Neighborhoods: Empire Point

Located outside of Jacksonville until the city's consolidation with Duval County, this Southside neighborhood is home to many residences dating back to the 19th century.

Published May 1, 2013 in Neighborhoods -

A Brief History of Empire Point

Spanish land grant map illustrating the location of Reuben Hogans' property.  This land eventually became known as Empire Point.

Empire Point was originally a part of 385-acre Spanish land grant to Reuben Hogans in 1808. Hogans' land stretched along the southbank of the St. Johns River between Millers Creek and the Arlington River (called Pottsburg Creek before the Civil War).  Across the river, a 605-acre land grant given to his son, John Hogans, eventually became today's downtown Jacksonville.

By the 1820s, Reuben Hogans' property was in the ownership of Francis Richard and after his death, it was acquired by John Sammis.  Soon Sammis sold off portions the property for three sawmills known as the Highlands, Clifton and Empire Mills.  All were destroyed by fire during the Civil War, with only the Empire being rebuilt.

The Marabanong mansion in 1876. Image courtesy of at

In 1870, Thomas Basnett, a noted astronomer from England, purchased an antebellum estate originally constructed Thomas Perley. When "Perley Place" burned to the ground, Basnett built his Marabanong mansion in 1876. Florida's first circular steam sawmill, the Empire, stood just east of the Marabanong. Dating back to 1850, the mill was located at the mouth of Pottsburg Creek. By the time Basnett purchased his Empire Point estate, the area had become a popular location for settlers from the Northeast. In 1876, the Empire mill property was sold to Alexander S. Diven, a general in the Union Army and New York Congressman.  Diven established an orange grove on the property that remained until 1952. Soon ferry boats were providing transportation between Empire Point and Jacksonville.

Alexander Samuel Diven (February 10, 1809 – June 11, 1896) was an American politician from New York and an officer in the Union Army during the American Civil War. Image courtesy of

To the west of the Marabanong and Empire Mill, the area where the Clifton Mills once stood was acquired by Asa Packer. Packer was the founder of Lehigh Univesity and the Lehigh Valley Railroad (now Conrail). Packer envisioned utilizing the land as a hunting preserve.  However, shortly after the purchase he died and the estate was eventually conveyed to his daughter, Mary Packer. Mary named the 30-acre estate "Keystone" after her native Pennsylvania. Mary and her husband, Charles H. Cummings, developed the property a winter getaway and citrus growing operation.  When Mrs. Cummings passed in 1912, the property was willed to the St. Johns Episcopal Parish to be used as a children's home.  The children's home operated until 1953.

The 1950's ushered in permanent change for Empire Point.  By this time, most of the rural properties in Empire Point had been acquired by the grandson of Major Joseph H. Durkee.  Like Diven, Durkee was a Union Army officer who settled on the southside of the St. Johns River in the late 19th century. In 1909, his son, Dr. Jay Durkee acquired Diven's Empire Point residence. Involved in real estate, Dr. Durkee developed several subdivisions in the area, including the neighborhood of Durkeeville near downtown.  In 1952, Dr. Durkee's sons, Joseph and Brewster, developed most of their acquired property into a subdivision named after the area where the family home was located, "Empire Point."  In 1966, in the possession of the St. Johns Episcopal Parish, Mary Cummings' adjacent Keystone property became the new Episcopal High School. One year later, the Hart Bridge opened, providing a direct vehicular connection between Empire Point and downtown Jacksonville.

Pennsylvania industrialist Asa Packer purchased the Keystone estate in 1881. Image courtesy of Wikipedia at

Empire Point Subdivision

The Diven/Durkee residence at Empire Point. Image courtesy of at

The 90-acre Empire Point subdivision was developed in 1952 by brothers, Joseph H. and Brewster J. Durkee.  Their father, Dr. Jay Harvey Durkee, acquired Union Army General Alexander S. Diven's estate at Empire Point in 1909. General Diven was the Army officer who conveyed the news of Lincoln's death to the War Department. Before his death in 1936, Dr. Durkee had become one of the best-known citizens and largest landowners in Duval County.

The Marabanong

The Durkee's Empire Point subdivision was constructed around their estate and the older Marabanong mansion shown above. Built in 1876 by Thomas Basnett, the name is a New Zealand Maori Indian word for "Paradise."  Basnett's wife, Eliza Wilbur, was an internationally known scientist from New York. She was the first woman to lecture science students at Harvard University. While living at the Marabanong, she invented a large astronomical telescope, which was occasionally used by neighborhood boys to spy on houses across the river in Fairfield. In 1914, the house was sold to Eliza's cousin, Grace Wilbur Trout. Trout was a nationally prominent figure in the Women's Suffrage Movement.

n008389 - An owner of the Marabanong, Grace Wilbur Trout, strong-armed the Governor of Illinois into granting universal suffrage for women in that state and paved the way for the passage of the 19th amendment.

Born and educated in Iowa, the dynamic Grace Trout proved a successful activist, orator, and politician.  She even found time to publish a novel in 1896.  Mrs. Trout led the fight to force Illinois to grant its female citizens the right to vote in national elections.  And in 1913, it became the first state east of the Mississippi River to do so.  This victory took place seven years before the Nineteenth Amendment gave suffrage (voting rights) to all American women.  All in all, Mrs. Trout won national prominence for her efforts.  Dating from about 1916, the photo above shows her as she marched in a Washington, D.C., suffrage parade.

One political tactic that Mrs. Trout oversaw consisted of speaking tours by automobile.  After jolting over highways that were usually no more than dirt roads, Mrs. Trout and other female activists would drive into an Illinois community, park in the town square or on a prominent street corner, and then give speeches from their cars.  Local residents would be expecting them since these events were arranged in advance.  Sometimes, a mayor would even introduce the visitors. (The other picture on this webpage also comes from about 1916, and it depicts Mrs. Trout arriving at her Chicago-area home after a feast held in her honor.)

The inexhaustible Grace Trout proved instrumental in yet another Illinois campaign: The triumphant endeavor to make the state guarantee equal rights for its women.  In 1921, however, she and her husband, George, moved to Florida, where she continued her activism.  Among many other achievements, she served as the first

president of the Jacksonville Planning and Advisory Board and as the president of the Jacksonville Garden Club.  The American Legion even honored her as "the most public-spirited citizen."

The Trouts lived in the wonderful old River City mansion, Marabanong.  This Queen Anne-style masterpiece is located on the waterfront near the south end of the Hart Bridge.  It delights the eye with its cupola, octagonal turret, fancy wooden shingles, arched windows, third-story balcony, and two-story veranda with gingerbread trimmings.  A large swimming pool was built in 1922 and decorated with Venetian lanterns.  The couple also maintained a zoo there, entertaining their numerous Northern visitors with such animals as deer, pheasant, peacocks, and South American crocodiles.

In 1955, Mrs. Trout passed away at the age of 91.  As summed up by the website “Oak Park Tourist,” she had earned the praise as being "The Woman Who Never Fails."  Her Jax home, by the way, remained in the Trout family until 1983, after over a century of ownership by members of the same clan.  Marabanong still stands today.  Appropriately, its name comes from a New Zealand Maori Indian word for "Paradise." Story/Picture of Evergreen Cemetery, Grace Wilbur Trout.htm

The most intriguing feature of the Marabanong estate is the wine cellar built into the bluff.  It is believe that this structure dates back to 1840.  At that time, it was envisioned that the land would be used to produce wine and the celler was constructed for storage.

More Empire Point Subdivision

The residence built by Alexander S. Diven, a former Union Army general and New York Congressman, in 1877.  This residence was purchased by Dr. Jay H. Durkee, the developer of Durkeeville, in 1909.  His son, Joseph Durkee, went on to develop the neighborhood surrounding the house and other 19th century structures in 1952.

Episcopal High School/Keystone Estate

Episcopal High School was constructed on the 19th century site of Mary Parker Cummings' Keystone Bluff estate in 1966. The Keystone property was acquired by Asa Packer in 1881.  Prior to being Keystone, the property was the site of the Civil War era Clifton Mill.

Keystone, the home of Mary Packer Cummings in the 1890s. This house replaced an earlier structure that burned in 1889. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory,

This building was constructed as part of a bowling alley by Charles Cummings in 1895. Cummings, who didn't get along with an adjacent neighbor, constructed it along the property line so the neighbor "would get the full benefit of the noise from the bowling....and card games."

Built in 1893, the Cummings guest house is one of two buildings remaining on Mary Packer Cummings' 19th century Keystone Bluff estate.

Mary Packer Cummings on her yacht, the Keystone, with Captain Henry D. DeGrove at the wheel. Cummings used it for service between Jacksonville and Keystone Bluff (the winter home of Cummings). It was sold in 1913 to Captain DeGrove and used on Passenger Package Freight and Mail Run from Jacksonville (Newman Street wharf) and Keystone, Arlington and Floral Bluff, Florida. It was then used for exclusive Passenger Excursion Service from Jacksonville to Green Cove Springs. Around 1925, it was sold to Captain Charles M. Fozzard and converted to Fairbanks-Morse 60 hp. diesel. It became a harbor tug and later was sold to parties in Miami for the same work. Image courtesy of the State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory,

The Episcopal campus contains a significant historic building, the Acosta House, built in the late 1800s or early 1900s. Purchased by St. Elmo W. Acosta in 1911, a Jacksonville businessman and City Council member. It then became part of the ESJ campus after the founding of the School. The Acosta House currently houses photography classes and studios. It's wide porch is used for numerous School events, including Commencement ceremonies. Image courtesy of

This Glengarry Road house dates back to 1872. It is believed to be the oldest remaining house in Empire Point. It was constructed for Robert Bruce Van Valkenburg, a US Congressman from New York who was also the commander of Union troops at the Battle of Antietam and Minister to Japan between 1866 and 1869. After moving to Florida, he served as the Associate Justice of the Florida Supreme Court from 1874 until his death in 1888. This home was originally decorated with furniture the Valkenburgs collected from Japan.

Random Empire Point

Atlantic Boulevard

Jork Road

Somerville/Sheffield/Harbor Drive

Mayfair Road

Mayfair Road parallels Millers Creek. Named after David Solomon Hill Miller, the creek served as the west boundary of Reuben Hogans' Spanish land grant. Miller first settled in the area in 1799 and married Anna Hogans Bagley. Miller served Spain as Capt. Rural Militia of the St. Johns River, San Nicolas District and as Deputy Surveyor. He surveyed the streets of Jacksonville when it was founded in June 1822.

Empire Point is located along Atlantic Boulevard, near the highway's interchange with the Hart Bridge Expressway.

Article by Ennis Davis

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