Atlantic Beach citizens take pride in the residential character of their little city and plan to keep it that way. They confine its two business districts to Mayport Road and to Atlantic Boulevard. Its voters refused to merge with Neptune and Jacksonville Beaches in 1947. When all of Duval County was merged into the City of Jacksonville in 1968, they fought absorption and lost, but, along with Neptune and Jacksonville Beaches, cut a deal. The beach cities would share power with the City Jacksonville, a federal system as it were. Atlantic Beach people see their little city as a refuge from Jacksonville with all its myriad of problems.
The now infamous Henry M. Flagler created Atlantic Beach when he built his luxurious Continental Hotel about half way between Mayport from Pablo (now Jacksonville) Beach with the intent of attracting monied people as guests of the hotel and selling lots to them as well. The Continental Hotel, painted FEC yellow, was 47 feet by 447 feet with a six story rotunda and five story wings. The dining room could seat 350. There were 186 sleeping apartments (later 200) and 56 baths. It had numerous outbuildings. The hotel compound occupied the land between the ocean and what is now East Coast Drive (the former railroad bed) south to north, between just north of 8th and 10th Streets. Its wilderness location required it to have a deep well for water and an electric generator as well as things for patrons to do. The hotel reservation included a fishing pier, a golf course, bath houses, a bowling alley, and a dance hall. Employees were housed separately from the guests. It rivaled any hotel in the nation. Flagler’s land company sold lots near the hotel for homes, some of which were only occupied from April to September.
All this because he created the Florida East Coast Railway and extended it to Key West and needed coal. He bought two bankrupt railroads: the defunct Jacksonville, Mayport, and Pablo Railroad, whose tracks went from Arlington through Mayport to the coast (Wonderwood Drive uses this route), and the Jacksonville and Atlantic Railway, whose tracks ran from South Jacksonville to Pablo (now Jacksonville) Beach (what is now Beach Boulevard). After converting to standard gauge, he laid tracks from about where the Beaches Museum stands north to East Mayport (now the Navy base) and west to Mayport, where he built coal wharfs.
Flagler lost interest in northeast Florida as the FEC tracks reached farther and farther south. The hotel lost money; not many lots were sold, and the FEC began converting to diesel locomotives, making Mayport less important. In 1913, he sold the hotel and 4,000 acres to the Atlantic Beach Corporation. Harcourt Bull represented the new owners, who renamed it the Atlantic Beach Hotel. In time, Bull acquired most of the land.
Bull and W. H. Adams of Atlantic Beach Hotel fame dominated early Atlantic Beach. Adams leased and then bought the Atlantic Beach Hotel, rebuilding it after the 1919 fire while operating a small hotel on the site. In 1925, a new hotel was ready for occupancy. Bull, the land baron, was appointed the first mayor of Atlantic Beach in 1925. The new city contained only 164 people in 1930. Its boundaries were the Atlantic Ocean on the east, Pablo Creek and the inland-coastal waterway on the west, Atlantic Boulevard on the south and
Sixteenth Street on the north. It was primitive by modern standards with its unpaved, sandy streets, a few narrow sidewalks, and no sewers or storm drains. Electricity and water were purchased from the Atlantic Beach Hotel until the city joined the Jacksonville electrical grid in 1938 and created its own waterworks in 1947. Many houses, especially those facing the ocean, served only as summer places. Oceanfront houses were usually large; those inland tended to be more modest, often two or three bedroom, one bathroom houses.
The city grew in population and commercial activity with the economic boom following World War II. Its population grew from 1,004 in 1950 to today’s 13,000 plus. It expanded its boundaries; the land north of 16th Street to Hanna Park joined the city in 1987, blocking Jacksonville’s and Naval Station Mayport expansion southward. More tax revenue meant more and better infrastructure.
Residents agreed to protect its residential character. Except for the Atlantic Beach Hotel and the elegant Le Chateau restaurant, commerce was limited to the Atlantic Boulevard and Mayport Road corridors. The hotel was sold in 1969 to be replaced by condominiums and the restaurant met a similar fate in 1985. Atlantic Boulevard, opened in 1910, always had small, family-owned stores and motels such as the Salt Air and The Palms. Since the late 1940s, the foot of the boulevard has hosted a hotel and restaurant. First the Copper Kettle, then the Sea Turtle, and now One Ocean Resort. Atlantic Boulevard became more commercial, including shopping centers, and looked like any commercial strip anywhere in the country. The Beaches Town Center Agency created the chic Town Center with its brick-paved streets and bike racks in the 1990s by using City of Jacksonville monies. Businesses were refurbished or created. Entrepreneurs built businesses on Mayport Road to accommodate residents and people connected to the Navy. Both commercial corridors produce tax revenue, but most residents can ignore them.
Residential living in Atlantic Beach changed as houses were built on land north of Sixteenth Street and west of Sherry Drive, parks were established, and a country club was added. People demanded bigger houses with more amenities such as more bathrooms, garages, and central air conditioning. Many existing houses gained additions and renovations. Some were destroyed, and large, modern houses were built on the small lots. Traditionalists objected to this change in the character of “old Atlantic Beach,” but Atlantic Beach became even more appealing to those who could afford its serenity, beauty, and small-town feel.Atlantic Beach residents see it as a safe spot within the Metro Jacksonville sprawl. They want to keep it that way.