Jacksonville may be Northeast Florida's largest city and St. Augustine may be the nation's oldest, but if you're willing to explore, you'll discover the First Coast is filled with many interesting communities. Named in honor of Spain's King Ferdinand VII, Fernandina Beach is a well-preserved historic 19th century seaport with a very intriguing past.
Erosion has taken its toll on the riverfront of Old Town Fernandina
Located 25 miles northeast of Jacksonville, Fernandina Beach is a city of 12,459 residents roughly covering the northern half of Amelia Island, that includes an original section that was last town platted under the Laws of the Indies in the Western hemisphere. Dating back to 1573, the Laws of Indies was a document the Spanish used to organize new settlements established during their explorations. Platted in 1811 by surveyor George J. F. Clarke, Old Town Fernandina was intended to serve as a barricade against U.S. territorial expansion at a time when Spain was still in control of Florida. As the closest east coast free port to the U.S., the community quickly became a haven for saloons, bordellos, pirates, smugglers, and slave traders. By the time Florida became a part of the U.S, an estimated 5,000 slaves had been passed through Fernandina on their way to being smuggled to plantations across the American South.
Old Town Fernandina is the last town platted under the Laws of the Indies in the Western hemisphere.
Old Town's days of dominance came to an end with the completion of David Yulee's Florida Railroad between Fernandina and Cedar Key. Chartered in 1853 and built on the back of slave labor, the Florida Railroad was the first rail connection between the state's deepwater ports on the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. Intended to turn Fernandina into the "Manhattan of the South", Yulee platted a new town of Fernandina roughly a mile south of Old Town. Serving as the eastern shipping terminus of his railroad, the new town of Fernandina quickly grew to become one of the nation's busiest ports during the sailing ship era, while Old Town lost its luster, gradually becoming a quiet residential neighborhood.
Members of the former Tringali Brothers Seafood Company in Bosque Bello Cemetery.
Fernandina's days as the region's major 19th century port and tourist center did not last long. By the end of the Civil War, Jacksonville became the premier break point between the railroad and maritime industries due to newer railroads providing more direct connections with the rest of the country. While Jacksonville would rapidly grow to become a major city, entrepreneurs like Solicito Salvador developed new shrimping techniques leading to Fernandina's emergence as the epicenter of the modern shrimping industry in the early 20th century.
Established in 1906, Solicito's Salvador Fish Company grew to ship local catch across the U.S. and internationally. In addition to shrimping, Fernandina's bustling waterfront was also filled with pogey fishing fleets and fish processing plants employing as many as 700 by 1910. Alone, the Nassau Fertilizer and Oil Corporation caught up to 150 tons of fish daily.
The WestRock mill opened in December 1937.
By the 1930s, with the national unemployment rate exceeding 23 percent, Fernandina had become a town with stagnant economic growth. At the same time, the paper industry sat its sights on the American South for raw material. Welcomed by Fernandina and attracted to its natural harbor, cheap pulpwood, rail connections and Florida's tax exemption, Fernandina landed two major pulp mills to boost its economy. The first mill was built by the Kraft Container Corporation of America on a waterfront site between Old Town and the newer Fernandina established by Yulee. Beginning production in December 1937, over 6,000 people attended its dedication. Less than two years later, the Rainier Pulp and Paper Company opened a second mill on the island just south of downtown. Between the 1936 announcement of the mills and Kraft's 1937 opening, the city's population increased an estimated 45%. After adding “Beach” to Fernandina as a part of an effort to attract tourism, the community developed into a vacation destination in the later half of the 20th century.
The Amelia River
80 years later, Fernandina Beach is still a major player in the paper industry. Now owned by WestRock, the second largest paper company worldwide, the oldest mill covers employs 480, producing 900,000 tons of paper for a list of clients such as Anheuser Busch as well. Rainier is now known as Rayonier and its plant employs more than 300 producing 155,000 metric tons of softwood cellulose specialties per year, contributing $35 million annually to Florida’s wages and salaries and $2 million to Florida’s property and sales taxes. In addition, this year a joint-venture between Rayonier and Borregaard called LignoTech Florida will open adjacent to Rayonier's mill to produce high produce high performance lignin products based on renewable raw materials.
The Florida House Inn
Anchored economically by its mills and Amelia Island's tourism industry, Florida's northernmost city on the eastern coast continues to live on as an authentic historic working waterfront community with a vibrant pedestrian friendly historic district integrated with an active railroad, port, marina and shrimp docks. A walk down Fernandina Beach's historic streets reveals treasures such as the Florida House Inn, a hotel dating back to 1857, and Centre Street, arguably one of Florida's earliest "context sensitive streets".
In addition, although challenged with continued erosion by the Amelia River, Old Town's Spanish town plan and street grid still remains a short distance away. An excellent example of historic preservation and restoration done right, Fernandina Beach can easily be reached from Jacksonville via Interstate 95 and a 14 mile drive east on State Road 200 (Exit 373). For those looking for a weekend getaway, the city's museums, shops, restaurants, bed and breakfasts, residences and preserved 19th century setting awaits your visit.
Article by Ennis Davis, AICP. Davis is a certified senior planner and graduate of Florida A&M University. He is the author of the award winning books “Reclaiming Jacksonville,” “Cohen Brothers: The Big Store” and “Images of Modern America: Jacksonville.” Davis has served with various organizations committed to improving urban communities, including the American Planning Association and the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation. A 2013 Next City Vanguard, Davis is the co-founder of Metro Jacksonville.com and ModernCities.com — two websites dedicated to promoting fiscally sustainable communities — and Transform Jax, a tactical urbanist group. Contact Ennis at firstname.lastname@example.org