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The Swimming Fire Horses

One winter day over 50 years ago, strollers on the seawall were startled to see two old fire horses dashing down Hypolita Street with the fire wagon careening behind them and the driver tugging frantically, on the reins. They charged across Bay Street, headed straight for the seawall, and when the front wheels of the wagon hit the wall, the harness broke and both horses went over the barrier and into the bay, dragging their driver with them.

It all came about this way according to a witness: Although the fire department had, by then, motorized its equipment, the old horse-drawn wagon was kept on standby and driven to all fires, in case it was needed. A city employee, whose name bas been lost in the mists of time, was given the job of driving the two old steeds to the scene of each blaze, but he was warned in the strongest terms not to ring the bell, because that was the signal to the two veterans of many a conflagration to take off at their fastest gallop. Alas, the first time he was called upon to perform his new duty he forgot, and the two horses, nostrils flaring and hoofs striking sparks from the pavement were off full tilt. There was no stopping them until they took their unscheduled plunge into the bay. The witness reports that they thoroughly enjoyed their swim, although Captain Ranti and Fireman Manucy were not so happy about the four hours they had to spend trying to persuade them to climb the stone steps in the seawall and get home to the firehouse.

The luckless driver was chastened by the experience and evidently promised to remember to keep the bell silent on his next outing, because he was kept on the job. His next trip proved equally disastrous, alas, though it was not nearly so much fun for the horses. As he drove out of the firehouse, he kept his hands resolutely off the bell, and also the brake. The horses, this time, only made it as far as the Elks Club on Bay Street. They stopped there utterly exhausted from pulling the heavy wagon with the brake set. They were worn out, and so were the rubber tires on the firewagon, which were right down to the rim on both back wheels.

The wagon was out of commission for the next six weeks, but there is no record of the future career of its driver.

South Beach Pier south of St. Augustine

CHAPTER VII Outlying Areas

Anastasia Island

Anastasia Island has always seemed like a part of St. Augustine and, in fact, the city limits include its northern tip. It was not always so easy to get to (when the draw doesn't hang up), but from the earliest days people from town went there.

As early as 1586 the Spaniards built a watch tower near the inlet to spy out approaching ships and they were quick to discover the usefulness of the coquina pits as a source of material for their more substantial building. It was hauled by oxcart to the banks of Escolta (Quarry) Creek, in those days not so marshy, which runs roughly parallel to Coquina Avenue on Davis Shores, and then ferried by barge across the bay. It is believed that the old chimney and well near the quarries are all that remain of a barracks where the workmen lived.

If the Spaniards ever swam and surfed in the ocean, there is no record of it, but in the 19th century the island became a mecca for beach-lovers. They crossed Matanzas Bay in sailboats. One lady, Mrs. Bertha M. Peele (nee Barnitz) who spent the winter of 1879 in St. Augustine as a child, bemoaned the bridge when she returned as an old lady in her nineties, because she felt it spoiled the beauty of the harbor.

Once across, the early holiday-makers had a problem in getting to the ocean side. It was solved by Paul Capo who provided a horse drawn railway which traversed the marsh on wooden rails over a narrow, causeway. Later, when the bridge put him out of business, he moved his conveyance to Capo's North Beach which he operated for many years. Many people can still remember riding from the North River to the beach in the horse-drawn car.

The first bridge, all of wood, started at the foot of King Street. Over it ran the South Beach Railway, known as the "old Dummy Line." Edward Forward was the engineer who operated a little steam locomotive which pulled two small cars. Later on it was replaced by a trolley car.

When the trolley lines ceased operations in 1930, South Beach went into a temporary decline, since the teenagers of the day found it too far to go on their bicycles and then the family car was not so easy to get. They began to swim at Anastasia Beach (now Lighthouse Park), at that time, a 200-foot expanse of white sand, which the city fathers decided to improve. Umbrella-like palmetto shelters were set up and in 1932 the municipal fishing pier opened. Miss Raymondine Ponce cut the ribbon on opening day, Mayor T. Rogero Mickler made a speech, and there was a fishing contest supervised by Ray Hellier, won by Carl Todd for the biggest fish and Winton Rogero who caught the most. South Beach began an era of redevelopment soon after with its own fishing pier.

Anastasia Island's trademark, of course, is the lighthouse. The Spaniards had erected an improved watchtower of stone and in the days when the British ruled, a cannon was mounted on it which was fired to announce a vessel was off the bar. In 1824 it was converted into a lighthouse by an oil lamp atop it, first lit on April 3. The sea, however, began to encroach on the foundations of the old building and in 1874 the present, spiral striped lighthouse was built. It was just in time since the old one tumbled into the sea finally, in 1880.

On the bayside of the island drastic changes came with the arrival in town of D. P. Davis, the real estate developer of the 1920's, who filled in the marsh and envisioned a vast complex with winding waterways, golf courses, and big hotels. But the real estate boom burst, and it was not until after World War II that Davis Shores came into its own as one of St. Augustine's finest residential areas.

Today there is talk of horizon to horizon condominiums from Salt Run to Matanzas Inlet. Changes are sure to come, as they have in the past, but the charm of Anastasia Island will stay.

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