St. Augustine's Written History
With the news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the reality of wartime economies became a major concern. Gasoline rationing was a threat to visiting families and tourism. Reluctantly, St. Augustinians adopted wartime measures that effectively ended tourism. Waterfront lighting was eliminated and even the lighthouse’s beacon was dimmed from 20,000 to 5,000 candlepower to prevent its beam from aiding the u-boats in their hunt for merchant ships. As a result, the city lost its appeal to the tourists who, up until the beginning of the war, had provided 80 percent of the city’s income.
During the war, 2,500 Coast Guard trainees arrived for basic training at the Ponce de Leon Hotel. Over the next three years, thousands more followed. This influx of servicemen provided immediate economic benefits to St. Augustine.
Soon after the Second World War ended, St. Augustine began to experience a tourism boom. Not only had preservation efforts restored many long-neglected buildings, but on January 1, 1948 the Lightner Museum opened in the former Alcazar Hotel. In 1950, the original Ripley’s Believe-It-or-Not Museum celebrating the worldwide travels of Robert Ripley opened at the former Warden Castle. More than 50 years later, these two attractions remain among St. Augustine’s most popular. The movie “Distant Drums” starring Gary Cooper was filmed in 1951. Sightseeing trains became popular in 1953. Over the past 50 years, the sightseeing trains have become part of the St. Augustine experience for millions of visitors.
St. Augustine faced their own racial issues with organized protests of segregation by the NAACP and picketing at the Visitor Information Center. In 1964, the troubles in St. Augustine gained national attention. That spring, some northern college students on their traditional “spring break” decided to also protest against segregation in the city. Many were arrested, including one of their supporters, Mrs. Malcolm Peabody, mother of the governor of Massachusetts. The national media descended on St. Augustine to get photos of Mrs. Peabody behind bars and to report on race relations in the city. As a result, leaders of both sides of the issue decided to make St. Augustine a rallying point for their causes.
In May, the Reverend Martin Luther King arrived in St. Augustine. Assisted by Andrew Young, King and local black leaders organized series of protest marches. The first march was greeted with violence from whites and many blacks were arrested. Undaunted, the marches and demonstrations continued. The marches and violence became a nightly occurrence in St. Augustine.
Martin Luther King was eventually arrested at the Monson Motor Lodge – the site now occupied by the Hilton Inn. An even more famous incident occurred at the Monson when the manager was photographed pouring what was allegedly acid on to white and black civil rights protesters who had entered the motel’s “Whites Only” swimming pool. That photo appeared in newspapers around the world and is often credited for having helped convince undecided members of Congress to vote in favor of the Civil Rights Act that was passed on July 4, 1964.
Despite the previous year’s civil rights turmoil and negative publicity, city leaders organized and presented a spectacular 400th birthday party for St. Augustine. The oldest city’s culture and history were presented in a week long celebration featuring parades, re-enactments, concerts and speeches. The St. Augustine Amphitheatre was opened that year on Anastasia Island. Located on the grounds of the old quarries that provided the coquina for building the city, the amphitheatre became the permanent home of the drama “Cross and Sword”. Written by noted playwright Paul Green, the play tells the story of Menendez and the founding of St. Augustine. It was named as Florida’s official drama.
The foundation stone for the Great Cross was also unveiled during the birthday celebration. Located on the grounds of the Mission Nombre de Dios where Menendez landed on September 8, 1565, the steel cross is 208 feet tall and weighs 70 tons. It is the second tallest free-standing cross in the western hemisphere. Many local residents note that St. Augustine has not been hit by a major hurricane since the Great Cross was erected.