One of the wonderful waterfront vistas available on Amelia Island can be seen from a bluff above the Amelia River in Old Town. Fernandina Plaza is a small state park, a square of empty lawn overlooking the riverfront. Commemorating Old Town’s 200th birthday back in 2011, a “bicentennial bench” was placed near the edge of the bluff. The Plaza is a great spot to watch a sunset from an elevated perspective. Besides Fernandina’s downtown historic district, Old Town Fernandina is another city “historic district” and listed as an historic “site” on the National Register.
A Town of Spanish Origins
The “Town of Fernandina” was established by Spain in 1811, named after Spanish King Ferdinand VII, a community situated on this bluff. For those unfamiliar with this northern spot on Amelia Island, Old Town is actually the original site of Fernandina. When David Levy Yulee was planning the first Florida cross-state railroad from the Atlantic coast in Fernandina to the Gulf coast in Cedar Key, he found it unfeasible to build the rail line from the existing Old Town settlement. Yulee, who became one of Florida’s first two United States Senators when Florida became a state in 1845, was successful in persuading many of the town’s residents to move down river about a mile to where downtown Fernandina is today. The “new” Fernandina was modeled after Manhattan, platted in a grid system with its own Central Park.
Roads Less Traveled in Old Town
Today, the main tourist traffic of Fernandina Beach lands on popular Centre Street in the downtown historic district known for its Victorian-era architecture, pubs, restaurants and shops near the Fernandina Harbor Marina. Old Town, lacking the business center of downtown, is off the beaten path. However, lovely historic homes remain in Old Town, some formerly the residences of ship captains, with an open plaza overlooking the river. In more contemporary times, those with a penchant for historic preservation and restoring significant old homes, have revived the former residences of the river dwellers who settled here in the 19th century and made their living from the water.
The most well-known home of Old Town is the 1888 “Captain’s House,” a home built by harbor pilot James Bell, photographed here in November 2015, bathed in a sunset glow. Imagine Captain Bell climbing into the tower with its fabulous view of the river to monitor the shipping traffic on the water. Wonderful architectural features include “fish-scale-shingles, gable dormers, cupola, bay windows, ornate hoods and cornices,” according to the Florida Building Commission. The striking Captain’s House (A.K.A. the Bell or Downes House per another captain who bought it in 1903), stands out, too, from the perspective of the water. It’s an interesting landmark seen and admired by those aboard the ships and boats passing by Old Town on the Amelia River today. This enchanting home has also received notoriety in more recent decades as the site for a Pippi Longstocking movie that was filmed here in the late 1980s.
Spanish Old Town Bicentennial
Far less traveled are the coquina roads of Old Town (surfaced with a sedimentary rock and shell mix). Get there from Atlantic Ave., turn onto North 14th Street, pass Bosque Bello Cemetery and turn into Old Town just before reaching the bridge at Egans Creek. This riverfront enclave celebrated its bicentennial back in 2011 with an event-packed day of activities focusing on Old Town’s Spanish heritage. It is unique as the only Spanish town in Florida with the original site plat remaining. Old Town was 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.”
Fernandina Plaza Historical State Park
Spanish colonists first established a mission here in 1696. In later times, the Spanish Fort San Carlos was built in 1816 at the corner of Estrada and White Streets in Old Town, to protect Spain’s northeast Florida properties. Today, a large grassy lawn, known as Fernandina Plaza (designated a Florida State Park), offers one of the most scenic waterfront views available on this barrier island.
Bosque Bello Cemetery
Old Town is adjacent to a cemetery (two parcels of Bosque Bello are actually within the the Old Town plat). The Spanish translation of “Bosque Bello” is “beautiful woods” (or forest). Pictured is one of Bosque Bello’s many ancient oak trees draped in “Spanish moss.” It is thought that the reference originates from its resemblance to the long beards worn by colonial Spanish explorers. Another name for the moss was “tree hair,” called so by the Timucua Indians. The city of Fernandina completed an in-depth Master Plan for Bosque Bello in 2015, the report can be read online.
Old Town Fernandina has the longest history of past civilization on Amelia Island. Long before Spanish explorers arrived, as early as 2000-1000 B.C., the Timucua Indians established a camp on this island they called “Napoyca” in the Old Town area. Oyster shell middens, remnants of Timucua life here, reveal the long story of human presence in Old Town. An archaeological dig in 2011 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 northwestern area of Amelia Island. Today, anyone taking a river cruise at low tide will still see an abundance of oyster beds along the riverbank at Old Town’s doorstep.