Atlantic Boulevard History

Written by Cleve Powell
Originally published in the September 2006 edition of the OAI Newsletter

As the Atlantic Boulevard corridor between Little Pottsburg Creek and Mill Creek Road has been designated as the south boundary of our “Old Arlington” historic area, a little of it’s history may be of interest.

Based on two articles by historian Bill Foley (deceased), it was conceived by a man named Eugene Gilbert who saw it as a wagon road when he purchased oceanfront property in the 1880s. Gilbert employed surveyor Francis LeBaron ca. 1890 to set out a route. (LeBaron surveyed Eggleston Heights ca. 1887). For months they labored over a god-awful stretch of scrub and marsh and Pablo Creek was bridged by a span. For years after that a crude road stretched from the ocean to the creek and across the bridge to a swamp where no one cared to go.

Interestingly this bridge across Pablo Creek was in sited in the same place as a wagon road ferry crossing shown on the 1830 GLO survey labeled “Pablo to Jacksonville road.” The 1830 road curved north from the creek towards Fulton and then curved back to the south of Holley Oaks. From there it followed approximately the same route as today’s Lone Star Road to a dock in Arlington near what is now the Mathews Bridge.

Also of interest, an 1899 survey shows a road coming east from South Jacksonville but ending at Silversmith Creek. If that road had been extended it would have tied in to what is now “Oakwood Drive.” This map surprisingly shows a bridge across the Arlington River at Clifton that connected to the road to South Jacksonville. A 1909 survey, of the Oakwood Villa original parcel label’s the road as “new” Pablo Beach road and shows an iron bridge over Silversmith Creek where it is now located.*

For years county officials thought the road was a bad idea, just a line on a map. Gilbert died in 1902 and never saw his dream fulfilled but interest was revived about that time by the opening of Henry Flagler’s Continental Hotel in what is now Atlantic Beach. Interest was spurred by the innovation of auto racing on the beach in 1906 that were previously held at Daytona Beach.

The first car made the trip in 1908, and the original road was a combination of oyster shell, gravel, and brick. A small abandoned segment I remember near the former Tresca’s Nursery (east of what is now Monument Road) was brick and only about 12 feet wide.

Foley described the dedication, which was held on June 28, 1910, in an article written 7-25-1998. “Without further ado, the world changed forever, especially for Jacksonville and most traumatically for her beaches. A festive motorcade of 50 occasionally decorated vehicles filed with Jacksonville’s leading citizens passed through the crowd-lined streets of downtown Jacksonville. They passed by a viewing stand at the Seminole Club, laboriously across the St. Johns River Ferry, in five trips, and then boldly where few had gone before – out the brand-new highway that in a matter of hours would be christened Atlantic Boulevard.”

Behind the band and two police cars was the principal Cadillac of County Commission Chairman Forrest J. Hyde Jr. The car was decked in purple and orange bunting. Mrs. Hyde, sponsor of the dedication, and her maids of honor were the passengers. The party pulled up at the new bridge at Little Pottsburg Creek and Mrs. Hyde broke a bottle of wine on the concrete span and named the span for the ocean to which it would stretch.

On to the beach the little parade continues, martial music playing all the way. Thousands more that had come by train would meet the autoists at the shore for an afternoon of automobile races of 5-10 and 15 miles, hundreds of cars speeding around barrels arranged on the broad hard beach in front of the Continental Hotel. The evening was capped off by a “brilliant banquet” at Henry Flagler’s eight year old hotel.

Foley described another early event for Atlantic Boulevard, which was written 3-24-1999 and headed “Millennium moment: March 25, 1911. Society poised to “reign all powerful at Pablo.” Automobile races had moved from Daytona to Jacksonville’s beach and the opening of Atlantic Boulevard promised to make Pablo Beach the racing capitol of the world.

“Atlantic Boulevard was primed for the big test. The road had been dedicated in July 1910. Many motorists planned to leave their cars at a building near Dixieland Park in South Jacksonville the week of the 1911 Carnival of Speed. Thus there would be a jam-up at the St. Johns River Ferry the morning of the races. Tide determined starting times and the first race was at 8:30 am. To catch all the action a pre-dawn start from the city was required. The locals were not disappointed. Among several records set over the four-day meet, Louis Disbrow’s Pope-Hartford Hummer averaged 77 mph for 300 miles to win a cash prize of $1,000.”

The Continental burned in 1919 and the use of the railroad to Mayport diminished (closed in 1932) as the deepened river channel provided improved shipping by river. The Acosta Bridge opened in 1921 giving Arlington direct access to Jacksonville. Beach development was growing as a new but smaller Atlantic Hotel was built in place of the Continental. Atlantic Beach was incorporated in 1925 and the “boardwalk” was opened in Jacksonville Beach. A new four lane highway (one of the first in Florida) replaced the old brick road. It had a grand opening ca. 1929 and was heralded as the “Great White Way” as it was illuminated by street lights for the entire stretch. This is basically the way the highway looked in the forties and fifties when I first remember it. Several of us Arlington boys hitchhiked to the boardwalk ca. 1952 and ended up walking all the way back that night, as only one car passed us on the way home (few lights were working then).

Prior to the Mathews Bridge, Arlington had a limited number of facilities and Atlantic Boulevard enterprises contributed a lot to our way of life. These are some I remember within our corridor starting at Little Pottsburg and going east: SaintXPaul’s Episcopal Church, Hope Haven Children’s Hospital, Uncle Joe’s Place (5747), Atlantic Drive-In, Princess Ice Cream, Merry-go-round Liquors, 7-11, State Farm, Blackie’s Grocery, Steeve’s Saw Shop, Arlington Lumber Co., Raven Bar (7421), Browns Shell Sta., Linda Joe’s Propane, Marvin and Slim’s Garage, store and wrecker service, Cheshire Nursing home, ball field, Nolan’s Alpine Dairy (8020), Atlantic Boulevard Wrecker, National Sheet Metal, Jim Davis Garage, Champions Corner (8843), Phil’s Liquor Store (9024), Tee Dee’ Auto Repair (9062), Workingman’s Gas Station, and Crews Grocery and Market (9100). Lake Tresca Nursery was about 1/4; mile to the east. In addition Atlantic Boulevard connected Arlington to the shopping centers at SaintXNicholas and San Marco. It was our umbilical cord to the world.

Atlantic Boulevard is still a major artery to the beach and South Jacksonville for Arlingtonians. It has been realigned, widened and has commerce from one end to the other. No one in 1910 could have ever envisioned such growth in the “God-awful” stretch of marsh and palmettos.