NAAS Green Cove Springs: Ruins of Northeast Florida

Published September 10, 2014 in History

NAAS Green Cove Springs: Ruins of Northeast Florida
What do treasure hunting trips, hovercrafts, ferries, space exploration, and vintage rail cars have to do with one another? All are related to the environment that makes Reynolds Industrial Park and Clay County Port (formerly NAAS Green Cove Springs) one of the most interesting spots for storytelling in Northeast Florida.

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During the 1940s, the primary occupation of Florida was war. In fact, there were more people in Florida engaged in naval aviation training in WWII, than are employed today by the Florida State University System. As in most communities, this was also the case in Green Cove Springs. As early as 1938, the U.S. Navy had considered Green Cove Springs as a potential naval base location.

Caption reads: Squadron VN-12 on flight line at NAAS Lee Field in Green Cove Springs, FL.  SNC-1’s in the background & SNJ-3’s in the foreground.  (Military Museum of North Florida)

On September 11, 1940, the U.S. Navy made it official, opening Naval Air Station Lee Field, just south of Green Cove Springs. The Air Station was named in honor of Ensign Bejamin Lee who had lost his life in a crash at Killinghome, England, during World War I on October 28, 1918. Benjamin Lee Field was designed to train pilots for landing operations on aircraft carriers during WWII. By March 1941, the U.S. Navy had spent $1.8 million on the base, which consisted of four (4) 5,000-foot runways, aircraft maintenance and support services, and housing for military personnel. The facility was renamed Naval Air Station Green Cove Springs in August 1943. By 1944, the naval station's garrison strength included 518 officers and 1,471 enlisted. On December 15, 1945, NAS Green Cove Springs was downgraded in status to a Naval Auxiliary Air Station (NAAS) and transferred to NAS Jacksonville as an outlying field for limited training operations.

US Navy Mouthballed Fleet at Green Cove Springs in late 1947. Photograph courtesy of Ken Adams, RM2/c and

In 1946, thirteen (13) 1,500 foot concrete piers were built into the St. Johns River, at the cost of $10 million, to securely house the U.S. Naval Atlantic Reserve or "Mothball Fleet" of WWII U.S. Navy ships. At its height, over 600 vessels, primarily destroyers, destroyer escorts and fleet auxiliaries, were stationed at Green Cove Springs, along with more than 5,000 naval personnel and 1,000 civilian employees. Unfortunately, under his first executive order, President Lyndon B. Johnson decommissioned the facility and relocated the fleet to Texas, his home state. Soon, after the 1960 decommissioning of NAAS Green Cove Springs, the City of Green Cove Springs purchased and sold the former military installation to Julian Louis Reynolds, of Reynolds Metal Company, for the development of a multimodal 1,700-acre industrial park served by rail, highway, water, and a private airport. Reynolds established the Reynolds Industrial Park in 1965.

Littered with a large collection of rusting relics, scattered World War II era buildings and infrastructure, there's little doubt that the former naval base would benefit from an extreme makeover. By the beginning of the 21st century, the industrial park had fallen into decline. In 2012, a redevelopment plan, that focused on transforming the former base into a mixed use activity center adjacent to the First Coast Expressway, was created and adopted. Nevertheless, the stories behind the hovercrafts, treasure hunting ships, ferries, and space shuttle parts lying quietly in the remains of the former naval base easily make Reynolds Industrial Park and Clay County Port, one of the most interesting places in Northeast Florida.

Next Page: Reynolds Industrial Park and Clay County Port Photo Tour

Clay County Port

The Cloud X is a SWATH ship that is designed to hold 367 passengers with a max speed of 27 knots. Prior to arriving at Green Cove Springs, the Cloud X operated as a commercial day ferry for six months between West Palm Beach and Freeport, Bahamas.

The 297 ton "Who Cares" was built by Serenity Shipbuilders, LLC. in Lockport, La. in 1999. Owned by Wingstone Li Toy Company LLC., it is 106 feet in length, with a breadth of 26 feet and depth of 7 feet.

Apparently too large to move, Green Cove Springs is the current resting place of NASA's 154-foot-long Space Shuttle external fuel tank. Known as the Structural Test Article (STA), the external tank was built in 1977 and used for loading and stress analysis tests. In 2013, it was moved by barge to Green Cove Springs, in anticipation of being delivered by truck to the Wings of Dreams museum in Keystone Heights.

Close-up view of Space Shuttle Columbia on Launch Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in the early 1980s. Photograph courtesy of State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory,

Located at Pier 5, Smith Maritime is an ocean towing and salvage services business.

There are several abandoned box cars at the port that once belonged to Sun State Marine Services. Now defunct, Sun State was a full service marine transportation and shipyard company. In 2000, Sun State employed 50 people at Pier 3, which operated 24 hours a day with three dry docks. In 2004, the facility was taken over by Southeastern Sandblasting and Painting, Inc. (Southern Dry Dock).  In 2012, Southern Dry Dock relocated to a downtown Jacksonville wharf at the historic Ford Assembly plant complex.

The Sea Voyager is a 301 passenger ship built by Jacksonville's Atlantic Marine (now BAE Systems) and launced in 2001.  The ship has been moored at Green Cove Springs since the 2001 bankruptcy of American Classic Voyages.

Mothball fleet in 1958. Photograph courtesy of State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory,

Abandoned precast concrete beams from Reynolds Park's era as a major concrete production center. In 1978, Leonard C. Taylor established the Taylor Concrete & Supply, Inc. at Reynolds Park with seven employees and three trucks. Between 1978 and 1988, the company expanded from 1 Redimix Concrete plant to a total of 8 plants within the region, producing both Redimix and Precast concrete. In 1998, the company was sold to Joelson Pipe and then to Hanson Products in 2001. At the time, 170 were employed in Green Cove Springs.  In Spring 2010, State Road 16 was renamed Leonard C. Taylor Parkway in honor of Leonard Taylor who passed in 1986.

Reynolds Park Yacht Center features 70 ships and 49,000 linear feet of fixed concrete pier and bulkhead. Repairs and services of all types are arranged through Holland Marine which is adjacent to the facility.

The Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Company has grown to become America's largest dredging contractor. Based out of Oak Brook, IL, over the last 120 years, famed projects this company has worked on includes the Jacksonville Harbor, Chicago's Navy Pier and shoreline reclamation for that city's Shedd Aquarium and Soldier Field.  Green Cove Springs is one of the company's two locations in Florida.

Naval ships "mothballed" at Green Cove Springs. Photograph courtesy of State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory,

Not many people are aware that one of the previous rusting relics at the Green Cove docks was once a treasure hunting ship. The Arctic Ranger was christened as a Canadian fishing vessel in 1987. In 1988, Tommy Thompson and the Columbus-America Discovery Group transformed the vessel into the treasure hunting ship called Arctic Discoverer. With this ship and Nemo, their underwater remotely operated vehicle, the crew successfully rediscovered gold from from the 1857 wreck of the S.S. Central America. At the time of its sinking, due to a hurrican off the coast of the Carolinas, Central America carried gold then valued at approximately $2 million USD. The loss shook public confidence in the economy, and contributed to the Panic of 1857. The total value of the recovered gold was estimated at $100–150 million.

The Shands Bridge, just east of Reynolds Park, was dedicated on October 30, 1963. It replaced a wooden structure that was completed in 1929.

Seeing the river as a major obstacle between Clay and St. Johns Counties, Allie G. Shands, an engineer and native of Levy County, designed and secured financing for the world's longest wooden bridge when completed in 1928. Spanning almost 2.4 miles, Shands charged a nickel toll for pedestrians and 75 centes for vehicles.  In 1934, tolls were removed off the old bridge when the state of Florida took over the responsibility for maintaining it.

What many in Northeast Florida may not realize is when the current bridge opened in 1963, 1,500 feet of the old bridge was preserved as a fishing pier. 50 years later, the old wooden structure remains a popular destination for fisherman and residents looking to get a clear glimpse of the Clay County Port.

Reynolds Industrial Park

The air station is now a private airfield known as Reynolds Airpark (FAA airfield identifier FL60) with a single 5,000-foot (1,500 m) asphalt runway currently operational. Although the original air traffic control tower is still standing, attached to one of the former Navy aircraft hangars, the airfield remains an uncontrolled facility.

View of the original air traffic control tower in 1962. Photograph courtesy of State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory,

Located at a former airplane hanger, Fox Manufacturing is a manufacturer of dampers and expansion joints.

The Military Museum of North Florida is a museum of military artifacts. The museum includes ship models, military vehicles, uniforms, weapons, equipment, and flags. Established in 2008, the museum is located at 1 Bunker Ave. at the corner of State Road 16.

Established in 1987, Pile Equipment, Inc. specializes in rental and sales of vibratory pile driver extractors, diesel pile driving hammers, hydraulic augers, pile hammer leads and a variety of foundation installation equipment and accessories. Pile Equipment, Inc. is also located in a building that was the former naval base's power plant.

Rear view of the power plant in 1962. Photograph courtesy of State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory,

A row of storage warehouses at the naval base in 1962. Photograph courtesy of State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory,

Reliable Rail Services, LLC. operates a railcar and locomotive repair and routine maintenance facility at Reynolds Industrial Park. This facility is one of few places in Florida with the ability to accept a complete unit train for inspection, maintenance and service and it offers many solutions to servicing unit trains without the requirement of the carrying railroad to brake the train down.

An abandoned unfinished hovercraft lies on the former naval base's airport apron. The large hovercraft was the center of transportation news in 2006. Then, ATLAS Hovercrafts had intentions of bringing hovercrafts into the mainstream, envisioning a hovercraft ferry between Downtown Jacksonville and Clay County. This hovercraft was originally intended to be built for a Chicago business that planned to use it for dinner cruises from Navy Pier.

The North Florida Railway Museum was established in 1989 to preserve, restore, and display the vast railroad history of North Florida via its equipment, library, models, various displays and through the promotion of railroad safety.

GE Senter-Cab switcher that is a part of the North Florida Railway Museum's collection.

Exterior view of Administration Building and water tower in 1962. Photograph courtesy of State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory,

Located 25 miles south of Jacksonville, just west of the Shands Bridge, the Clay County Port/Reynolds Park is one of the few locations in Northeast Florida with full access to land, air, water and rail.

Article by Ennis Davis, AICP

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