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Jacksonville: History

Town Founded on River Site

Historians hold that the Timucua tribe lived on the site of today's Jacksonville since before the year 2000 B.C. The first documented European visitors to the area were a group of French Huguenots, led by Rene de Laudonniere, who sailed into the mouth of the St. Johns River in 1562. They soon founded Fort Caroline (on the river north of the present downtown), which was captured by the Spanish during a bloody massacre in 1565. The Florida region became a territory of the United States in 1821, following a 300-year period of battles between Spain, France, and Great Britain. That same year Georgia plantation owner Isaiah D. Hart moved to the narrowest spot of the St. Johns River known as "Cowford," where cows were transported by ferry across the river. On this site in 1822 Hart laid out the plans for the town of Jacksonville, which he named after General Andrew Jackson, provisional governor of the Florida Territory who later became president. The small community of 100 people was chartered as a town and elected its first mayor in 1832. In 1845 Florida became a state. By 1859, when Jacksonville was chartered as a city, it had become the state's major port, exporting both timber goods and cotton.

Jacksonville During the Latter Nineteenth Century

Jacksonville was not part of the Confederacy during the time of the Civil War (1861–1865); however, both sides fought for the land and the Union Army occupied the city on four different occasions. Following the battle of Olustee, which took place in the city, wounded Union soldiers were brought to Jacksonville's homes and churches, some of which were converted to military hospitals. Union forces destroyed the city but it was quickly rebuilt.

During the second half of the nineteenth century, Jacksonville had a population of about 7,500 permanent residents and drew more than 75,000 tourists annually. Jacksonville began to grow and prosper during the 1870s with the development of its lumber and shipping industries. Like many other east Florida coastal areas, Jacksonville's beach communities became established with the development of the railway system. A group of Jacksonville businessmen united in the late 1800s to construct a rail system that ended at the beach east of town. In time deluxe hotels were built, beach property was sold, and in 1888 the first direct railroad service between the city and the North was established. That same year, 427 people were killed by a yellow fever epidemic that assailed the city.

Fire Causes Large-Scale Destruction

By 1900 the city had a population approaching 30,000 people. The new century dawned with the Great Fire of 1901 when embers from a stove ignited materials at the Cleveland Fiber Factory. Before it was extinguished, the fire had destroyed nearly 2,400 buildings, decimated 146 city blocks, killed 7 people, left 10,000 people homeless, and destroyed $15 million worth of property. Fortunately, the city was once again quickly rebuilt and the population grew to more than 91,000 people by 1920.

Briefly a Film Center; Industry Revives

Jacksonville was an important site for the early development of the film industry, and Florida's first motion picture studios opened there in 1908. The warm weather year round and the low cost of labor and housing boosted this development, which continued until the early 1920s, when the industry moved to California.

The population of Jacksonville stood at more than 173,000 people by 1940. Mayport Naval Base and two naval air stations were built in the city during the Second World War (1941–1945). Suburban sprawl during the 1950s resulted in a loss of population for the city, while the county population grew. In 1968 the city and Duval County consolidated, and Jacksonville grew in the rankings of U.S. cities by size from sixty-first to twenty-second.

In the period of the 1960s and 1970s local focus was directed toward industrial diversification and development of the city's port facilities. Redevelopment efforts transformed the downtown area, and new service industries, especially finance and insurance, were booming as the city entered the twenty-first century.

Jacksonville expanded into a new direction when it was awarded a team franchise by the National Football League in 1993. The Jacksonville Jaguars draw thousands of fans to the downtown area on a regular basis, adding lifeblood to the local businesses. This newfound football momentum sharply increased when the city hosted Super Bowl XXXIX in February 2005, the smallest market ever to do so. "I hope this will be an experience that will introduce the city to the world," said Mayor John Peyton in the Los Angeles Times.

Historical Information: Jacksonville Historical Society, 317 A. Philip Randolph Blvd., Jacksonville, FL 32202; telephone (904)665-0064; fax (904)665-0069