Traveling through Arlington today, you might be surprised by its rich history and former cultural distance from Jacksonville proper. Geographically, some of its elevated land makes it unusual for North Florida. For early residents, that high land meant beautiful views and excellent drainage, a highly valued commodity when it came to public health through the 1900s.
Like a lot of the land around the St. Johns River, Arlington shows evidence of human occupation by Native Americans, dating as far back as 5000 B.C. The most notable evidence in Arlington is several Indian mounds, such as the Shields Mound, a hill so large that it was often taken for one of the bluffs common to the area. The remains of the mound can be found off Ft. Caroline Road and Hartsfield. The mound stood in the Gilmore settlement, was owned by a Mr. Shields, and was excavated by Clarence B. Moore in 1895 or 1896. Moore excavated a number of mounds throughout Florida, and because the mound was so large (summit plateau of 115 by 133 feet with a diameter of 214 feet), he only partially excavated it, finding evidence of both a midden and human burial. Today, according to local historian Cleve Powell, you can also find the giant Grant Mound near the Church of Latter Day Saints off of Ft. Caroline on the river.
Although there is some argument about where the French settlement of Ft. Caroline stood, you can find Fort Caroline National Memorial across the river, north of Arlington. It commemorates the some of the earliest recorded European settlers in America, before they were routed by the Spanish in 1565.
The Kingsley Plantation isn’t in Arlington (it can be found near Ft. George) but the legacy of Zephaniah Kingsley certainly influenced the Arlington area. Though Kingsley was a slave owner, he was remarkably progressive, allowing slaves to earn money during their “off hours.” He married one of his slaves, Anna Madgigine Jai.
After his death in 1843, his widow lived on land in Arlington, as did the daughters of Anna and Zephaniah. Both of Kingsley’s daughters married local white men and settled in the Arlington area, pre-Civil war.
One of the men who married a Kingsley daughter was John H. Sammis, an up-and-comer who managed the Strawberry Mill and Plantation in Arlington. The hydraulic mill was powered by a dam at the junction of Red Bay and Strawberry Creek, creating a kind of “island” you can see today at Tree Hill. A letter survives from the owner of the Strawberry Creek Mill and Plantation, Francis Richard II, to Sammis in which he is asked to keep the workers from “going to Jacksonville often…as they will only learn vices, and probably no good.” This attitude speaks to the rural isolation of Arlington at the time. It was a much smaller community than Jacksonville, and because only hired boats connected it to the city, Arlington was necessarily self-contained.
Sammis owned slaves, but he was passionately against secession from the Union, so much so that he even helped set up a Florida government opposed to secession. Though Florida did break from the Union, it was a state divided. When Sammis made his views publicly known, he had to flee the area, fearing that his life was in danger from loyal Confederates.
Union troops did occupy Jacksonville on and off during the war since the Confederates were spread thin, but since they sometimes lost territory their strategy was often less about keeping a position and more about destroying the resources the Confederacy might use, and vice versa. Before the war the business of Arlington was devoted to plantation lands and sawmills. In 1850 Arlington saw the assembly of the first steam-powered saw mill in North Florida at Empire Point (then known as Hazzard’s Bluff). Like all the sawmills and many of the plantations in the area, it was destroyed by soldiers before the end of the war.
Oranges, Winter Homes & Religious Communities
From Reconstruction in the 1870s through about 1900, Arlington became part of the winter home and resort movement of Florida. Northerners built winter homes and resorts for tourists. As odd as it might seem today, religious communities sprang from the resort movement. Real estate promoters marketed to Christians, encouraging them to buy land in Arlington, as a winter retreat surrounded by like-minded residents. Most of the members of the Clifton and Eggleston religious-based communities hailed from New Jersey.
William Matthews formed the Arlington Bluff Association, which did seek out Christian buyers. The relative isolation of Arlington was a selling point, but it was also a deterrent, so the Association provided a steamer which took four daily trips to Jacksonville as an enticement for Northerners. Matthews was also part of Arlington’s other major endeavor of the time, the profitable orange groves which surrounded his estate.
Other communities consisting of freed slaves also made their homes in Arlington, and some of the ancestors of those slaves still live in the area today, although a great many lost their land to unscrupulous developers in later eras.
When it came to tourism, North Florida began to lag behind the rest of the state by the late 1890s for a couple of reasons. First, disaster came in the form of the Great Freeze in 1894-95, with another bad winter in ‘99. William Matthew’s orange groves, along with all the others in Arlington, withered and died. News of this freeze and the devastation of the North Florida citrus industry made South Florida more attractive. The freeze had another effect: it dropped property values. When the citrus industry in North Florida froze over, never again to heat up to its former glory, it devastated the local economy. Suddenly, buying a winter home in North Florida didn’t seem like such a good investment. Added to that was the completion of the railway down the state to Key West, and the lure of Southern Florida.
There were some efforts to connect Arlington to the Southbank via railroad tracks across the Arlington River. This section of tracks was only in use from 1893 to 1895, because of low revenue, and by 1900 was dismantled. During the five years it wasn’t in use by the railway, local historian Cleve Powell says that individuals used mechanical handcarts on the track to run mail and packages to the inhabitants of the area. The railway company responsible for this bit of line, JM & P, had the unfortunate nickname of “Jump, Men & Push Railroad” because on one of its first runs the engine stalled on one of the nearby bluffs Arlington is known for. The male passengers had to get out and push it over the hill. JM & P ran twice a day starting in 1888, from Arlington to Mayport (specifically in the bounds of what is now Hannah Park), stopping at Eggleston, Verona, Cohasset and Gilmore (all of these are small neighborhoods within what is considered Arlington today).
While development was spurred in other areas after the Jacksonville’s Great Fire in 1901, because of Arlington’s placement and lack of a direct bridge connection, it was largely unaffected, though residents did have a view of the evolving Jacksonville skyline, as Downtown was rebuilt, better and higher than ever.
See Also: Norman Film Studios in Old Arlington
Film Studios & Florida Fever
The film industry began moving into North Florida in the early 1900s and the teens. In 1916, The Eagle Film Manufacturing Company took over a defunct cigar-rolling factory and built four other buildings to house their “Film City.” It was a huge operation, including offices, projection rooms, a developing room and a giant swimming pool used to film water scenes. While this caused some excitement, Eagle Film soon folded. The location was eventually bought by Richard Norman, Sr. for Norman Studios in 1922. Norman Studios made films with all-black casts. After Norman’s retirement, from the early 1950s through the mid-1970s Richard’s wife Gloria used the main building as a dance studio. The location survives to this day and is an important part of North Florida film history and black history.
In the 1920s, America caught Florida Fever. It wasn’t an illness, just an enthusiasm for the comforts of sunny Florida during leisure time. Labor reform, which resulted in more vacation days, a rising middle class, a fully realized railway and the advent of the automobile all contributed to Florida Fever. Jacksonville, as a major railway hub, became a departure point and solidified its reputation as “the gateway to Florida.” Despite the development around it, Arlington remained relatively immune to the fever, though the community was slowly growing.
It was this Florida Fever that likely prompted a neighborhood promotional booklet published in 1924 by the Arlington Community Club. It proudly extolled the healthful nature of Arlington bluffs, the mix of rural and residential, though the author, F.W. Bruce, charmingly appears a bit annoyed that most residents chose to live in Arlington and work in Jacksonville rather than take up farming locally. The pamphlet notes that a schoolhouse was built for the cost of $40,000 ($493,225 in today’s dollars) in 1921 and boasted an enrollment of over 300 pupils by 1924. Industries of the area were limited to mainly river-based companies, such as Seaboard Dredging and several boat builders, but diary farms, a mill and the J.J. Phillips turpentine still were also listed as places of commercial enterprise. Several community clubs and organizations existed then, including the Arlington Community Club, the Boosters Club of Floral Bluff, Social Club of South Arlington and the Free Library, which had a free circulation of 2,000.
The influential Arlington Community Club grew out of the Vigilance Club, formed just before World War I. Its purpose, according to the 1924 booklet, was originally “the suppression of disloyalty and lawlessness, which has been most effective.” The Vigilantes were then organized into the East Coast Guards for the “enforcement of good order, sale of War Bonds, suppression of riots and to furnish immediately a body of men of some training to fill most any gap in an emergency.” Post-war they became the Arlington Community Club. Though the tract’s author does speak of Jacksonville’s nearby amenities, it’s quite apparent that the Arlington Community Club thought of Arlington as a community apart from, and not part of Jacksonville.
Arlington Finally Joins Jacksonville
That long separation of Arlington from Jacksonville proper was finally broken in the 1950s by the hard-fought construction of the Mathews Bridge, connecting it to the city not by the circuitous route through the Southside, but directly to the heart of Downtown. The bridge was named for John E. Mathews, a judge and legislator who was instrumental in gathering the funding and social momentum to get it built. As local resident and historian Cleve Powell notes, “the Arlington Bridge…[had] been discussed as long as there were cars.” The Arlington Bridge Boosters Association circulated a petition in 1946 for a high level bridge (rather than the traffic-snarling draw bridges).
Cleveland E. “Cleve” Powell, a local historian who was born in Arlington in the 1936, has been one of the driving forces behind keeping the history of Old Arlington alive. He’s seen a lot of changes, growing up in a 1920s era house (that still sits atop Tree Hill today) and was witness to the rapid changes the Mathews Bridge brought to the neighborhood.
Powell says that before the Mathews Bridge, life in Arlington continued largely as it had in the plantation era, minus the slavery, using horse-drawn plows long after the advent of the automobile. There was no doctor or real ambulance on that side of the river and a funeral home acted as an ambulance in emergencies. Those who lived and worked there either farmed, fished commercially or worked at the shipyards.
The bridge was delayed for many years until it became a sure thing. When it did, it changed everything for Arlington. “The changes started well before it opened because people started building, knowing it was going in,” says Powell. Jacksonville University, established in 1934, encouraged by the plans for the bridge, bought land in Arlington in 1948 (formerly land on which the Chesterfield Plantation stood, once owned by Anna Kingsley). Construction of the new campus began in 1950, and the bridge was finished by 1953. Jacksonville University’s presence probably led to the improvement of the Chaseville Highway, now known as University Boulevard, into a six-lane road by 1961.
These changes took Arlington from a semi-rural and residential neighborhood to something more suburban and less tight-knit. By the late 1960s through the 90s, more subdivisions and apartment housing were built. 1967 brought the construction of the nearby Regency Mall. The 1969 consolidation sealed Arlington’s fate as part of Jacksonville rather than a community apart.
“To me, Arlington is the most historical neighborhood in Jacksonville.”
Vestiges of the old Arlington still remain, and in 1993 Old Arlington, Inc., a historic preservation organization was formed. “To me, Arlington is the most historical neighborhood in Jacksonville,” says Powell, who has family roots in both Arlington and Mayport. 2010 saw the dedication of historical markers in Arlington, a great way to connect with our local history. To learn more about Arlington’s history, the community, and what’s happening there today, go to myarlington.org.