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Path to St. Augustine

Getting there Wasn't Half the Fun

Before the railroad came, there were two ways to get to St. Augustine, and, as one traveller observed, whichever way you chose you would be sorry you hadn't taken the other. You could go by sea, but it was an eight hour voyage from Jacksonville, sometimes pretty rough, and there was a dangerous bar to negotiate at the entrance to the harbor. Or you could cruise down the St. Johns and take the overland trail from Picolata.

Most travellers seemed to have picked the latter, perhaps lured by a "Notice to Travellers to St. Augustine" which appeared in December 1840. It promised a comfortable carriage, a military escort, and patrons were assured that the horses were strong and their drivers sober. In May of the same year, the stage was attacked by Seminoles and four people were killed.
After the Seminole War ended, it was not quite so hair-raising to ride the Picolata stage, but there were still quite a few drawbacks. A patron complained: "The 18 mile drive from this place, which contains three houses, to St. Augustine is accomplished by a primitive-looking stage two or three times a week. We came in the moonlight to the ferry over the San Sebastian."

The ferry was of the simplest construction-just a flat boat hauled across by ropes and pulleys. The next year another traveller tells of a rough ride of 18 miles: "one of the most disagreeable and miserable we ever made, and through a tract of country entirely devoid of the usual attractions. It was 5 o'clock in the afternoon when we started, and half past ten that night when we arrived at the ferry outside the walls of St. Augustine."

Another writer says "a more disgraceful and disheartening abomination than Picolata and its stage line I have never seen." He describes a road which was half, under water and shed a tear for the poor, tired horses. Perhaps it was all summed up best by Mr. Buckingham Smith, who is reputed to have told his wife, when seeing her off on a trip to St. Augustine, "Goodbye and God bless you. You are all safe until you reach Picolata and then Heaven alone can protect you."

Improvements were just on the horizon. By 1858, travellers disembarked at Tocoi Landing and took a horse drawn car over a crude railroad. In November 1874, the trip is described as "comfortable and affords one an excellent opportunity to see the Florida back country. There is not a house along the route, hardly a sign of life."

Sometimes the roll of the wheels startled an alligator and once, the conductor said, they had found two little brown bears asleep directly in their path. Later the railroad installed a little woodburning engine, the first ever seen in St. Augustine.

By 1883, a narrow gauge railroad, the Jacksonville, St. Augustine, and Halifax River, provided a really modern link with the outside world. Mr. Flagler purchased the line and widened it to standard gauge and the Florida East Coast Railway was born.


 
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