Source: Jacksonville 50th Anniversary of the Telephone
Grocer, shipping magnate, hotelier, churchman, gun runner, communications
promoter, civic leader. What a man!
His parents were
and he was a Missouri mule, born in St. Louis, July 4,
1855, where his father was in the wholesale grocery business. When his
father died in 1864, his mother moved the family back to Knickerbocker land,
back to Yonkers, NY. Six years later, John graduated from Yonkers High School
at age 15. He then spent two years preparing for college. Rather than attend
Yale University, a college for the very elite, he opted to do the Grand Tour of
Europe from 1872 until 1874. He had economic resources and connections and could
have afforded to be one of the idle rich but he was ambitious.
He followed his late father’s occupation as a wholesale
grocer from 1874-77 and did well. His
salary rose to $3,600 ($72,803 in 2010 dollars). He tired of the business and
resigned, turning down an offer of $5,000 ($101,115) to stay. Instead, he followed his
sister and her husband, William S. Wightman, to Jacksonville, Florida where the
two created a wholesale grocery firm, Wightman &
Christopher in 1877. They were partners for ten years.
The Jacksonville area was
growing rapidly and also served as a portal for a vast hinterland. It was a
railroad hub as well as a riverport and a seaport. Clyde steamships run
thrice weekly to NY and Boston. Tourism was important but the growth of the
timber and naval stores industries were more important. By 1902, the naval
stores business had moved from Savannah, Brunswick, and Pensacola. The wholesale grocery business grew to $12,000,000 done by twenty-nine businesses by 1906.
a tragic loss, he married well. On January 21, 1879, he married
Sarah Morton Bowers of Yonkers, NY but she died a half a year later on July 8, 1879.
Then he married Henrietta Shoemaker on October 3, 1882. She was the daughter of
R. M. Shoemaker, the railroad president from Cincinnati. This marriage
connected him to a powerful transportation family. His father-in-law was
involved in several railroads, the Little Miami Railroad, Mad River & Lake Erie Railroad, Dayton and Michigan
Railroad, Cincinnati, Hamilton, and Dayton Railroad, Kentucky Central Railroad, the Kansas Pacific Railway, Cincinnati Southern Railway Company,
Cincinnati Consolidated Street Railway Company, and the St. Louis Bridge and
The Shumachers [Shoemakers] were from Herkimer County, New York as was General
Francis Spinner, former U.S. Treasurer, who lived at Pablo Beach in a tent for
about two years—1885-87—because he said it was good for his health. Spinner was the father-in-law of Shoemaker,
the first cashier of the First National Bank of Florida. The General created a
compound, “Ruby Camp Caroline,” where his friends and acquaintances joined him.
The compound included a pavilion with a honky-tonk. Prominent businessmen in Jacksonville began
building summer cottages at the beaches; by 1895, seventy summer cottages dotted
the early 1880s, Christopher went into the steam boating business on the St
Johns River. Tourists, mostly from northern climes, liked to take a steamboat
from Jacksonville south to Palatka or even further. Christopher owned several
boats. His Queen of the St Johns was
the largest ever to ply the St Johns River.
Queen of the St. Johns
Ocean going ships were more profitable and he entered the
business in 1878. He was an agent for the Squires Line in the 1878-1884 period. The Squires Line sailed schooners between Jacksonville
and New York. Christopher, with Baltimore capitalists, established the Jacksonville
and Baltimore Packet Line between the two cities and operated it for nineteen
years, retiring from the line in 1900. In the 1890s, he organized the Merchant
Steamship Company of Florida which used ventilated ships for fruit and
vegetable trade with New York. He named the first ship the steamer John G. Christopher. When it arrived in Jacksonville
on January 16, 1892 from New York, it was met with great jubilation.
Christopher was an early adopter. The first phone line was installed in
Jacksonville in 1878 and it didn’t take him long to see the business potential
of the device. In 1880, he worked with B.D. DeForrest to create the first
Jacksonville telephone exchange was formed with thirty-four subscribers.
built the first electric generating plant in Florida. In 1896, he started a
machinery and mill supply business that became one of the largest in the
Southeast and used this two-story warehouse. It seemed that he had the
J. G. Christopher Headquarters
and Warehouse, 1939
Source: Metro Jacksonville
Not all went well for him, however. His venture into the
hotel business was a disaster. In 1883, he was one of the Jacksonville
businessmen who backed the building of the narrow-gauged Jacksonville &
Atlantic Railroad from South Jacksonville to within 1100 feet of the ocean. The
area was first called Ruby Beach, then Pablo Beach, and then, in 1925,
Jacksonville Beach. Christopher started
building the magnificent Murray Hall Hotel where Beach Boulevard meets the
ocean in 1884. The luxurious Murray Hall Hotel was occupied even before it
opened in 1887. During July 5-10, 1885 it was used for the encampment of state
troops, not long enough to make a difference. The hotel cost $150,000 and had
192 rooms or a 350-guest capacity. Steam heated the hotel but it also had 58
open fireplaces, a danger in a wooden building in a settlement without fire
protection. The Hotel generated electricity for itself and the rest of Pablo
Beach. Its artesian well supplied the city until 1918. For entertainment, it
had a children’s playroom, a billiard room, bar, and an orchestra for its
ballroom. Christopher dreamed of attracting the wealthy in both summer and
winter. One could telephone Jacksonville from the hotel.
Murray Hall Hotel Source: Beaches Museum &
Murray Hall Hotel Source: Beaches Museum & History
Murray Hall Hotel Source:
Beaches Museum & History Center
Murray Hall Hotel Source: Beaches Museum &
C. H. French, an experienced hotelier, managed it the first
year but the Christophers took over for the next three to cut expenses. The
hotel could accommodate more people than the tiny settlement! A tornado struck
on September 23, 1889, killing a boy and wreaking destruction:
A tornado passed over
Pablo Beach, sixteen miles from here, at six o'clock last evening and did
great damage to Murray Hall, an immense beach hotel. The tin roof was torn off,
the windows and doors burst in and the building left in a generally shattered
condition. The servants' quarters and carpenter shop near the hotel were
completely demolished. PRINCE O'NEIL, a boy thirteen years old, was standing by
the horse and buggy of Lawrence Haynes, near the dancing pavilion, awaiting the
arrival of the evening train. The horse, vehicle and boy were lifted into the
air and blown nearly 200 feet to the beach. The boy was killed outright.
A freight car on a side track was lifted in
the air, turned over twice and landed on the north side of the main track,
sixty feet distant. A passenger train due at six o'clock was half an hour late,
owing to obstructions on the track. Had it arrived on time a hundred cottagers
returning from the city would doubtless have been killed or seriously injured.
The force of the wind was such that pieces of timber were driven through the
two-inch plank flooring of the railroad station and were with great difficulty
extricated for the passage of the train. The cottagers escaped with little or
no damage, and no serious injury to persons is reported beyond the death of the
damage to Murray Hall and surroundings is estimated at $10,000. It closed for
the season last Wednesday. It is owned and managed by John G. Christopher, of
this city. Great excitement prevails among the cottagers, but the weather is
again perfectly calm. The tornado covered an area of not over seventy-five feet
in its revolutions and buildings and persons outside of this circle were
uninjured. The tornado was less than three minutes in duration and passed off
toward the northwest.
The Murray Hall and
surrounding buildings burned to the ground as a result of a boiler room fire on
August 7th, 1890. Reports attest to the spectacular sight as the middle of the
night fire lit up the sky; the blaze could be seen for miles. As Dwight Wilson
“The building created a
fire storm, and the Ocean View Hotel, a block away, was almost destroyed.
Pryor’s Grocery burned. The railroad station, the pavilion, the two pagodas,
the sheds, some homes, the wooden bulkhead and a box car were all destroyed.
Sheet metal from the roof fell 600 feet from the fire. Railroad rails for a
hundred feet twisted and curled.”
John G. Christopher and
wife lost $225,000 less the $4,000 insurance but Henrietta Christopher was
relieved that the financial albatross died. The railroad company lost its
pavilion and terminal but fared better, losing only $500 after its $5,500
insurance policy was paid. The lessee, J. W. Campbell, owner of the St James
Hotel in Jacksonville, lost little.
The Christophers were congregants of St. Johns Episcopal Church in Jacksonville and they allowed the hotel parlor to host
Sunday afternoon services until the mission church, St
Paul’s-by-the-Sea, was built at 2nd Street South and 2nd
Avenue South in 1887. The railroad donated the land; congregants provided
funds. Henrietta Christopher bought the first organ and she and her husband
were avid supporters of the little chapel. Church services were held in the
summer for the most part and priests came when possible. The original building has survived albeit without its
tower and was moved to the grounds of the Beaches Museum and History
center in Jacksonville Beach. It and the modern church are successes of
St. Paul’s-By-The Sea, 1906
Original Chapel, 2007 Photo
by Don Mabry
Original Chapel, 2007 Photo
by Don Mabry
supported the leftists in Cuba who were fighting to drive the conservative
Spanish government off the island from 1895-98. The United States remained
neutral in the Cuban-Spanish War of 1895-98 until it joined the fray in 1898
for a variety of reasons. Americans tended to favor the independence fighters
and a few aided them with money, guns, and refuge. Napoleon Bonaparte Broward
used his ship The Three Friends to carry arms
and munitions from Nassau to Cuban independence revolutionaries on the island
in 1896. Broward piloted the seagoing tug to Cuba, carrying a Cuban hero,
General Enrique Collazo (veteran of the Ten Years' War), two officers,
fifty-four men plus arms and ammunition to Cuba, giving the insurrectionists
much-needed hope. Jacksonville Cubans had made the arrangements. Running guns was a profitable
and exciting business and he made eight illegal trips. Broward was so good at
it that Spain complained but U. S. authorities could not catch him. Christopher’s important
role was widely reported in newspapers. For example The
Morning Call of San Francisco ( March
19, 1896) and The Record-Union, of
Sacramento (March 18, 1896) reported that
five tons of the arms and ammunition seized from the schooner “Mallory” were sent
via a sealed railroad car to Jacksonville from Cedar Key. When the contents became known in Jacksonville,
the arms were stored in the Wightman & Christopher warehouse. The illegal arms
stayed until March 12th, then were loaded on the Three Friends and Broward sailed to
Alligator Key near Miami on the 13th and took the Mallory in tow to
take men and munitions to Cuba. Christopher was President of the Friends of
Cuba Club of Jacksonville.
When the Cubans and Americans won the war in 1898, the felony
crime of the gun running was conveniently forgotten. Besides, few had sympathy
was an upstanding member of the Jacksonville community. In 1897, he ran for
mayor of Jacksonville, making no promises to special interests and only lost by
163 votes. He was a founding member of the of Board of Trade [Chamber of Commerce]
and was President in 1896. His memberships included the prestigious
Seminole Club, Jacksonville Country
Club (which he served as President), Patriarchs Club, and St. John’s Episcopal Church. He was a founding
Director of the National Bank of Jacksonville since its beginning. He also served on the State Board of Health in the early twentieth century until
1901, he commissioned Robert H. Paul to build a large home for him on the
Atlantic Beach ocean front at 11th Street. The house still exists.
While it was being built, he lived at the Continental Hotel, a few blocks
On the left, the Christopher-Bull House. Photo
by Don Mabry
Christopher survived until 1933 having lived a full life. Henrietta died in
1922 when he was 67 years old. By 1925, he had married a native Vermont woman,
Anna, three years his junior. They rented a house at lived at 780 Riverside
Avenue for $210 a month ($2520 a year) in a neighborhood were houses were worth $25,000 or more. In 1929, 71% of families had incomes of less than $2,500.
By 1930, Hilma Sarllra, a 50-year-old woman, born in Finland of
Russian parents, was living there as a servant.
bother about writing about such a man? After all, he was neither a state nor a national
politician. He wasn’t an inventor or a soldier. He wasn’t an intellectual idol
or a teacher. Instead, he was a local entrepreneur who helped develop
Jacksonville, Florida into an important city. He showed Jacksonville Beach the
possibilities of tourism while also attending to its religious life. Most
people never accomplish so much. We need to know more about such people.
Anniversary of the Telephone,
1876-1926, and Chronology of the Telephone In Jacksonville. http://www.whitewayrealty.com/Home/miscellaneous. "City's First Telephone Directory in 1880 Listed 34 Subscribers," Florida Times-Union, December 27, 1964.
The East Bay Street District | Metro Jacksonville
[sic] Beach, FL Violent Tornado
Strikes, Sep 1889.” Elyria Democrat Ohio 1889-09-26. Posted by Stu Beitler on http://www3.gendisasters.com/florida/19712/pueblo-beach-fl-violent-tornado-strikes-sep-1889.
C. Craig, “Murray Hall,” Jacksonville Historical Society Papers, Vol. III,
1954. Dwight Wilson, drawing heavily upon Craig’s work, provides an account of
the attempts to create luxury hotels on the ocean shore. See “The Murray Hall
and the Continental: Our World-Famous Hotels of Yesteryear,” Tidings Vol. 13,
no. 1 Winter 1992; “A Jacksonville Hotel Burned,” New
York Times, August 8, 1890.
Henry, “A Brief History of St. Paul's by-the-Sea,” St. Paul's by-the-Sea web
on March 23, 2012. Unpublished manuscript, “A Chronology of St. Paul’s by the
Episcopal Church, Jacksonville Beach,
Florida. Revised May, 2007, copy in the Beaches
The Morning Call of San Francisco ( March 19, 1896) and The
Record-Union, of Sacramento (March
18, 1896). See Samuel Proctor, Napoleon
Bonaparte Broward: Florida's Fighting Democrat. Gainesville,
University of Florida Press, 1993, pp. 100-103 for Christopher’s involvement.
H. Rerick, Memoirs of Florida, Vol. 1 . Edited by Francis P. Fleming.
(Atlanta: Southern Historical Association, 1902), pp.
Clay Crawford, Report of the Secretary of
State of the State of Florida, For the Period Beginning January 1, 1911, and Ending December
31, 1912. 1913. T. J. Appleyard,
State Printer, Tallahassee. Fla.
my work: “A Man and Three Hotels,” HTA
Press, March 16, 2006;
“Harcourt Bull's Atlantic Beach, Florida, HTA Press, February 8,
2007; and World’s Finest Beach: A Brief
History of the Jacksonville Beaches (Charleston and London: The History
search of FamilySearch.org
data on the household in 1930. Jacksonville city directories through 1925 are
available online through the Jacksonville Public Library web site. He, his wife, and servant are found on U. S. Census Bureau,
15th Census Populations 1930, 15-16 (Washington, DC), page 532