A little world of its own, Old Town Fernandina is a snug enclave of dwellings at water’s edge, located on a bluff above the Amelia River. The waterfront neighborhood near the northern tip of Amelia Island on its western side includes historic homes dating to the mid-1800s.
Old Town Fernandina is a community of “peonia” lots platted by the Spanish in 1811. Old Town is unique as the only Spanish town in Florida with the original site plat remaining. It’s also the very last Spanish city platted in the Western Hemisphere. According to the University of Florida “the Old Town grid remains as one of the last and purest examples of the Law of the Indies planning Edict of 1573.” This historic town’s design is what “New Urbanism” communities in contemporary times aim to replicate.
Impossible to miss when passing through Old Town is the Captain’s House (also known as the” Downes House”). This historic home borders the Fernandina Plaza and can clearly be seen by boaters on the river when passing by, with its high tower and gabled dormers. It’s also known as the “Pippi Longstocking” house since the late 1980s movie was filmed on location at the home.
FROM BED TO BOAT
It is the proximity to the water and town’s heritage that seems to attract newcomers. Folks living here can literally get from bed to boat in a matter of minutes by foot. For those who appreciate history and love getting out on the water, Old Town is an ideal location to drop anchor, with two marinas on Egans Creek located alongside this historic area (Tiger Point and the 14th Street Marina).
HISTORIC SITE LESS TRAVELED
With Old Town tucked a bit off the beaten path, the main tourist traffic of Amelia Island lands on Centre Street, a bit south on the river, the “downtown” Fernandina historic district known for its Victorian-era architecture, pubs, restaurants and shops anchored by the Fernandina Harbor Marina.
Far less traveled are the coquina roads of Old Town (surfaced with a sedimentary rock and shell mix). Far fewer tourists visit the Fernandina Plaza at Old Town (pictured above) with its amazing waterfront view and history boards alongside a cannon.
DID YOU KNOW?
The small Old Town community (up river about a mile from the tourist corridor of Centre Street), is actually the original site of the city of Fernandina which was later moved a bit down river to its present location. Marking 200 years since its establishment, Old Town Fernandina celebrated its bicentennial in 2011 with an event-packed day of activities focusing on the area’s Spanish heritage. Old Town Fernandina is another historic district on Amelia Island (on the National Register of Historic Places), in addition to the downtown Fernandina historic district.
OLD TOWN, LONG HISTORY OF PAST CIVILIZATION
It’s this site at Fernandina Plaza with the longest history of past civilization on this northeast Florida barrier island. Spanish colonists established a mission here dating back to 1696 (read related article, “Moments in History, Gregor MacGregor Captures Amelia Island.”)
Constructed of wood and earth, the Spanish Fort San Carlos was built on the riverfront here in 1816. Today, visitors will find a large grassy lawn, known as Fernandina Plaza (designated a Florida State Park in 1941), offering one of the most scenic waterfront views available on this barrier island. While Fernandina Plaza is a state park, don’t expect park benches and picnic tables. You won’t find any here, with the exception of one “Bicentennial Bench,” pictured above.
However, long before Spanish explorers arrived, as early as 2000-1000 B.C., the Timucuan Indians recognized the allure of this bluff above the river and its bounty, establishing a camp here.
Natives who lived off the land and water thousands of years ago, the Timucuan Indians, chose the Old Town site for settlement. Later in the 20th century, some Old Town residents were Pogy fishermen or employed by the nearby paper mill. Now in contemporary times, those with a penchant for historic preservation and restoring significant old homes, have revived the former dwellings of ship captains and river dwellers who settled here in the mid-19th century and made their livings from the water.
Oyster shell middens, remnants of Timucuan life here, reveal the long story of human presence in Old Town. A recent archaeological dig unearthed an artifact thought to be approximately 4,000 years old. The top layer of soil, about 12 inches deep, (largely oyster shell discards) represented 1,000 years of former life in this northern area of Amelia Island, Florida. Today, anyone taking a river cruise at low tide will still see an abundance of live oyster beds along the muddy riverbank at Old Town’s doorstep.
One need only step out onto the rear porch of the historic Riverside Cottage in Old Town, with its amazing view of the Amelia River, to understand the lure of this special spot on Amelia Island, Florida.
Then there’s the Swearingen House, flanking Egans Creek near the marinas, built for a harbor pilot. Julia Starr Sanford (Starr Sanford Design) developed a master plan for the Old Town lots, renovated the Swearingen House, and has new home designs suitable for Old Town’s peonia lots.
For those who love historic homes, “Tidewater Amelia,” is an ideal coffee table book, offering a stunning, comprehensive collection of interior photos of historic homes and buildings of Amelia Island, Cumberland Island, St. Marys and Fort George Island, by Jan H. Johannes. Along with their fascinating history, this in-depth presentation of 186 pages includes six homes of Old Town (and can be purchased at book stores in downtown Fernandina).