When I took off to explore Florida recently I was expecting an array of beaches and sunshine to be the real focus of the trip, but as it turns out Florida is pretty jam-packed with history. St Augustine located in the north-east of the state was one of several stops I made that forced me to realise America is home to some pretty cool history of its own. St Augustine is after all known as the nations oldest continuously inhabited city dating back to 1565.
St Augustines beginnings started with a fellow named Juan Ponce de Leon, a spanish explorer who claimed and named Florida for the spanish crown. It is through him that the city was also linked with the story of the Fountain of Youth. Fast forward past the fighting between the English, French and Spanish however and you reach the time of Henry Flagler and his hotels and railways.
It’s a fascinating story, especially as many trademarks from Flagler’s era are still alive and kicking like his Ponce de Leon Hotel which has been converted in Flagler College. I took a tour thorough parts of the college and all I can say is WOW. Where I studied it was all concrete walls and boring. Just the dining hall at the college looked like it belonged in a museum.
Along with the hotels Flagler built in St Augustine he also had his hand is building some of the churches in the region, including the Memorial Presbyterian Church which he dedicated to his only daughter.
The Old City Gate which dates back to 1808 can be seen towards the north end of St George Street. Perhaps a testament to the workers of the day it still stands today.
And while not nearly as old, the St Augustine Lighthouse has been restored to its 1974 beauty after years of disrepair and a fire that gutted much of the house. Of interest is that the lighthouse still sports its original Fresnel lens that was made in Paris. This despite finding the lens had been damaged by vandals bullets which had damaged 16 of the 370 hand-cut glass prisms.
The above only scratches the surface of the history of the town, there is still the:
- Castillo de San Marcos, which is the oldest remaining European fort in America
- The Oldest House (González-Alvarez House) which is the oldest surviving spanish colonial house in Florida
- St Augustine Cathedral which is home to the oldest Catholic Parish in America
- A 600 year old Oak tree known as the Old Senator
- And more
One of the joys of St Augustine is that all of this history can be seen just by walking the city streets. The historic center is a great place to walk and see much of what I’ve mentioned above. However I can say that while touristy the trolley tours that operate in the town are a great way to get around if you don’t feel like walking all the time.
Coming from Australia I’d always thought to look towards Europe for history on how the world came to be. This trip to Florida however has made me realise that while Europe was the beginning for countries like Australia and America they are both steeped in their own history if you make the time to stop and look for it.
While all views are my own, my stay in Florida was organised by Visit Florida with support from local tourist boards.