What we now know as Downtown Jacksonville was originally settled by Native Americans and called Ossachite.
During the 16th century, the area was settled by the French and the Spanish.
The Spanish established domain over the St. Johns River region until 1763 when Britain gained control over the Florida territory, naming it Cow Ford. The region was ceded back to Spain in 1783 and soon became an area of development for settlers. In 1821, the United States acquired Florida.
Making of a City
Isaiah D. Hart, a prominent settler of Cow Ford, convinced his fellow landowners to donate land along the north bank to establish a town.
In 1822, a twenty-block area bound by Catherine, Duval and Ocean Streets became the town by the river. Many Floridians viewed Andrew Jackson as a hero for his invasion of Spanish Florida and decided to name the town Jacksonville. By 1830, Jacksonville had expanded to nearly 100 residents. Two years later, it elected its first Mayor, William J. Mills. Jacksonville swelled to a population of 750 by 1847, when Florida became the 27th state.
Though no major Civil War battles were fought in Jacksonville, Union troops occupied Jacksonville on four separate occasions. After the end of the war, the city began to rebuild Downtown, bringing a surge of visitors to the area.
Downtown emerged with elegant homes and hotels which attracted the rich and famous that nested in Jacksonville during the winter months. Coined “The Winter City in a Summer Land,” Downtown Jacksonville catered to the growing tourism industry. The 1870’s were the peak of Downtown’s era of tourism, thriving with paddlewheelers, steamships and schooners along the St. Johns River. Jacksonville’s Downtown featured all the makings of a major city including a theatre that increased the tourist population from 14,000 in 1870 to 100,000 by 1885.
The Great Fire and Rebuilding
On May 3, 1901, a patch of moss laid out to dry near the Cleveland Fiber Factory at Beaver and Davis Streets caught fire from a chimney ember. The fire became an uncontrollable blaze that spread quickly eastward across Downtown. By the end of the day, the fire burned 2,368 buildings and 466 acres. These charred remains included the oldest and most densely populated areas of Downtown, including 23 churches, 10 hotels and the majority of the public buildings. The 1901 fire was the largest metropolitan fire in the South and third largest fire in the country, leaving 8,677 residents homeless.
Jacksonville was helped by many across the nation with relief funding and rebuilding by some of the country’s most distinguished architects, including H. J. Klutho. Three years after the fire’s destruction, the number of new structures surpassed the number of buildings lost.
Downtown Jacksonville became a regional transportation hub for rail transit in 1919 with the completion of the Jacksonville Terminal. Rail, the port and the shipyards encouraged growth through the first half of the 20th century. The consolidation of city and county government in 1968 established Downtown as the seat of government.
Into the 20th Century
The national popularity of shopping malls and suburban housing led to the decline of Downtown in the 1970’s and early 1980’s, drawing residents and consumers further from the center of the urban core.
In the 1980’s and early 1990’s, growing support for Downtown from Mayors Jake Godbold and Ed Austin started the process of Downtown Jacksonville’s revitalization. The city tried to bring the focus back to the center of the region with several projects, including The Jacksonville Landing, a riverfront marketplace modeled after Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.
In 2000, Downtown property owners collaborated to establish Jacksonville's first Business Improvement District (BID). The Jacksonville BID is a ninety-block neighborhood in which property owners tax themselves to make their community cleaner, safer and more vibrant. The tax is used by the BID to provide services and capital improvements that supplement those provided by the city. Downtown Vision, Inc., the private/public partnership that manages the BID, has been leading the spirit of cooperation among property owners, businesses and the community by providing a wide range of valuable services, including cleanliness and safety initiatives, beautification projects, parking and transportation initiatives, marketing programs and advocacy support.
Source: Wood, Wayne W. Jacksonville's Architectural Heritage. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1996.
Photo credit: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.
For more Downtown history, visit the LaVilla and Brooklyn pages.