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castillo

The Castillo is Built

The defenders of the outpost of St. Augustine were not very lucky, with the wooden forts which they first relied upon. Those which were not burned down by attacking forces rotted in the humid climate.

They had to find something more substantial, but, as one Spanish official put it: "There are no stones in the whole country." However, over on Anastasia Island there was a strange sort of rock which seemed to be made of seashells. Perhaps half a million years ago in the Pleistocene Age, a mollusk called Donax grew by the billions in the warm sea forming vast shell layers which solidified into a mass mixed with sand and cemented with calcite from the shells themselves.

The rocklike substance which resulted got its name from a Spanish word which, literally translated, means "shell-fish" or "cockle" and describes a little half-inch butterfly clam which still washes up on Florida's shores and, incidentally makes a delicious broth.

The Spaniards discovered that masons could shape the substance with a carpenter's saw or an ax, but when exposed to the air the surface hardened. It was the answer to a fort-builder's prayer, so it was decided that the city's new bastion would be built of this coquina rock and the project got under way in 1672. First a labor gang of peons and convicts, as well as, 150 unfortunate Indians who were dragooned

into service, had to clear the palmetto and live-oak thickets from the deposits on Anastasia, no enviable task. No one knows how many fell victim to snakebite.

Once the rock was exposed, quarrymen imported from Havana chopped deep grooves into the soft yellow stone and cracked out slabs which were hauled by oxcart to Escolta Creek, floated down on barges and across the Matanzas to the building site opposite the inlet.

The job of building the Castillo took 15 years and cost so much money that Phillip II moodily observed that the fort in the distant colony of Florida must have been built of solid silver. Even if it had been built of gold instead of the golden coquina it was worth it because it kept Spain dominant in Florida in spite of British attacks.

When General Oglethorpe landed on Anastasia Island in 1740 he set up a battery of guns which could have shattered a granite or a brick structure, but for 30 days his gunners pounded the Castillo in vain while the population of St. Augustine huddled inside the walls alternately starving and praying. One of the English artillerymen exclaimed in disgust: "What's the use? Our shot have no effect on San Marcos! Why it's just the same as sticking a knife into a round of cheese."

Coquina became the principal material used in building. In addition to the Castillo, Fort Matanzas which guards the inlet at the other end of Anastasia Island was built of the golden stone as well as the Cathedral, the Oldest House, and most of St. Augustine's other public buildings, as well as the finer homes of its citizens. Along the coast, wherever coquina was available it was used. There are ruins of missions built of coquina to be found near both Ormond and New Smyrna. In modern times, the Bok Tower is perhaps the most notable structure to be built of coquina.

The quarries on Anastasia where the golden rock was obtained yielded still another dividend of gold. In the 1950's Aaron Dutton was exercising his dog near the water-filled coquina pits. The thirsty animal stopped to lap from a pool and his master, looking down, saw that the water was literally alive with gold-fish. It is surmised that the fish got there originally by the hands of a World War II service wife whose husband was suddenly reassigned. Having nothing else to do with her pet fish, she freed them in the waters of the coquina pits, where they multiplied madly.


 
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