Our mission this summer is to re-discover Florida and learn how it got its coastal names. Florida has ten distinctive coasts which have names that reflect their individual histories and personalities. In this post, we will talk about where it all began – the First Coast. You can see by the graphic below that this coast includes cities from Jacksonville to Daytona Beach. The most significant city in this region was the FIRST to be settled by Europeans in the 1500’s. Welcome to St. Augustine.
A trip to St. Augustine is mandatory for native Floridians, (I am not kidding) and most public schools incorporate a field trip to St. Augustine into their fourth grade curriculum. If you reach the age of forty and have not visited, you will be deported to Georgia!
Any internet search of St. Augustine will net an abundance of information about this region, but you must visit here to fully appreciate its contribution to American history. The FIRST European explorers (Spain) landed in the new world and established a settlement in, or near St. Augustine in 1513. The birth of the FIRST child of European ancestry was recorded here in 1566. That was 21 years before the first English settlement in Virginia. The oldest wooden school and the oldest house in Florida are both located in this city. Pretty cool!
The photo below is of the oldest house in Florida, but some historians would claim it to be the oldest in America. Built in the 1600’s it rivals the Fairbanks House in Boston which is know to have been built between 1637 – 1641. That fact hits you as you hear the docent say “oldest in America.” This is Florida and settlements existed here long before the British colonies were established.
Spain held onto Florida for a while, (1513 – 1763) but the French and English had their turns with us too. The Apalachee and Seminole tribes resisted colonization, (we all know how that worked out) and Spain prevailed in a second go-round with the English which put them back in control from 1783 – 1821. Since Spain controlled most of the Caribbean, and was transporting gold and silver from Peru and Mexico, Florida was obviously an important port for them. Eventually, St. Augustine was turned over to the United States via a treaty which was signed in 1819. So there you have it. This region had a pretty bumpy road along the way to acquiring its distinction as the First Coast.
When you visit St. Augustine, you cannot miss its most famous structure, Castillo de San Marcos, which was built by the Spanish in the 1600’s to serve as protection from potential invaders. Its unique construction of crushed coquina stone made it impervious to cannon fire.
You can learn more about the fort and its invaders by taking a trolley tour of the city. We highly recommend Ripley’s Red Train Trolley if you only have one day and want to hit the highlights of the city. The service includes historical narration and the opportunity to hop on and off with ease, at more than twenty stops, for a modest price. They also offer multi-day tickets if you choose to extend your stay in the area. You will need at least two or three days to thoroughly visit all the museums and cultural sites, along with more current attractions such as the St. Augustine Distillery and San Sebastian Winery which we will write about in another post.
Then Came Henry Flagler
Henry Flagler visited St. Augustine in the late 1800’s and forever changed the skyline of this sleepy little Spanish town. His Ponce de Leon Hotel, now Flagler College attracted wealthy Northerners and when they became bored, he built what could only be referred to as a “recreation complex” so that they would be entertained. The Alcazar Hotel pictured below, (now the Lightner Museum) housed the world’s largest indoor swimming pool, a casino, and sulfer baths, to name a few of its amenities. The photo below is of its interior courtyard.
While you can no longer stay at the beautiful Alcazar Hotel, you can tour the Museum and dine at the bottom of the pool. The photos above reflect how the pool looked in the 1800’s and how it is now.
Flagler so loved St. Augustine that he chose it as his final resting place. He, his first wife, daughter and granddaughter are entombed here. The mausoleum is attached to the Presbyterian church that he built in 1889 as a tribute to his daughter who died from complications of childbirth.
You might notice that the cross that typically sits atop the dome is absent. It was toppled by hurricane Irma in late August of this year. Complicated and costly plans are currently underway for it to be reestablished.
St. Augustine has a thriving tourist industry, which makes this historic town look more tired than charming at times. But, if you look past the multitudes of people, trinket shops and admission prices, you will see an amazing city built on the backs of our ancestors. You will see the meager beginnings of civilization in the New World and the price paid by those who were here before us. St. Augustine has a solid place in American history, and has definitely earned its coastal name. This is the FIRST COAST.