On our way home from Orlando, a little more than an hour into our 20+ hour road trip back to Toronto, we stopped in St. Augustine, “the nation’s oldest city”, just north of Jacksonville – indeed the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in the United States, having been founded by the Spanish in 1565.
St. Augustin’s founder, Don Pedro Menendez, came ashore on September 8, 1565, and chose to name the settlement after the patron saint whose feast day coincided with the day of landing. Of course, before the Spanish ever set foot on Florida soil, the Timacuan Indians had already been here and they watched Menendez and the roughly 1500 colonists and soldiers settle here. Over the last few centuries the city experienced governments from different countries, including Spain, Britain, and since 1821, the United States.
The real rise of this community came in the late 1800s when Henry Flagler (1830 to 1913) built two hotels and took over a third as part of the Flagler hotel chain. Flagler was the co-founder of Standard Oil, and although not as well known as some of the other early magnates of capitalism, he was one of the wealthiest individuals of his time. Flagler had a major impact on Florida: he founded the Florida East Coast Railway as a means of transporting guests to and from the north to his hotels in St. Augustine, Palm Beach, and Miami. A honeymoon visit to St. Augustine in 1881 with his second wife inspired Flagler’s vision to transform this sleepy town into a winter playground for the rich.
Three of Flagler’s former St. Augustine hotels are still in use today: Flagler College (the former Hotel Ponce de Leon), the Lightner Building – St. Augustine’s City Hall (the former Alcazar) and Casa Monica, redone as a county courthouse in the 1960s, and reopened in 1990 as the restored Casa Monica Hotel. During the late 19th and early 20th century Flagler also developed a residential neighbourhood called the Model Land Company tract.
Within a few short years Flagler’s dream of a resort town for northerners faded and he, and the wealthy northern visitors, moved further south. He continued to develop the Florida East Coast Railroad down the peninsula, into and across the Florida Keys, creating hotels and communities along the way.
St. Augustine is centered around the Plaza de la Constitucion, which anchors the Lightner Museum / City Hall, Casa Monica and Flagler College, three stunningly beautiful structures. Located in the former Alcazar Hotel, the Lightner Museum houses collections of legendary hobbyist and antiques collector Otis Lightner.
St. Augustine has a wealth of other historic and architecturally interesting structures. The most historically significant structure in St. Augustine is the Castillo de San Marcos, built by the Spanish between 1672 and 1695. The 19th century Lighthouse Museum is located in the St. Augustine Lighthouse on Anastasia Island east of town across the Bridge of Lions. St. Augustine also houses the oldest store in town dating to the turn of the last century. Talking about old buildings, St. Augustine is home to the Gonzalez-Alvarez House, dating back to 1727, known as the “Oldest House Complex”, a National Historic Landmark.
The Mission of Nombre de Dios is located on the west bank of Matanzas Bay, and it is said to have been the site of the first Catholic Mass in what is today the United States. The Spanish Quarter Village is a living history museum composed of a collection of colonial period houses where guides recreate the dress and lifestyle as seen in 1740.
Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth National Archaeological Park exhibits foundations and artifacts of the first St. Augustine mission and colony. It also houses the Landmark Spring, Explorers Globe and Navigators’ Planetarium. St. Augustine also houses the Oldest Drug Store and the nation’s Oldest Wooden Schoolhouse, built more than 200 years ago while Florida was under Spain’s rule.
Unfortunately we did not have a chance to explore St. Augustine in detail, but our brief excursion into this historic city quickly proved what a unique destination St. Augustine really is. As a matter of fact, the city welcomes around 2 million visitors every year who come to discover a unique historic part of America. A settlement with authentic Spanish roots, complete with Castillo and all, is a truly unique sight in the U.S. and it was definitely worth the detour.