St. Augustine by Frank R. Stockton

The city of St. Augustine, on the eastern coast of Florida, stands in one respect preeminent among all the cities of the United States—it is truly an old city. It has many other claims to consideration, but these are shared with other cities. But in regard to age it is the one member of its class.

Compared with the cities of the Old World, St. Augustine would be called young; but in the United States a city whose buildings and monuments connect the Middle Ages with the present time, may be considered to have a good claim to be called ancient.

After visiting some of our great towns, where the noise and bustle of traffic, the fire and din of manufactures, the long lines of buildings stretching out in every direction, with all the other evidences of active enterprise, proclaim these cities creations of the present day and hour, it is refreshing and restful to go down to quiet St. Augustine, where one may gaze into the dry moat of a fort of medieval architecture, walk over its drawbridges, pass under its portcullis, and go down into its dungeons; and where in soft semi-tropical air the visitor may wander through narrow streets resembling those of Spain and Italy, where the houses on each side lean over toward one another so that neighbors might almost shake hands from their upper windows, and are surrounded by orange-groves and rose-gardens which blossom all the year.

St. Augustine was founded in 1565 by Pedro Menendez de Aviles, who was then Governor of Florida. Here he built a wooden fort which was afterward replaced by the massive edifice which still exists. St. Augustine needed defenses, for she passed through long periods of war, and many battles were fought for her possession. At first there were wars in Florida between the Spanish and the French; and when the town was just twenty-one years old, Sir Francis Drake captured the fort, carrying off two thousand pounds in money, and burned half the buildings in the town. Then the Indians frequently attacked the place and committed many atrocities; and, half a century after Drake, the celebrated English buccaneer Captain John Davis captured and plundered the town.

Much later, General Moore, Governor of South Carolina, took the town and held it for three months, but was never able to take the fort. In 1740 General Oglethorpe, Governor of Georgia, attacked St. Augustine, planting batteries on the island opposite, and maintaining a siege for forty days; but he was obliged to withdraw. Three years later he made another attack, but succeeded no better. Even now one can see the dents and holes made in the fort by the cannon-balls fired in these sieges.

In 1819 Florida was ceded to our Government, and St. Augustine became a city of the United States.

Approaching St. Augustine from the sea, the town looks as if it might be a port on the Mediterranean coast. The light-colored walls of its houses and gardens, masses of rich green foliage cropping up everywhere in the town and about it, the stern old fortress to the north of it, and the white and glittering sands of the island which separates its harbor from the sea, make it very unlike the ordinary idea of an American town.

In the center of the city is a large open square called the Plaza de la Constitucion, surrounded by beautiful live-oaks and pride-of-India trees, with their long, hanging-mosses and sweet-smelling blossoms.

Most of the streets are narrow, without sidewalks, and from the high-walled gardens comes the smell of orange-blossoms, while roses and other flowers bloom everywhere and all the time.

At the southern end of the town stands the old Convent of St. Francis, which is now used as barracks for United States soldiers.

The old palace of the governor still stands, but now contains the post-office and other public buildings. There was once a wall around the town, and one of the gates of this still remains. There is a tower on each side of the gateway, and the sentry-boxes, and loopholes through which the guards used to look out for Indians and other enemies, are still there. Along the harbor edge of the town is a wall nearly a mile long, built at great expense by the United States Government as a defense against the encroachments of the sea. This is called the sea wall, and its smooth top, four feet wide, is a favorite promenade. Walking northward on this wall, or on the street beside it, if you like that better, we reach, a little outside of the town, what I consider the most interesting feature of St. Augustine. This is the old fort of San Marco, which, since it came into the possession of our government, has been renamed Fort Marion.


The old fort is not a ruin, but is one of the best-preserved specimens of the style of fortification of the Middle Ages. We cross the moat and the drawbridge, and over the stone door-way we see the Spanish coat-of-arms, and under it an inscription stating that the fort was built during the reign of King Ferdinand VI of Spain, with the names and titles of the dons who superintended the work. It took sixty years to build the fort, and nearly all the work was done by Indians who were captured and made slaves for the purpose. Passing through the solemn entrance, we come to an open square surrounded by the buildings and walls of the fort, which, in all, cover about an acre of ground. On the right is an inclined plane which serves as a stairway to reach the ramparts where the cannon were placed. The terre-plein, or wide, flat surface of the ramparts, makes a fine walk around the four sides of the fort from which we can have views of land and sea. At each corner was a watch-tower, three of which remain; and into these one can mount, and through the narrow slits of windows get a view of what is going on outside without being seen himself. At one end of the fort is the old Spanish chapel, and all around the square are the rooms that used to be occupied by the officers and the soldiers. Into the chapel the condemned prisoners used to be taken to hear their last mass before being marched up to the north rampart and shot.

Down in the foundations of the fort are dungeons into which no ray of sunlight can enter. After the fort came into the possession of our government, a human skeleton was found in one of the dungeons, chained to a staple in the wall; and in another dungeon, without door or window and completely walled up, there were discovered two iron cages which had hung from the walls, each containing a human skeleton. The supports of one of the cages had rusted away, and it had fallen down, but the other was still in its place. A great many romantic stories were told about these skeletons, and by some persons it was supposed that they were the remains of certain heirs to the Spanish throne whose existence it was desirable utterly to blot out. One of the skeletons was that of a woman or girl. The cages and skeletons have been removed, but we can go into the dungeons if we take a lantern. Anything darker or blacker than these underground cells cannot be imagined. I have seen dungeons in Europe, but none of them were so hopelessly awful as these.

In another part of the fort is a cell in which Osceola, the celebrated Indian chief, was once imprisoned, in company with another chief named Wild Cat. There is a little window near the top of the cell, protected by several iron bars; and it is said that Wild Cat starved himself until he was thin enough to squeeze between two of the bars, having first mounted on the shoulders of Osceola in order to reach them. Whether the starving part of the story is true or not, it is certain that he escaped through the window.

When I last visited San Marco, it was full of Indian prisoners who had been captured in the far West. Some of them were notorious for their cruelties and crimes, but in the fort they were all peaceable enough. It was one of these Indians, a big, ugly fellow, who lighted me into the dungeon of the skeleton-cages.

This fort, which is in many respects like a great castle, is not built of ordinary stone, but of coquina, a substance formed by the accumulation of sea-shells which, in the course of ages, have united into a mass like solid rock. On Anastasia Island, opposite St. Augustine, there are great quarries from which the coquina stone is taken, and of this material nearly the whole town is built. It is interesting to visit one of these quarries, and observe how in the upper strata the shells are quite distinct, while the lower we look down the more and more solid and stone-like the masses become.

The harbor of St. Augustine is a portion of the sea cut off by Anastasia Island. Southward, the Matanzas River extends from the harbor; and in all these waters there is fine fishing. On the sea-beaches there is good bathing, for the water is not too cold even in winter. St. Augustine is an attractive place at all seasons of the year, and its three superb hotels—the Ponce de Leon, the Alcazar, and the Cordova—are among the most celebrated in America. In winter people come down from the North because its air is so warm and pleasant, and in summer people from the Southern States visit it because its sea-breezes are so cool and refreshing. It is a favorable resort for yachts, and in its wide, smooth harbor may often be seen some of the most beautiful vessels of this class.

St. Augustine is not only a delightful place in which to stay, but it is easy to reach from there some points which are of great interest to travelers. The great St. John's River is only fourteen miles away, and is connected with the town by a little railroad. At Tocoi, the river terminus of the railroad, people who wish to penetrate into the heart of Florida, with its great forests and lakes and beautiful streams, can take a steamer and sail up the St. John's, which, by the way, flows northward some two hundred miles. In some parts the river is six miles wide, resembling a lake, and in its narrow portions the shores are very beautiful.

About forty miles above Tocoi the Ocklawaha River runs into the St. John's, and there are few visitors to St. Augustine who do not desire to take a trip up the little river which is in many respects the most romantic and beautiful stream in the world. At Tocoi we take a small steamboat which looks like a very narrow two-story house mounted upon a little canal-boat, and in this we go up the St. John's until we see on the right an opening in the tree-covered banks. This is the mouth of the Ocklawaha, and, entering it, we steam directly into the heart of one of the great forests of Florida. The stream is very narrow, and full of turns and bends. Indeed, its name, which is Indian, signifies "crooked water"; and sometimes the bow of the boat has even to be pushed around by men with long poles. Of course we go slowly, but no one objects to that, for we do not wish to hurry through such scenery as this. On each side we see green trees with their thick evergreen foliage, with vines and moss hanging from many of them, and the ground beneath covered with the luxuriant shrubbery which grows in these warm regions.

Sometimes we can see through the trees into the distant recesses of the forest, and then again we are shut in by walls of foliage. Now and then we may see an alligator sunning himself on a log, and as our boat approaches he rolls over into the water and plumps out of sight. Water-turkeys, whose bodies are concealed in the bushes, run out their long necks to look at us, presenting the appearance of snakes darting from between the leaves; while curlews, herons, and many other birds are seen on the banks and flying across the river. In some places the stream widens, and in the shallower portions near the banks grow many kinds of lilies, beautiful reeds, and other water-plants. For long distances there is no solid ground on either side of the river, the water penetrating far into the forest and forming swamps. Near the edge of the river we frequently see myriads of tree-roots bent almost at right angles, giving the trees the appearance of standing on spider-legs in the water.

Sometimes the forest opens overhead, but nearly all the way we are covered by a roof of green, and at every turn appear new scenes of beauty and luxuriance. Occasionally the banks are moderately high, and we see long stretches of solid ground covered with verdure. There is one spot where two large trees stand, one on each bank, close to the water, and the distance between the two is so small that as our boat glides through this natural gateway there is scarcely a foot of room to spare on either side.

Although the river is such a little one that we are apt to think all the time we are sailing on it that we must soon come to the end of its navigation, we go on more than a hundred miles before we come to the place where we stop and turn back. The trip up the Ocklawaha requires all the hours of a day and a great part of a night; and this night trip is like a journey through fairyland. On the highest part of the boat is a great iron basket, into which, as soon as it becomes dark, are thrown quantities of pine-knots. These are lighted in order that the pilot may see how to steer. The blazing of the resinous fuel lights up the forest for long distances in every direction, and, as may easily be imagined, the effect is wonderfully beautiful. When the fire blazes high the scene is like an illuminated lacework of tree-trunks, vines, leaves, and twigs, the smallest tendril shining out bright and distinct; while through it all the river gleams like a band of glittering silver. Then, as the pine-knots gradually burn out, the illumination fades and fades away until we think the whole glorious scene is about to melt into nothing, when more sticks are thrown on, the light blazes up again, and we have before us a new scene with different combinations of illuminated foliage and water.

It often happens that during the night our little steamer crowds itself to one side of the river and stops. Then we may expect to see a splendid sight. Out of the dark depths of the forest comes a glowing, radiant apparition, small at first, but getting larger and larger until it moves down upon us like a tangle of moon and stars drifting through the trees.

This is nothing but another little steamboat coming down the river with its lighted windows and decks, and its blazing basket of pine-knots. There is just room enough for her to squeeze past us, and then her radiance gradually fades away in the darkness behind us.


We travel thus, night and day, until we reach Silver Springs, which is the end of our journey. This is a small lake so transparent that we can see down to the very bottom of it, and watch the turtles and fishes as they swim about. A silver coin or any small object thrown into the water may be distinctly seen lying on the white sand far beneath us. The land is high and dry about Silver Springs, and the passengers generally go on shore and stroll through the woods for an hour or two. Then we reëmbark and return to St. Augustine as we came.

It must not be supposed that St. Augustine contains nothing but buildings of the olden time. Although many parts of the town are the same as they were in the old Spanish days, and although we may even find the descendants of the Minorcans who were once its principal citizens, the city now contains many handsome modern dwellings and hotels, some of which are exceptionally large and grand. Hundreds of people from the North have come down to this city of orange-scented air, eternal verdure, and invigorating sea-breezes, and have built handsome houses; and during the winter there is a great deal of bustle and life in the narrow streets, in the Plaza, and on the sunny front of the town. Many of the shops are of a kind only to be found in semi-tropical towns by the sea, and have for sale bright-colored sea-beans, ornaments made of fish-scales of every variety of hue, corals, dried sea-ferns, and ever so many curiosities of the kind. We may even buy, if we choose, some little black alligators, alive and brisk and about a foot long. As to fruit, we can get here the best oranges in the world, which come from the Indian River in the southern part of Florida, and many sorts of tropical fruits that are seldom brought to Northern cities.

If St. Augustine were like most American cities, and had been built by us or by our immediate ancestors, and presented an air of newness and progress and business prosperity, its delightful climate and its natural beauties would make it a most charming place to visit. But if we add to these attractions the fact that here alone we can see a bit of the old world without leaving our young Republic, and that in two or three days from the newness and busy din of New York or Chicago we may sit upon the ramparts of a medieval fort, and study the history of those olden days when the history of Spain, England, and France was also the history of this portion of our own land,—we cannot fail to admit that this little town of coquina walls and evergreen foliage and traditions of old-world antiquity occupies a position which is unique in the United States.