the JM&P gone by 1900, the terminal company's tracks were folded into the Jacksonville and Atlantic. With a great fire claiming the Hotel Continental at Atlantic Beach, and the Florida East Coast conversion of all locomotives to burn bunker fuel oil, the beaches railroads quietly fell into decline. Passenger trains to Mayport ended in the late 1920's, and the tracks themselves came up in the early 1930's, but not without one last hurrah.

About 1930, Jacksonville Commissioner Saint Elmo Acosta proposed that the City purchase the railroad and convert the whole line into a component of our electric trolley system.  The proposal was set aside for another meeting of the full Commission, a meeting we are still waiting for 70 years later.

Robert Mann

Proposed JAXPORT Cruise Terminal Renderings

The Old St. Johns Lighthouse is the oldest remaining structure in Mayport. This lighthouse was constructed in 1858 to replace two predecessors that were built to close too the river.

Nicknamed "The Lighthouse Church", the Mayport Presbyterian Church has been standing at 1300 Palmer Street since 1892.

This building was constructed as a school to serve Mayport in 1927.

If ever the Encyclopedia of Roadfood gets written and it needs a perfect example of a Florida seafood shack, Singleton's would fill the bill. It is bigger than most – a sprawling dining room, deck, kitchen and museum annex – but its colorful shackitude is beyond reproach. It is a deliciously déclassé nautical wreck with low ceiling, listing wooden floors, bare wood tables and hard benches. Everything is served in Styrofoam. Utensils are plastic. No-nonsense waitresses reward good customers with such appellations as hon, babe, and dear. And the cuisine is a north coast primer. Yes, there are burgers and barbecue and slaw dogs on the menu, but they are immaterial. What matters is nut-sweet shrimp that fairly burst with flavor, briny oysters sheathed in fragile crust, devil crab that is moist and seasoned with eye-opening panache.

There is a southern accent to most plates of local seafood. Every meal comes with a pair of hushpuppies clad in a red gold crust that surrounds insides that are as moist as cake. The day I dined, the vegetable du jour was collard greens: limp leaves that are vaguely sweet, as earthy tasting as tobacco and yet deliriously healthful. I also had a good bowl of Minorcan clam chowder, a specialty from down St. Augustine way, in which datil peppers provide a nice buzz to soup that is loaded with flavorful clams.

You enter the restaurant past a large case full of raw seafood. Seats afford a lovely view of fishing boats rocking in their berths. Seafaring bric-a-brac is everywhere, and there is a large annex that is a makeshift museum of wooden model ships.

Captain W. J. King Residence

William Joseph King came to Mayport from Delaware as a cook on a schooner in 1878.  One of the attractions that caused him to remain was Clara Arnau, whom he married in 1881.  She was sixteen years old, the granddaughter of Captain James Arnau, one of the founders of the St. Johns Bar Pilot Association in 1820.  King and his new bride moved into the pre-Civil War Arnau homestead.  After serving an apprenticeship, King joined the ranks as bar pilot in 1882.  In 1913, Captain King decided to enlarge his residence into a more elaborate manor.  He hired a builder from Fort George, who daily rowed across the St. Johns River to work on the two-story addition, which soon dwarfed by a two-tier veranda with turned posts, brackets, and a filigreed balustrade, which encircles the house on three sides.

Upon Captain King's death in 1940, his son John inherited it.  The house had long been reputed to have ghostly occurrences in it, and John King helped to embellish these rumors of the supernatural.  In 1968,  parapsychology researchers from Duke University examined the house.  Their report concluded there was some "presence" within the house.  John King moved out of the house in 1974 and died three years later.  The pre-Civil War portion of the house was then demolished, in a failed attempt to convert the house into a restaurant.  But the main part of Captain King's residence still remains, with its legacy of poltergeists, ghost stories, and architectural beauty.
Source: Jacksonville's Architectural Heritage, First Edition (1989). Page 328

Historic Mayport Village is located at the mouth of the St. Johns River, 15 miles east of downtown Jacksonville.

Article by Ennis Davis