Ortega: Historic & Beautiful
Once an island, now a spit of a peninsula protruding into the St. Johns River’s western waters and threading into the Ortega and Cedar Rivers, there is a neighborhood called Ortega. Its eastern part is known as Old Ortega and western as Ortega Forest, split in the middle by Roosevelt Boulevard, or US17. Verona Boulevard splits Old Ortega, the eastern part known as the Old Ortega Historic District by the National Register of Historic Places.
Wealthy, as well as historic, the neighborhood was part of a Spanish Land Grant. In 1763, Spain ceded Florida to England. Soon, the Jones Plantation was made residence for cattle by owner and Scotsman Colonel Daniel McGirtt (also known as McGirt), who fought the British as a member of rebel Georgia troops. He was court martialed, publicly whipped, and even jailed at St. Augustine’s Spanish fort in St. Augustine, Castillo de San Marcos. When he returned, he farmed his fertile land with slaves. Today, a park and road feature his name, as well as McGirt’s Creek, also known as the Ortega River.
At the turn of the 20th century, millionaire, financier and banker J. Pierpont Morgan helped finance the Ortega Company (1908). Headed by president and subdivision developer John N.C. Stockton, a dedicated community man, along with Charles C. Bettes, whose name graces Bettes Park. Well-known Jacksonville architect Henry J. Klutho designed this Ortega subdivision. Stockton Park (1909) and Stockton School still bear his name. A wooden bridge connected the Ortega island to Avondale.
Many historic homes date back to the early 1900s. The river manses are beautifully appointed and the landscapes are pruned perfectly. Bettes Circle on Ortega Point is well known because it’s where a large century-old oak spreads its boughs onto historic ground – some say it was the place where kissing took place mid-20th century and a cigarette, or two.
Ortega features two public elementary schools, Ortega on the east in the historic section and Stockton on the west in Ortega Forest. St. Mark’s Church began as a mission in Old Ortega in 1914, and a church in 1922, followed by a private day school.
The many parks include a Jacksonville-based family name and globally recognized names, such as Yerkes for a World War II captain from the area; two more parks for the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus and the Portuguese explorer Hernando Desoto; one for the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortez, as well as one for Ponce De Leon, the latter now known as Charles C. Bettes Park. And, of course, Seminole Park for the Native American tribe.
Street names feature Native American tribes – Pawnee, Cherokee, Iroquois, Apache, and Arapahoe, as well as those named for Ivy League schools, such a Princeton. Architectural columns (Doric, Ionic, Corinthian) even became names for some of the winding streets filled with Spanish moss draping many of the old oaks.
Founded in 1876 and led by William J. Astor as its first commodore, the third Florida Yacht Club opened in 1928 at the end of Yacht Club Road. It features a Spanish-themed tower, newly expanded tennis courts, boating docks and a sailing club on the St. Johns River and nestled into Pirates Cove.
In the 1950s, Uncle Bill and his stagecoach was a sight to behold as children celebrated their birthdays pretending to be Annie Oakley or The Lone Ranger. Families could sit in their backyards and grill a steak and wash it down with a Falstaff beer after watching rockets take off from Cape Canaveral earlier in the day. The migration of the manatees was always on time – always in awe. The large bulbous creatures were a treat when found in Pirates Cove by the Yacht Club meandering and feeding on river grass.
Docks were aplenty with barnacles and blue crabs easily caught with a net on a stick. Two-foot gar fish swam along with sheep head, brim and catfish. An alligator or two was always sighted annually in Pirates Cove. The water was so clear in the mid-20th century that you could see more than six feet down with minnows swimming in between your legs. Clams were aplenty, too. Some say kids used to fish where the sewage came out at the end of the Yacht Club dock; fish caught were then turned in and fried up for the Wednesday fish fry events, and the kids were given free limeades in exchange.
Debutante parties were held in the oaken halls of the Club, while swimmers – some going on to the Olympic Games – worked out in the 25-yard pool with their “FYC” embroidered flag on red swimsuits. Many held national records, too. Dinghies and motor boats, even 100-foot ships, as well as sailing vessels of all kinds have been seen on the St. Johns River coming from or moored at the Club.
One could dig into the grey shore when the tide was out and pull up fantastic clay to make a Taj Mahal. Snakes – moccasin and cottonmouth – were at the river shore snuggled into the natural bulkheads before they became concrete block on Pirates Cove. The snakes moved back quickly into their holes when boats carried water skiers around the Cove and back out into the St. Johns River. The river was for recreation, and families took full advantage of it.
Orange and grapefruit trees produced delicious fruit for cool summer drinks. Clothes were hung with clothespins on lines hooked into two trees. Palm trees surrounded long u-shaped driveways amid oak and pine trees. Azaleas bloomed by the millions in Ortega every spring.
The infamous bascule drawbridge still connects Ortega Boulevard and Grand Avenue to San Juan on the other side. A famous green-painted wooden Dance Hall on pilings was located at the foot of Grand Avenue Bridge, now known as the Ortega River Bridge, where an electric trolley once served the residents taking them downtown after a pick-up and at the turn around point at Ortega Village.
Walked by botanist William Bartram and made even more famous by a fellow named “Machine Gun” Kelly, who is rumored to have been holed-up in a house on Grand Avenue, this spit of land features Southern plantation-style homes, often with debutantes in residence, as well as smaller, beautiful cottages featuring multiple architectural styles as each networked down and connected on the arteries of the original street grid.
Today, families enjoy the beautiful moss-laden drives through Ortega and Ortega Forest. Young families nestle-in to raise families. Long gone are the high school sororities and fraternities. Old wooden houses, some designed by many famous architects, such as the one who designed the Jefferson Memorial, are rehabbed and sculpture often greets a front door visitor. People met the paper boys when they delivered the Jacksonville Journal after school or the Florida Times-Union on Saturday and Sunday papers.
photos courtesy of OldOrtega.com
“Ortega, Ortega…” is still sung by elementary school children. A variety of churches representing multiple denominations are full on Sundays. Bicycles are omnipresent, as are walkers, especially in the beautifully manicured parks.
photos courtesy of OldOrtega.com
Ortega is coming up on its 90th birthday party soon in 2018. Perhaps this story will elicit long-ago memories for some. Close your eyes and you can hear the bands at the Dance Hall at the bridge; the talking among parents as to whether or not to build a fall-out shelter if the U.S. was hit by Cuba during the Missile Crisis; doors opening when doorbells rang to be handed a special treat made by moms who used to cook Halloween candy and treats from scratch, not buy commercial bags of sweets; the sweet smell of the mosquito truck driving down roads to rid residents of the pesky pests as kids got lost in the grey fog; dogs barking – poodles to collies to hunting dogs and beagles, and cats sneaking around to find a river rat, or two.
Sights of a new piece of equipment – the riding lawn mower – came out early mornings to cut the grass. People sitting on their docks having a gin and tonic while the sun set in the west. “Knock-off,” the elementary school boy patrol would shout, as they kept kids safe when walking home, always in sight of each child. Easter Egg hunts in the parks, kids playing jacks, comic books in the magazine racks, and a sundae made from scratch at Doc Carter’s pharmacy, where young girls would find peroxide to lighten their hair.
Generations of families lived and live in Ortega. It’s a beautiful neighborhood, an asset to Jacksonville, a place known for beauty, now a placeholder in the history of Jacksonville for generations to come.