1883 in St. Augustine

1883 in St. Augustine 1

The Presbyterian Manse at 98 St. George Street where the historical society first met and the Columbia Restaurant is today.



The St. Augustine Historical Society traces its roots to a group of like-minded persons who met during the winter of 1883 at the home of Dr. Milton Waldo, the minister of the Presbyterian Church. According to Dr. Thomas Graham’s 2008 El Escribano article, the date of the first meeting is uncertain.[1] Some of the initial participants were Dr. Waldo, Dr. Dewitt Webb (a local physician), Charlie Johnson (a future museum curator), and Mary Reynolds (whose nephew was Hiram Bingham, III, the discoverer of Machu Pichu). This group met sporadically to hear papers contributed by the members on natural history and antiquities. What else was happening that winter tourist season that may have influenced the establishment of an organization dedicated to the study of Florida’s natural and cultural history?




By January 1883, the Jacksonville newspaper reported that St. Augustine was experiencing “a genuine boom.” “Within the last six months the following new establishments have been opened and about open in this city: Three grocery stores, five fruit and confectionery stores, one candy factory, three restaurants, one bakery, three oyster saloons, a bank, a newspaper, a photographic studio, a millinery store, several places for the sale of [photographic] views and curiosities, and numerous others.” Much building commenced in 1883. The U. S. Army under Gen. Frederick Dent (President Grant’s brother-in-law) was constructing new officer’s houses at the St. Francis Barracks. Trinity Parish Episcopal Church built a new Sunday School building and several large residences were under construction. The most spectacular winter home being built was that of Franklin W. Smith of Boston which he named the Villa Zorayda. A reporter noted, “Workmen are now busy in laying the foundation walls of this new edifice. Mr. Smith, gathering his ideas from years of travel in Granada and the northern portions of Africa where the climate is similar to that of Florida, proposes a kind of architecture entirely new to this country. The house will be built of coquina [concrete] on the Moorish style, with a hollow court in the center, which will be covered with glass.”[2]  “St. Augustine contains a greater number of millionaire property-owners than any other town in the South of its size.”[3]

The Florida House, the Sunnyside House, the St. Augustine, Sea View, and the Magnolia Hotels and the boarding houses were filled to capacity: demand outstripping supply. Visitors were entertained by minstrel shows at Genovar’s Opera House and the U. S. Army 2nd Artillery Band gave three concerts each week in the former Public Market on the Plaza and one at the Magnolia Hotel. The St. Augustine Yacht Club organized boat races on the Matanzas River. Several wealthy Yankees brought their yachts here for the winter including the world-famous America for which the cup is named.[4]

The Jacksonville, St. Augustine, and Halifax Railroad to connect the Ancient City to Jacksonville was under construction. In mid-January, their locomotive arrived in Jacksonville. Knowing its days were numbered, the St. Johns Railway from the steamboat landing at Tocoi to Depot Street in West Augustine cut the cost of fares from $2.00 to $1.25.[5]

Unbeknownst to almost everyone, an event took place during December 1883 that would change St. Augustine forever. Henry Morrison Flagler with his first wife Mary and his son had first visited St. Augustine in 1878 and he was not impressed by the city and its accommodations. In 1883, he returned with his second wife Ida Alice, his business partner John D. Rockefeller and his wife Laura. They were met at the docks in Jacksonville by Dr. Andrew Anderson who chaperoned the party upriver and eventually to St. Augustine. The Flaglers stayed at Dr. Anderson’s cottage at today’s 48 Sevilla Street. The city had greatly changed and Flagler saw opportunities to develop St. Augustine into a “Winter Newport.” Flagler stayed most of the season due to the harsh winter in New York and began the plans for his Florida empire. He returned the following winter staying at the new San Marco Hotel and secretly using Dr. Anderson, he began to acquire property.[6]

Written by Charles Tingley

[1] Graham, Thomas, “St. Augustine Historical Society 1883-2008.” El Escribano, Volume 45 (2008): 1-3.

[2] “State News,” Florida Daily Times (Jacksonville), January, 17, 1883, 2.

[3] “Ancient City Locals,” Florida Daily Times, January 17, 1883, 2.

[4] “Ancient City Locals,” Florida Daily Times, January 10, 1883, 3.

[5] “City and Suburban News,” Florida Daily Times, January 17, 1883, 3.

[6] Graham, Thomas, Mr. Flagler’s St. Augustine (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2014), 34-46