A Jacksonville, Mayport and Pablo Railroad “Tour”

Written by Cleve Powell
Originally published in the January 2008 edition of the OAI Newsletter

As we leave the holidays and our first newsletter is published for the year 2008, I felt that some of our readers might have time and an opportunity to do their own driving tour of the general location of the JM&P railroad. This is made possible by the construction (scheduled for completion in December) of the Wonderwood Expressway, which closely follows the route of the Railroad from Hannah Park to Merrill Road.
HISTORY: In 1880 Jacksonville was a growing city, and prior to any form of air conditioning, there was a growing desire to go to the oceanfront during the summer months. People went down the unimproved river by boat to the small but growing community of Mayport. They then went to the ocean by carts or wagons along sandy trails. There was a trend developing along the eastern coast of the US to build railroad lines from cities such as Savannah to the beaches and Jacksonville was a prime candidate.

A group of Jacksonville businessmen chartered such a railroad in 1882 named the “Arlington and Atlantic” to connect Arlington and Mayport. They however had concerns about the length of the ferry ride from downtown to Arlington. The same basic group chartered another railroad known as the Jacksonville and Atlantic that ran from South Jacksonville (which already had ferryboat service from downtown) to Pablo (Jacksonville Beach). This railroad opened in 1885 and was taken over by Flagler’s Florida east Coast (FEC) Railroad Co. in 1900 until it ended in 1932; the R/W eventually becoming Beach Boulevard (in 1951).

In January of 1886 a company headed by a local businessman Alexander Wallace, chartered the Jacksonville, Mayport and Pablo Railway and Navigation Company to build a railroad from Mayport to the beach and then to a dock in Arlington. He later planned a line to go south to the terminus of the J&A at Pablo. He felt the Mayport community could become a significant player in the transportation future of North Florida. As a part of his plan he built a new hotel on the ocean called the “Burnside.”

By the summer of 1886 the first section of the line was opened between Mayport and Burnside Beach. There had been a small hotel even before the Civil War and Wallace now had his new “grand” hotel. The main line to Arlington was begun and the railroad had a grand opening May 17, 1888. The Knights of Pythias took a ferry ride from a dock at the foot of Newnan Street to a dock in Arlington (near Jones College) and on to Burnside Beach for a day of partying. The train sadly broke down on the return causing passengers to walk and stranding others at the beach. The railroad opened for business June 1, 1888 but the press had given it the unflattering nickname “Jump Men and Push.”

The JM&P had a twice a day schedule with stations at Eggleston, Gilmore and Cosmo, and stops at other remote settlements along the way. Things went well until Wallace died unexpectedly with a heart attack in 1889 and almost simultaneously the Burnside hotel burned. J. Stockton then managed the business for Wallace’s widow until 1892 when it was sold to Russell, Youmans, and Scott. The new owners saw the limitations of the dock in Arlington and extended the line through Clifton across the Arlington River and little Pottsburg Creek to South Jacksonville providing a 28-mile ride to the ocean.

The new line opened July 9, 1893 but had some problems with derailments and minor breakdowns. Cattle or wildlife threatened passengers at some of the remote stations. Income was the main problem as costs were only covered during the tourist season and regular operations ceased in 1895 with mail being delivered by handcar until ca. 1897.

Now at this point Paul Harvey would say “and here is the rest of the story.” The importance of this railroad in the development of Arlington in the early days can’t be overstated. Think of the convenience it gave people who lived along its route to ride the train for work, pleasure, and mail delivery. Mr. Hawley, who wrote the Arlingtonian, had several articles on his memories such as riding it on his wedding day and he and Mr. A. Gilmore using it to go back and to work by handcar. After the rails were removed it became a path to walk from the dock through the woods to his home in Gilmore. If Duval County had had the foresight, the JM&P R/W and trestles could have been the first road from South Jacksonville to the beaches long before the opening of Atlantic Boulevard in 1910.

TOUR: Should you want to take a tour of the Wonderwood portion I would suggest starting at Hannah Park at the east end of the Wonderwood Expressway. The park entrance road to the beach would lead you to the location of the old Burnside hotel and it is prophetic that town people still come to this area for R&R on the weekends. As you start towards town, you can make a side trip into old Mayport to the foot of Palmer Street where the Navy Base fence overlooks the old Mayport lighthouse. The railroad ran along the southern boundary of the lighthouse and became the main road connecting east and west Mayport after the RR’s demise. From the lighthouse, the RR ran south to the old Gavagan Hotel, which was located on Ocean Street at Pearl, which you pass as you exit Mayport. When you get back on Wonderwood heading west towards the marsh, on the left is the former location of the British “Pablo House”, at one time probably the oldest house in Duval County. The historic Mayport Cemetery is also in this area.

Crossing Pablo Creek (Intracoastal Waterway) you can imagine rocking along on a wooden trestle just above the marsh, the sound of the locomotive and the waterfowl you would have seen. After crossing the creek you are on the northern tip of Don Juan McQueen’s Greenfield plantation (now Queen’s Harbour) granted during the second Spanish period. Then crossing Greenefield Creek the next peninsular had a stop called Mt. Pleasant. Crossing Mt. Pleasant Creek there was a community known as Idlewild with a stop (where Mt. Pleasant Road intersects Wonderwood).

Continuing along Wonderwood (McCormick) you pass Kernan Boulevard, which was once the location of the trail that Don Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, Spain followed to conquer Ft. Caroline. At Monument Road the head of Cedar swamp (which was a Spanish grant to Francis Richard) lies to the left and through the woods to a stop at “Cosmo,” which was located about where the Post Office now sits on the right near the Ft. Caroline intersection.

After the merger with Ft. Caroline, at the current intersection with SaintXJohns Bluff the RR ran slightly to the south of Ft. Caroline. When you cross the bridge at Ginhouse Creek, the dam to your left for Holley Oaks Lake, ca. 1941, is about where the RR trestle was located. When you cross the next bridge for Jones Creek the old trestle crossing is a little further south. The woods to the left west of Jones Creek, is now the Jacksonville Arboretum Nature Preserve. A high berm remaining from the railroad is still visible with a short walk.

Continue west on Merrill Road and the RR would have crossed to the north (right) side of the road just west of the Ft. Caroline intersection. At the 9A crossing, the Gilmore RR station would have been about 500 feet to the north.

This is the end of the Wonderwood tour. To make this worthwhile you have to picture the entire route as it would have been in its pristine natural state imagine yourself riding in the early rail cars sans any type of heat and windows for air. Wild animals and cattle, the chugging of the steam engine and smoke and sparks flying by.