Looking back: Jacksonville once favorite tourist haven for entire eastern U.S.

Did you know tourists used to ride in ostrich-drawn buggies on Jacksonville’s Eastside?

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – With Jacksonville’s bicentennial celebration quickly approaching, News4JAX is putting a spotlight on the city’s reputation as a tourist haven.

There’s the Jacksonville we know today, and then, there’s the Jacksonville you might never have heard about.

That story begins with the Civil War.

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Dr. Wayne Wood is historian-at-large for the Jacksonville Historical Society and says the city was occupied four different times by Union troops.

“And those soldiers went home to Pennsylvania and New York and Ohio and other places and told their friends they had been in Jacksonville,” Wood said. “This place where the scenery was beautiful and had a magnificent river.”

A steamboat filled with tourists docks in Jacksonville. (Provided by Jacksonville Historical Society)

Wood said roughly five years after the war, tourists started coming to Jacksonville.

Wood said there were many ocean liners that came from New York and Boston down to Jacksonville, and those tourists occupied the boarding and rooming houses.

Grand hotels also brought an influx of tourists, including the Windsor, the Nicholl’s Hotel, and the Everett.

The Everett was one of several grand hotels that brought an influx of tourists to Jacksonville. (Provided by Jacksonville Historical Society)

Wood said while it might be hard to imagine now, Bay Street would be sprawling with tourists and visitors.

“Tourists discovered this ‘winter city in the summer land’ as they called it,” Wood said. “People would go get dressed up in their finery. The orchestra at the St. James Hotel would last through the evening here. And tourists just found this to be a magnificent place.”

A magnificent place that was all but completely lost in the Great Fire of 1901. But true to the Jacksonville spirit, it came back.

Jacksonville's Great Fire of 1901 nearly wiped out the tourism industry but it came back to life. (Provided by Jacksonville Historical Society)

Florida’s first theme park, known as Dixieland Park, opened in the River City in 1907. Wood said it was located not far from where the Museum of Science and History stands today. Its many attractions were tourist favorites.

“A small roller coaster, house of mirrors, skating rink, an Opera House, and things that you wouldn’t really think of in Jacksonville,” Wood said.

Dixieland Park opened in South Jacksonville to draw winter tourists from the North.

On the city’s Eastside, tourists even got the experience of riding in an ostrich-drawn buggy at an ostrich farm. There were over 200 ostriches.

“And that actually moved over to Dixieland Park, and later they got some alligators,” Wood said. “And after Dixieland Park closed around 1915, the ostrich farm lived on there and gradually became the alligator farm down in St. Augustine.”

On Jacksonville's Eastside, tourists could experience riding in an ostrich-drawn buggy at an ostrich farm. (Provided by Jacksonville Historical Society)

In the 1920s, Jacksonville Beach tourism exploded. It was even home to Florida’s largest wooden roller coaster -- that is, until Disney came along.

Did you know? In August of 1926, W.H. Adams Sr. opened the Ocean View Pavillion amusement park near the Jacksonville Beach Pier. (Photo: Jacksonville Historical Society)

And speaking of Mickey Mouse, did you know there had been talks of building Disney World in our area? Wood said that was a hard-fought battle.

“Central Florida won out because it had more land on which to build,” Wood said. “There was a lot of skullduggery and politics going on in that, and Jacksonville lost out on that.”

Disney might have been a win for Orlando, but Wood isn’t convinced it’s Jacksonville’s loss.

“Orlando has traffic problems and all kinds of difficulties that result in growing so quickly and not proper planning,” Wood said. “Whereas Jacksonville throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s was kind of a sleepy town and people passed through here, but didn’t think much of it, and because of that, we are now poised to be truly the Bold New City of the South we have advertised ourselves as, because we get to get over and develop.”

Wood believes with old buildings being restored, and riverfront parks on the way, the city is on the cusp.

“I hope to see that in my lifetime, for Jacksonville to blossom and become a place that’s, not the biggest city, but the best quality of life,” Wood said. “And what better wish can we have in our bicentennial year?”

About the Author:

Ashley Harding joined the Channel 4 news team in March 2013. She reports for and anchors The Morning Show.