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Until the First World War was started in 1914, the United States was largely dependent on Germany for potash, and by 1916 we were getting short of this commodity, so needed for every crop. Early one morning, a big German freighter, the Zee Burg, showed up standing out from the south jetties of the St. Johns River. The captain of the freighter called for a pilot. When Captain King, a bar pilot, showed up and told the freighter's captain that he could not take him over the bar until the tide changed, the captain was furious. Captain King told him that with the tide running over the south jetties as it was, they would lose the ship if they tried to come in. The freighter captain said that he had been here before and he was going in!

    The Zee Burg hooked up and headed for the bar with the engines on full throttle. The captain saw his mistake too late and when he dropped both anchors, they failed to hold him in time. The ship went into the rocks, only to break in the middle with both ends resting on the bottom and the midship pointing toward the sky. The ship was loaded with two-hundred pound bags of potash, and since it was nearing Christmas time they also carried a cargo of toys. There were crates of big beautiful china dolls, some three feet tall; little steam engines made to run on wood alcohol, bags of marbles, statuettes, china, silverware. and big crates of cheese with each piece individually wrapped in red paper. I saw some of the china fish plates in a home about two months ago. They are beautiful. All of these goodies made a very Merry Christmas at Mayport, even if the mate did try to stay on board and save the cargo.

    There have been many ships to go into the jetties. Among them was the S.S. Chatham, wrecked January 14. 1910. This ship was two hundred eighty-five feet long and loaded with flour, shoes and a general line of merchandise for Jacksonville. It took eighteen hundred pounds of dynamite to blow this ship into pieces small enough to pick up with cranes. Fred Haworth tells me that water only soaked a half inch into the flour, and they had plenty of perfectly good biscuit makings. A yacht loaded with whiskey broke up on the north jetty and made many people happy diving around rocks to help with the cargo. I'll bet that the help gotten by the owners of the whiskey was very slight.

    The dredge St. Johns went into the rocks on September 30, 1912, and the steamship Marie O' Teel suffered a like fate some time later. The Southland barge broke her hawser and spilled her load of coal all over the beach, while a schooner loaded with rum went a shore, but nobody complained of contamination there.

    The Clyde Lines ran three large steel hulled ships from Jacksonville to New York. They were Cherokee, Iroquois, and Lenape. The Lenape was named for a tribe of Indians in New York State, while, of course, the other two names have been very prominent in our history books. It was quite a thrill to see one of those big ships putting out to sea as they passed Mayport loaded with lucky tourists. They had their problems too, for if they passed the docks or a lone fisherman too fast and damaged the dock or swamped the fisherman they had to pay for it. It was hard to keep down the wake on a boat that large.

    Captain Bill Andreu tells of the sinking of the Ruby Lee. He and Otis Carr were ferrying fishermen from the south jetties to the north jetties one July 4th. They were rowing eighteen foot cypress boats, and were charging fifty cents per round trip, payable after they had brought you back to the south jetties. You could stay over the river as long as you liked and then raise your shirt on the end of your fishing rod so that it could be seen and they would pick us up. Those men could row a boat but it did give you a queasy feeling to cross the bar and being out of sight between those big waves more than half the time. Made you wonder if the boat would make it over the next wave.

    The Ruby Lee was powered by a hundred and fifty horse- power diesel, and was loaded down with fishermen. The motor was running good and the pilot had it wide open as he hit the bar. Bill said that when he looked and saw the boat he remarked, "Look at that———! He is going to bust a plank!" That is just what happened. As she started taking water at the bow and began to slowly sink bow first, people started jumping into the water. Captain Bill rowed alongside and announced: "women and children only, and the first man who tries to get in is going to get a headache from my fish stick!" Captain Carr came up and they transferred the entire group to larger boats standing by. Not a single passenger was lost. The tide was running strong and the Ruby Lee kept heading out to sea. She sank some five miles off shore, bow first1.

    There have been many boats to go ashore on the beaches here and very few, if any, have been able to get back into deep water. A shrimper went aground at the end of Twenty-Second Avenue South and it looked like it was an easy job to free it, but it stayed there. A little teak wood schooner went aground just south of the Mickler pier and it became souvenirs for those in quest of that sort of thing. The ocean is a restless, moving thing, and nothing can stand in its way over a long period of time. Sometimes you can look out over it and it seems as calm as a lake, but don't be misled. It is dangerous.

    In the early 1920's Florida had a real land boom. There was so much building going on that there was no place to unload railroad cars as they came in to the terminals. An embargo on lumber, cement and building materials was declared, and then big four-masted schooners from the west coast began putting in here. There was nothing to do but unload them on the docks and there it stayed until most of it rotted. Beautiful lumber, but the boom "busted" almost as quickly as it had started and nobody wanted to build anything. We picked up some of this lumber in the early part of 1927, and the fir had already started to rot. It was a thrill to see those big schooners as they came in and unloaded. Their cargo was stowed end to end so that it could not shift and capsize the ship.

    The steamship Oriental Warrior caused a bit of dissension when it was brought into our port in a sinking condition. In May of 1972 this ship was docked, by tugs at the municipal docks, only to sink a short time later. Five months later, and after about a million dollars had been spent to raise her, she was towed to deep water some one hundred twenty five miles east of Mayport and sunk. I'm not sure who paid the bill for all of this but maybe when I get this year's tax bill I will know.

    The little steamer Hesse left Mayport at five a.m. and headed to Fort George, Gilmore and Fulton. It took four hours to make the trip. I wish I knew how much a round trip cost, but no one seems to remember. It was a wood burner and usually took on wood at Gilmore. This little boat was a lifeline for Mayport as many of the supplies were brought in on that boat. It usually docked back at Mayport around seven p.m. It was a long wait in the city if you did not have much to do, but this was before income tax and time did not mean so much. One man tells of seeing a well-dressed man give a man who was crossing an overflowing street fifty cents to carry him across. Another man slipped the wader fifty cents to drop the man in the middle of the street. That's what you call playing both ends toward the middle. Life was rarely ever dull in those days.

    Our first transportation in this country was on the back of Indians as they followed deer trails, sometimes as far as Michigan to exchange and barter. Some of things found in the mounds were definitely not from this part of the country. Where did they get the red ochre so prevalent in most of their mounds? The best of all engineers is a deer or cow going somewhere. They make their pathways the easiest route.

    The dugout canoes were no luxury craft (witness the one at Fort Caroline Museum) but if you stayed on your "prayer bones" long enough and paddled hard enough you could finally get somewhere. After looking at the birches in Hiawatha's country, I still don't see how he could build a canoe, strong enough to stay together, from the bark of one of those trees. Hope Longfellow did not take a little poetic license, but it was a good story.

    The J. & A (Jacksonville and Atlantic) Railroad was completed in 1884. It was a narrow gauge line and operated for only four years. Then it was bought by Henry M. Flagler, widened from its original three feet to standard gauge, and was made a part of the Florida East Coast system. It ran from South Jacksonville to Pablo Beach until 1898, when it was extended nine miles to Mayport. Mr. B. B. McCormick was the foreman on that grading job at $1.25 per day. The East Coast Railway needed coal for its locomotives and the plan was to bring coal to Mayport by schooner and haul it from there by railroad since the river was too shallow to go further upriver by schooner. A huge dock was built at Mayport (you can still see the remains of it) and coal was brought in by schooner at a loss of less than $3.00 per ton.

    The Mayport branch operated until 1932, when the tracks were taken up. Mayport now had fair roads and there was a good four-lane highway leading into Atlantic Beach. Besides all of this, the East Coast Railway was converted to fuel oil and there was no longer a need for the coal docks. That did it. The Florida East Coast to Mayport was a going railroad. They had a "Y" about where the Joseph Finnegan School on Wonderwood Road is now located, and they would turn on this and back into Mayport. Some of the old timers report a train backing in with as many as fifty cars, and that was a load for a steam locomotive.

    My only ride on this railroad was a round trip from Jacksonville on July 4, 1927. The trip cost fifty cents and the train stopped at every clearing. This was my first trip through big cypress country, and it seemed to me that we were traveling through the swamps all the way. To me a cypress tree was, and still is, a beautiful thing. Too bad they have almost gone by the way of the dodo bird.

    When we got to Jacksonville Beach, most everyone got off at a station located on the corner of Pablo Avenue and Third Street. They truly had a boardwalk then and the beach was wide enough to park plenty of cars on it. If the tide caught a model T Ford, it did not take many men to pick it up and carry it out of the surf. I would judge that they did not weigh over a thousand pounds, and I've squatted down many times and kicked a rock under where I picked up a wheel so that I could change a tire. After unloading, the train continued on to Mayport. The route went up Second Street, through what is now Neptune Beach, and on into Atlantic Beach down East Coast Drive, through Wonderwood and on into Mayport across the marsh.

    When the railroad was taken up, we got all of the crossties that we cared to handle for free. They were cypress and in good condition, but two men had all they wanted to handle when they picked up one. I still miss the sound of a big steam whistle howling. It's a lonesome sound at night and maybe an unwelcome sound at four o'clock in the morning.

    The J & MP (Jacksonville and Mayport) Railroad was started in 1887 and ran from Burnside Beach to Mayport, back to Wonderwood Drive and took off on a fairly straight line to Arlington. At Arlington, it was necessary to take the ferry boat Louise to Jacksonville. Some of the stops on the way were Greenfield, Salamander, Wild Cow Island, Pablo Place, Conant, Mount Pleasant, Round Tree and Cosmo. Mrs. Joe Hurlbert tells of making trips to Cosmo to visit some of her friends and relatives.

    The locomotive on this train was a little wood fired engine with a screen over its smokestack ostensively to keep sparks from getting out and starting woods fires. It never worked, for they were always in trouble.

    This little engine was low on power and high on spark throwing, and it was quite a chore to make a round trip without a breakdown. The train usually consisted of very few cars, but often on Stickley's Hill, they were confronted with a problem to make the grade. If the sand was too deep on the track and they had too many people on the train you had a choice—walk home or help push the train up the grade. People were used to hardships and no one thought anything of doing a little pushing to get wherever they might be going. The pushing bit caused the train to get its nickname "Jump Men and Push."

    There was a big cypress water tank about where Wonderwood Road crossed Mayport Road. The boys who pumped the water received fifteen dollars per month. The lowest paid man on this railroad was Paul Bradley, who walked from Cosmo to Mayport every day to work and only received thirty-five cents per day.

    This little railroad ceased operations altogether on September 2, 1895, just three years before the Florida East Coast began to build or extend its road from Pablo Beach to Mayport.

    One of the contributing causes of its failure was the burning of two hotels and the piers at Burnside Beach. All of the buildings were of wood and when one went, they all went. There had been a nice tourist business on this beach until that time. It is reported that the rails on this system were taken up and shipped to Cuba after the Spanish American War. (Speaking of Spain, I had forgotten that during the Revolutionary War, the Spanish and French governments gave us two million four hundred thousand dollars and we borrowed six million four hundred thousand from France and twenty-four thousand eight hundred dollars from Spain to fight this war. The Sultan of Turkey gave a sizeable donation to the sufferers of the Jamestown, Pennsylvania flood in 1889.)

    The first road from Jacksonville to the Beaches was completed in 1892 by convict labor. In those days when a man was given a sentence of hard labor the Judge meant just that, Hard Labor. I'm not sure, but I suppose the road followed an old cow trail, for nothing but a meandering cow could have laid out a trail so crooked! You were in danger of your life when you drove more than fifty miles an hour around the curves on that road. Of course, that was all right for the top speed of a Model T Ford was forty-five miles per hour. That is the car we had the most of on the road. There is one lady who will always remember the time she was crossing the drawbridge at the same time the span was opening. Her Model A Ford hung up there long enough to make her wish she hadn't.

    Fred Haworth tells of Dr. Haworth writing his son to come on down here from southwest Missouri. The son started out with six mules hooked to a small covered wagon, and it was six months before he was able to get here. This was shortly after the Civil War and bands of marauders were all over the south, stealing and plundering everywhere they went. The son was unfortunate enough to run into a gang of these Bushwhackers who took two of his mules. Fred says they shot the mules and broke the boy's arm. He had to wait a month at a swollen stream before he could cross it, but he finally made it to Burnside Beach with his dog and four mules.

    The Burnside Hotel as operated by the wife of Dr. Eli Haworth and the beach got its name from an old Union gunboat that was sunk just offshore of this beach. This gunboat was a landmark until its smokestack finally rusted away in 1939. The location of the old hotel, piers and small community, must be about a thousand feet out into the ocean now. Since the jetties were extended, the tides have taken their toll of our beaches.

    We have stood on top of sand dunes all along north Atlantic Beach and watched automobile races. They turned around a barrel at each end of the course. That made for some tricky driving after the beach was thoroughly cut up. Saw one clown enter this race with a pickup truck. Many people thought that whatever kind of a car they were driving was the fastest thing out. These races separated the men from the boys.

    The yellow fever epidemic hit again in 1888, and this did nothing to increase the population of this community. Even doctors left and most everyone else who could get out. There is a special section set aside for the yellow fever victims in Jacksonville Beach cemetery. If it had not been for the yellow fever, we would never have had the Panama Canal, for this fever drove everyone else away. It is said that a man died for every crosstie on the railroad along the canal, but our doctors were able to conquer this dread disease and we were able to finish and maintain the canal.

    Talking about a superstitious trainman. Jack Monahan was on the East Coast Railway, on engine No. 13, train No. 13, car 13, 13th day of the month, 1913.

    Fred Haworth tells of going to school at Mayport from his home on Mount Pleasant Creek on a hand car cranked by the teacher. The bridge over Pablo Creek had settled so much that it was not considered safe to run the train over it. The company had no resources to repair the trestle, so it was practically an abandoned railroad. There was no school taxation and the teacher had to collect his salary from the parents of the students. Must have been poor pickings for the teacher.

    The Atlantic Boulevard was paved about the year 1921, and it had something new to this country. It had street lighting all the way to the beaches. They were the old glaring kind that just made driving worse. It was nice though, when you had a flat tire and had to repair it. I've heard them advertising tires that will go forty thousand miles on your car now, but if you got three thousand miles from the early tires you were doing well. You had to repair your own inner tubes. I have seen tubes with so many patches on them they looked like a pair of bloomers in the middle of the depression!

    The south side of the boulevard gave way first for that was the lane used in hauling heavy material to the beaches. It had to be resurfaced. Now many kinks have been taken out of the road and we have a practically new road to Jacksonville. The elimination of the old draw bridge and installation of a new high bridge over the creek saves time and gives you a better opportunity to "hurry up and wait" at one of the toll bridges across the St. Johns.

    The easiest way to get from the beaches to Mayport for years was to wait until the tide was out, then drive up the beach to the ramp at Seminole Beach and go out Steel Avenue. There was a big Seminole Hotel there at one time, and it was a lovely place to spend a few days. Just south of the hotel was a diner where you could get all the chicken you wanted to eat for seventy-five cents. It was a good place to eat but they had to depend on the tides to know when their customers could be there. Things have changed. All of this is now in the Naval Station, and I hope they are having as good a time there as we did before they got it.

    After the F.C.C. tracks were taken up in 1932, the beach people began a clamor to get this right of way for a new road to the beaches. In 1914 the W.P.A. began clearing and grading this road bed for a new road, under the auspices of the State Road Department. Eventually, the road was completed to the canal where a high level bridge had to be build to allow the traffic to continue while the boats passed underneath. The high level bridge was a secondary thought and everything had to wait until the new plans were drawn and the bridge completed. The dedication took place on December 17, 1949. Mr. B. B. McCormick, who had built the road from the bridge to Third Street in Jacksonville Beach, cut the ribbon, opening the bridge which was named after him— B. B. McCormick Bridge. I had never witnessed such an unusual ceremony as this one. Mr. McCormick was seriously ill in the hospital and he was brought out in an ambulance for the dedication. The ambulance was backed up to the ribbon and Mr. McCormick, or "Uncle Ben" as he was affectionately known, cut the ribbon with a pocket knife. It was the same knife that had served him so well over the years.

    It seemed to me that this entire road was a political problem and we did not have enough voters here to make the politicians care. The boulevard was stopped at Third Street and we were told that it was not going any further. We wanted it to go to the ocean and complete the job. After much dickering, a big delegation went to Tallahassee and there they met with a friend indeed—Governor Fuller Warren. He told the State Road Department to do the job now, and it was completed as you see it at this time, overpass and all.

    To get to St. Augustine from Jacksonville Beach before the A1A highway along the beach was completed was a long tedious trip, unless you wanted to drive down the beach and take your chance on getting stuck for good in beach sand. We made it one time, but it wasn't easy.

    In 1928, B. B. McCormick and Sons were given a contract to clear and grade a highway from the St. Johns county line to St. Augustine, a distance of about thirty miles, for the price of $125,000.00 They had no big bulldozers and heavy equipment as they have now, so everything had to be done with hand tools and slip pans. It took a hundred people and two hundred mules to do this job. As you drive down the highway, you will notice two flowing wells put down to supply fresh water for the men and mules. The problem of setting up a camp to care for this crew was not of small moment, but no one expected any of the comforts of home, so they survived. A mosquito cannot stand smoke, and if you can, you have him licked. When this road was completed to the county line, the politicians refused to pay for its extension to Jacksonville Beach. This was done, free of charge, by the McCormicks.

    The Heckscher Drive from Main Street in Jacksonville to Fort George, on the north side of the St. Johns River, was completed as a toll road about 1925, and was eventually bought from the Heckscher Foundation prior to 1950. This road was extended as a toll road to Fernandina Beach, and the ferries from Mayport to Fort George were put into service during 1950. With all of the building being done along this road, it will be difficult to continue the toll system. The first car to make the trip from Jacksonville to the beaches was a Victoria in the year 1905. If you get on the boulevards Saturdays or Sundays now it seems that it has almost become a habit.


1. Editor's Note: I received this email message on January 19, 2009.

Dear Dr. Mabry-

I am Robert M. Knight, D.D.S. (retired) and I, and my family, were on the Ruby Lee on July 4, 1941. I had never thought to look up that fateful trip on the internet. But my sons were asking about events in my life and I told them about the Ruby Lee. One of my sons looked it up, and found the report.

To give some major corrections: My father, L.W. Knight, D.D.S., my mother Emma Lee Knight, my sister Katherine, age 9; my brother Arthur, age 13; and me, age16, and a guest of my Dad's, I think his name was Mr. Odom, were among the many fishermen on that ill fated trip.

We left Mayport very early, about 7:00 A.M., on that beautiful morning to go fishing off the coast in the ocean. While still between the jetties, the ship sprang a plank. As the Captain was trying to turn the ship around to return to port, water got to the batteries and the engine stopped. Water began to fill the hull and the boat began getting very low in the water, very quickly. Since it was July 4th, there were several very small wooden rowboats (outboard motors were a rarity) near the Ruby Lee. They took all the women and almost all of the children back to Mayport. By the time the main deck was awash, (we all had on cork life jackets), all the very small life rafts had been thrown off the boat, but not tied to the Ruby Lee. My brother and I swam out to retrieve two rafts but could only get to one because of the very swift current. The Captain, Mr. Odom, my Dad, my brother, and I were the only ones left on the Ruby Lee.

The Captain picked up a broom and took it with him as the five of us got in the water and held on to the sides of the raft, which was then level with the main deck. We asked the Captain "why the broom". "Sharks", was his reply. We soon lost all sight of land since It was an outgoing tide which is very fast. The canvas covered raft, with a rope-laced center, was so small that it was only possible to hold on to the sides and hang with our bodies in the ocean, except for shoulders and head. Fortunately, we never saw a shark!!!

No one from shore ever came out to find us even though my mother was telling the Coast Guard and anyone else she could talk to go out and get us. And the Captain's family had to be concerned, but no help from Mayport. We never got an answer of any kind to that question.

Late that morning, a commercial shrimp boat had trouble with shrimp nets and was returning many hours earlier than than it's normal time, and miles off it's normal route. The men on that boat saw us, picked us up, and took us back to their home port in Mayport. We never saw another boat coming out of Mayport coming to look for us.We arrived there about noon. So, the only reason there were no lives lost, and I am able to tell you about this "adventure", is because of a shrimp boat, partially disabled, way off it's normal course, and some wonderful seamen that were looking at the right place at the right time.

Nothing to do with the Ruby Lee, but a little more information. My Dad, L.W. Knight, DDS, died at age 64; my Mother, Emma Lee Stripling Kinght, at age 94, and my sister, Katherine, at age 58. My brother, Arthur W. Knight, lives in Leesburg, FL.

And that is the true story of the Ruby Lee on July 4, 1941.

Very sincerely,
Robert M. Knight, D.D.S.
Jacksonville, FL 32210

The raft was at the very most, a rectangle 4X6 feet with canvas covered cork sides, maybe 6"X6" square, with the rope criss-crossed in the middle. I was not exaggerating when I said all the rafts were thrown overboard without being tied to the ship. I know you are aware that the St. Johns River flows North, which is the river that is the harbor for Mayport. That, and the outgoing tide, are a powerful force of Nature, and that is why we were quickly swept far out to sea. And why my brother and I, although fairly strong swimmers, could only reach one raft.

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