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City Finances

Sixty years ago, federal funds were not available to local governments for the building of roads and bridges, and it was to another source that many municipalities had to turn. In the case of St. Augustine, Henry, M. Flagler was the benefactor and he, like the federal government in modem times, was not always pleased with the way his plans were carried out. In 1906, Mr. Flagler wrote to his third vice president, Mr. J. E. Ingraham, complaining that the city was not keeping the streets in good repair and asked for "a little measure of public spirit" at least enough to keep the only street we have to the railroad in good condition."

Mr. Ingraham looked into the situation and wrote to Mr. Flagler, explaining to him that, at least in his opinion, the city was doing the best it could with what it had to work with. He pointed out that only the year before, in 1905, the tax rate had been raised from 1.5 per cent to 2 per cent and that this managed to bring into into the city's coffers a total of $53,085.42, more than double the revenues for the year 1892.

Twenty years previously, Mr. Flagler had built the very streets about which he was complaining (.89 miles-4700 ft. of wooden block streets and 1.19 miles of asphalt). To this the city had added 1.55 miles of brick-paved thoroughfares, plus 6.53 miles covered with oyster shells, and they had done this without going into debt or increasing the taxes on property owned by the Florida East Coast Railway. The only really large outstanding obligation was for the water works which had lately been much improved. Mr. Ingraham hoped that the new city council, just elected would be able to do a little better about keeping the city's streets repaired, but he pointed out that St. Augustine was not a wealthy community.

In his report to Henry Flagler, Mr. Ingraham said: "St. Augustine is too close to Jacksonville to make much business here and there are not more than six men who are residents of the city or county who have an income of $5,000.00 per annum, so it could hardly be expected that anything of importance could be carried through without your help."

Mr. Ingraham closes his report to his boss by reminding Mr. Flagler that in 1859, many years before Mr. Flagler came with his money and his interest in developing the city, the total money brought in by the city, in taxes was just $588.07. Not much street repair, or anything else, could have been financed in those days.

Hotel San Marco, St. Augustine

Other Fine Hotels are Built

The Ponce de Leon and Alcazar, though famous for their beauty and elegance, were only two in a number of hotels which in the Gay Nineties and in the years afterward until the advent of the Automobile Age, dotted St. Augustine. Many of these were massive wooden structures like the San Marco, the Hotel St. Augustine, the Florida House, the Magnolia, the Ocean View, the Buckingham, to name a few.

The San Marco was one of the largest of these hostelries and was built on what is still known today as the San Marco lot. Its owner and builder was Jerry Palmer who first came to St. Augustine as a winter visitor and quickly realized the city's potential as a haven for northerners fleeing the snow and ice. He opened his hotel in 1886. It proved to be a real competitor to the two opulent Flagler edifices and shared with them the honor of providing a center for the winter social whirl.

William Jennings Bryan chose one of its broad verandahs as a platform for a campaign speech during one of his several bids for the presidency. He was surrounded by a crowd of notables as he addressed the voters gathered on the grounds below, perhaps too many of them, because the floor gave away, dumping the candidate and his entourage to the ground injuring quite a few people seriously. The saga of the San Marco came to an abrupt end in October of 1898 when it was destroyed in a disastrous fire.

The same fate was in store for many of the other big wooden hotels. The Hotel St. Augustine, owned by Captain E. E. Vail and located the corner of Cathedral Place and Charlotte Street went up in flames and the big fire of 1914 demolished the Florida House at the junction of St. George and Treasury streets. The Magnolia, just south of the city building on St. George Street, burned to the ground in 1926.

What sort of accommodations did these hotels supply? The Hotel St. George's advertisement offered elevators, private baths, electric lights in every room and steam heat, going on to assure patrons that it was "ideal for ladies traveling alone." The smaller Ocean View on Bay Street, operated by H. E. Hernandez, boasted a fine waterfront location and rooms for as little as $1 per day. The Florida House had a steam elevator and you could summon a bell hop by pressing an electric call bell.

The Magnolia was proud of its spacious grounds covering nearly two acres on "The Fifth Avenue of St. Augustine" (St. George Street), as well as beds, mattresses and springs especially designed for comfort.

As late as 1933, a mimeographed publication put out by the Chamber of Commerce, listed a number of local hotel rates, which ran tipward from $1 to as high as $3, the fee for the least expensive room at the lordly Ponce de Leon. (It must be remembered that 1933 was the year the Great Depression was at its lowest depths and even winter visitors were not too well heeled.)

During World War II, three of the local hotels, including the Ponce, were taken over by the U.S. Coast Guard, which set up a training station in St. Augustine. An editorial in the Record appeared in August of 1942 announcing that the city had achieved its aim of attracting a military installation, but going on to assure everyone that visitors from the north, able to travel in wartime could still find plenty of accommodations.

Today the bay front is lined with modern motels offering every luxury from color TV, and swimming pools, to continental breakfast served free. They are barely sufficient to house the increasing crowds of visitors who throng the Ancient City both in winter and in summer, and new motor lodges are going up along the beaches and on every approach to the town.


 
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