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ST. AUGUSTINE, FL Sept 14, 2015/ Troy Media/ – There is really only one contender for the title of the oldest city in the U.S. St. Augustine, Florida with a current population of about 13,000 was founded in 1565 by a Spanish expedition of a few hundred soldiers and colonists led by Pedro Menendez. It is the oldest continuously inhabited European settlement in what is now the U.S.
The several next earliest settlements all began in the 17th century: Jamestown, Virginia (1607), Santa Fe, New Mexico (1610), Plymouth, Massachusetts (1620) and New York (1624). So St. Augustine, an outpost built by the Spaniards to help protect the shipping route for their treasure ships returning to the home country, predates all other early settlements by several decades. (Only Santa Fe, although founded later, has much older surviving buildings.)
It is this relative antiquity that largely accounts for the attraction of St. Augustine for the visitor. Although the earliest wooden structures of the town are long gone, there still is a lot to see. Unfortunately, the town was attacked and burned by the English three times, with the last attack from South Carolina in 1702. This means the oldest building in St. Augustine, a Spanish style house on St. Francis Street, dates from 1702.
The reason why the intruders burned the town was they had failed to capture its recently completed stone fort. Constructed from 1672 to 1695, the Castillo de San Marcos still dominates the harbour entrance from the Atlantic Ocean. This is a very well-preserved U.S. national historic site welcoming some 750,000 visitors a year. (Admission: US$ 7.00) It has live interpreters and videos depicting 17th century Spanish military drills along with various historical exhibits. A dark side to the fort’s history was that the U.S. government used it as a prison in the late 19th century to hold captured native Indian leaders who led the resistance to American westward expansion.
Turning to the town through the old gate (constructed in 1808), you can easily walk around the narrow streets of the historical district looking in on 18th century houses and a few surviving Spanish governmental buildings. Around the pedestrian way, St. George Street, there is an eclectic mix of modern shops, 19th century-style guest houses, museums, artisans’ studios and good eateries. For the latter, try Harry’s for seafood or Meehan’s Irish pub or the Aleworks, all situated along the waterfront. A tourist trolley regularly runs through the historical zone as an alternative mode of transportation.
A stroll through the colonial quarter of St. Augustine gives the impression and some of the sights of an 18th century town. A short distance away from the harbour there is another treat in store for you. In the late 19th century St. Augustine attracted the attention of millionaire industrialist-developers from the northern U.S. They decided to complement the town’s historical attractions with efforts of their own.
In the 1880s, they constructed the Ponce de Leon Hotel (now Flagler College), the Alcazar Hotel (now the city hall), the Villa Zorayda (now a museum) and the Casa Monica Hotel. These are clustered close together on King Street and all were built in a beautiful, mock Italianate or Moorish style. Standing at the entrance to Flagler College today, the visitor might well wonder what continent he or she was on.
To get an idea of what you could do with your fortune back then, visit the Zorayda Museum (Admission: $17.00) to see an amazingly eclectic accumulation of Victorian era artifacts gathered from around the world. Meanwhile over on Cordova Street, The Dow Museum of Historic Houses (Admission: $8.95) preserves nine buildings from the period 1790 to 1906. Be sure to check out the one lived in by the nephew of the Emperor Napoleon.
A little further away from the historical district, St. Augustine has many other interesting sites, including the original Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum, the San Sebastian winery, an historic lighthouse, the Ponce de Leon Archaeological Park and a replica of an 18th century pirate ship moored in the harbour. When I visited there was a temporary bonus attraction as a replica of a 17th century Spanish galleon, crewed by young Spaniards, was open to the public. (Admission to El Galeon: $15)
A favourite with travellers interested in history, St. Augustine attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. It is one of those reminders of a sometimes neglected aspect of the American heritage. As the U.S. expanded into Florida (1821 onwards) and later to places like Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California, Americans encountered other Europeans of Spanish culture long established in these areas.
| Fred Donnelly