Lost Jacksonville: McCoys Creek

November 27, 2012 16 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

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.

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, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/142388

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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