Spanish American War

Written by Cleve Powell
Originally published in the History Corner section of the September 2009 OAI Newsletter

Many Arlington teenagers in the 30s through the 60s explored the old “Spanish American War” concrete Gun emplacement found in a wooded area on the east edge of SaintXJohns Bluff. Having been built ca 1898, its original purpose, to protect the City of Jacksonville, was all but forgotten and sometimes confused with the original Ft. Caroline. Some thought that an underground gunpowder storage room was a dungeon and there were even stories of ghosts. It was a great place to get away with your date and enjoy the view across the river. Per Richard Steeves, the Arlington Boy Scouts used to camp out there, hiking in as there was a very sandy road that ended near what is now the Ribault overlook. One of our past speakers, Charles Gordon’s father owned a lot near the current overlook and sold it because he got stuck every time he went to the site.

Few realized what it was built for and that some early Arlington residents probably caused it to be built, others worked on its construction and still others in turning the area into a Military Reservation for some twenty years.

“Spanish-American War Fortifications SaintXJohns Bluff, Florida.”
Taken from George Buker’s research for the Park Service

The Spanish American War began immediately after the sinking of the “Maine” in Cuba February, 1898. The City of Jacksonville had concerns of invasions by Spain due to Jacksonville’s activities in supporting the Cuban Revolution. Gun running expeditions were made by NAPOLEON B. BROWARD, Montcalm Broward, and Geo. DeCottes, co-owners of the seagoing tug “Three Friends”. Between 1895 and 1898, 71 Filibustering (Munitions) runs were made to Cuba. Of these, 23 were from Jacksonville, 12 of which were successfully made by the “Three Friends.” Napoleon Broward at one time lived in what is now Arlington on the Newcastle Plantation on Mill Cove, and studied at a private home also on Mill Cove. He was elected as Governor of Florida in 1904.

The city selected SaintXJohns Bluff as the place to build Gun Batteries for protection. In conjunction with the Corps of Engineers, work began with clearing on April 11, 1898. The land at that time was claimed to have been owned by three parties: Florida Finance Corporation, Sarah F. Williams and W. D. Browne, whose son, Willie Brown, I believe, years later may have furnished lands for the Timucuan Preserve. All three owners had agreed to the use of their land for a minimal fee.

The scope of work consisted of a dock (wharf) at the foot of the bluff, facing the river, to unload materials. Next was a “cut” up the bluff to facilitate a railway and tram to pull heavy construction material, equipment, and guns and ammunition to the top of the bluff and along the high ground facing the marsh. There was a temporary battery constructed of earth and stone built in the same location that is now the Ribault Overlook. The railway continued SE along the bluff, facing the marsh and Sisters Creek, 1,100′ +/- to the permanent battery constructed with concrete and steel. This battery was set up for two 8″ “rifles,” which weighted 32,480 lbs. each, and shot a 300 lb. projectile. They were capable of hitting a ship in the river at the mouth of Sisters Creek (Intracoastal Waterway). This was the “fort” that everyone saw in later years. A series of wooden buildings were constructed to support the small military base. Per our Old Arlington member, J. C. Olson, his grandfather, JULIUS OLSON, who lived at Dames Point at that time, worked on the project and later moved to Arlington to open Olson’s Shipyard.

Work also included two miles of cable with floating mines (torpedos) stretched across the river. There was a wooden building on poles at the foot of the bluff just west of the dock, which (I believe) was the electrical terminus. Work was completed; however the big guns were never fired even in practice. After the treaty in December of 1898, Mr. B. J. Starling was hired to live on the reservation as caretaker and watchman for $60 a month. Orders were given to have the guns removed and the minefields pulled out of the river. In the September 1899 military records, there is a sketch of the buildings on the site by Charles Sperry. The northernmost building was 22’x12′ entitled “kitchen,” the next was 50’x12′ entitled “stables,” next a 16’x12′ “empty dwelling.” Then a 30’x 12′ entitled watchman’s dwelling, an 18’x12′ storehouse, and finally a building in the shape of a cross with the main frame 81’x17′ for torpedo and marine storage.

Corps of Engineers employee F.W. BRUCE, who had just returned from modifying Ft. Taylor at Key West due to the war, started a topographic survey November 14th 1898. Bruce and J. W. Sackett prepared a drawing dated December 6, 1899, which covered the area leased and showed the dock, RR, empty gun emplacements and buildings. It is of interest that on the topographic survey there is no reference to any signs of the old French fort or any of the other fortifications that followed. It does show “house ruin” on the shore near the west end of the survey. F. W. also did a detailed drawing of the permanent Battery, which I have misplaced. He took a picture of the dock and cut from the river in 1900, which also shows the buildings on top of the bluff. As you all probably know Bruce moved to Arlington in 1913 where he lived the remainder of his life.

In the “Jacksonville Architectural Heritage” by Wayne Wood, a photograph of the permanent gun emplacement is on page 308. Mr. Wood states that in 1898, Jacksonville became a major staging area for the war to free Cuba from Spain, and nearly 30,000 troops were stationed at camp “Cuba Libre” in the city. The Soldiers outnumbered the populace. He goes on to describe the gun emplacement construction and then it’s being dismantled. He states: “This is the last of many fortifications at SaintXJohns Bluff and a mute reminder of what Teddy Roosevelt called “A Splendid little War.”

The Gun emplacements and buildings became known as “The Saint Johns Bluff Military Reservation,” and on April 25, 1901 the circuit court, through condemnation, issued title to the US for 117.7 acres on SaintXJohns Bluff for a value of $15,000 to be paid to Williams and Browne. The boundary was shown on Bruce’s survey, but without bearings and distance. Approximately the eastern 2/3 of the area shown leased was purchased. Although the Government acquired the land, there was no further military development, and the land was sold to Arthur Tillman Williams (son of a surveyor from Palatka) as president of the Florida Realty Investment Corporation for $53,839.38 by contract dated June 1, 1925. He brought in other investors, Everett Mizell, William C. Hill, and B. C. Buck. The area was platted as “SaintXJohns Bluff Estates” in 1945, recorded in Plat Book 18, page 50 in the Duval County Public Records.

The gun emplacement today sits on two privately owned vacant lots facing Ft. Caroline Road directly across from Huguenot Lane. The Park Service hopes it will become part of the Timucuan Preserve. They discourage visiting the old fortification until it becomes Public Lands. You can however visit the Ribault Column Overlook, and picture in your mind the activities 100 years ago. And now you know “The Rest Of The Story” as the late Paul Harvey would say.