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St. Augustine City Gates

CHAPTER III Before Flagler Came

"A Sleepy, Backward Old Town"

A young woman who visited St. Augustine just five years after the end of the Civil War, in 1870, has left a revealing account of how the Ancient City appeared to a Yankee lady before the railroad came to town and before it attracted tourists in any number.

Travelling with a party of relatives and friends, Miss Alice E. Browne began her Florida sojourn with a trip down the St. Johns, stopping off at Palatka, which she said "was the only place deserving the name of a town" they saw south of Jacksonville. They followed the river to Lake Monroe, marvelling at alligators and tropical foliage, and on the return trip made their headquarters at Green Cove Springs' Union Hotel so that some of the members of the party, in poor health because of the rigors of the northern winter, could soak up the Florida sunshine.

The climate was agreeable, but changeable. One of Alice's girl friends found a 3-inch icicle outside her window one morning, when only a few days before they had been sitting outdoors without wraps.

In March, some of the huskier members of the group decided that they could not leave to return north without seeing historic St. Augustine, so they left Green Cove Springs by boat to await the stagecoach at Picolata. It was a trip notorious for discomfort and delay, and Alice soon discovered that this evil reputation was not unmerited. At 1:30 p.m., the old-fashioned Concord coach, pulled by six anemic horses, arrived to take them on the 18-mile journey from the river to the sea. Seven passengers were crammed inside and three rode on top as they jolted across "a most desolate country, the road nearly half of the time under a foot of water, with an occasional corduroy over hopelessly swampy places."

During the trip, the coach broke down four times. Finally, they reached the San Sebastian and their goal was in sight, but the bridge had been burned during the war and the only way across was on a rickety scow pulled by ropes. They had to wait out a midstream argument between the coachman and the ferryman who refused to put them ashore until he got his money.

As for the city, the northerners were not impressed. Alice wrote: "It looks as if it had fallen asleep when vacated by the Spaniards and had hardly yet begun to wake up." Nor were they happy about their hotel accommodations. They had to pay $4.00 a day (a tidy sum in 1870), for a carpetless room in which a packing case served as a dressing table.

Ice was scarce or non-existent, since the town's only supply came from an occasional boatload packed in sawdust and shipped down from the north. The hotel menu was scanty, and Alice wondered why since the woods were full of game. She believed that "the natives were too lazy to go off and hunt."

St. Augustine in those days could not qualify as a center of trade and commerce, partly because of poor communications. The mail came by stage three times a week from Jacksonville, where the railroad stopped, and the only other overland communication with the outside world was by the ramshackle stage to Picolata and the St. Johns Railroad to Tocoi badly damaged by Federal troops in the Civil War. Ships only occasionally ventured to come in over the treacherous bar at the entrance to the harbor.

Alice and her friends took lots of walks around town and admired the old coquina houses with their overhanging balconies. There were some fine old trees around the Plaza and they were impressed by the Cathedral although Alice notes that it is "devoid of ornamentation either in its exterior or interior." She thought that the Post Office on the west side of the Plaza was a "most unpretentious building."

The stage picked them up at dawn one morning for the trip back to Green Cove Springs. As they lumbered through the narrow streets, the driver was careful to stay in the middle of the road, so as not to crash into the balconies. (Would that present day truck drivers could imitate him!)

Twenty years later, when the railroad had been built and the big hotels were filled with winter visitors, St. Augustine was a happy, prosperous place, but for Alice, it was just a sleepy, backward old town.

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