A River Runs Through It

by | Jun 1, 2021

A mighty watercourse called the St. Johns is Jacksonville’s central feature, lending it the obvious nickname “the River City.” More than twenty percent of Jacksonville consists of water, nearly all of which is the St. Johns River and its tributaries. Because the city straddles the river, its waters divide us. But Jacksonville might also be called the City of Bridges, because of the ways they unite us. Without its bridges, Jacksonville as we know it could not exist.

A Jacksonville bridge has been in the news this month, that being one named for the late Jacksonville civic leader and politician, St. Elmo W. “Chic” Acosta. To observe the bridge’s centennial, the Jacksonville Historical Society was honored to partner with the San Marco Preservation Society, the City of Jacksonville and the Jacksonville Transportation Authority. Our membership and friends were well-represented at two events in June, highlighting the significance of the Acosta Bridge in Jacksonville’s history.

Opening in 1921 as the St. Johns River Bridge, the Acosta was Jacksonville’s first automobile bridge, and the first to span any point along the length of St. Johns River. Since then, bridges have shaped modern Florida, but especially the Jacksonville area. Each of this city’s bridges has accelerated growth in the suburbs, at the beaches and beyond. Since the 1950s they also contributed to the decline of downtown businesses. Within 100 years, Jacksonville spread out from a dense city perched on the north bank of the St. Johns River to the sprawling consolidated city-county of the 21st century. The river has barely changed at all, while everything around it has changed immensely.

Bridges symbolize Jacksonville so much that they are essential to the city’s iconography. Illustrations of bridges are a staple of local political campaign ads, suggesting the candidate’s gift for uniting voters. The logo of the city’s Chamber of Commerce hints at a bridge beneath the downtown skyline. Churches and civic clubs often use the image of a bridge to signal inclusiveness. Jacksonville’s new Bicentennial logo (shown on this page) employs a generic bridge as both symbol and metaphor.

Like most transportation projects, bridges are invariably controversial. They are dizzyingly expensive, fueling concern about their return on taxpayers’ dollars, and they can upset the character of the communities they connect. It was not until 1985 that construction of the Dames Point Bridge finally began, after decades of bitter disputes over its design, costs and whether it would answer anyone’s need – it was derided as a “bridge to nowhere.” Sometimes, objections are enough to block construction, as happened decades ago to a proposed bridge that would have connected Timuquana Road, on the west side of the St. Johns River, with Butler Boulevard on the east side. Residential neighborhoods on both sides of the river were understandably opposed.

Each of the bridges of Duval County, in its own way, shapes the mental geography of the citizens who travel across it. Without the Buckman Bridge, a student living in the Argyle Forest neighborhood would face a grinding commute to classes at the University of North Florida, and an employee at Naval Air Station Jacksonville couldn’t imagine living in Mandarin. When the day comes for the 68-year-old Mathews Bridge to be replaced, commuters living near Ft. Caroline may think twice about scheduling an appointment at UF Health. The Fuller Warren Bridge allows workers in the Baymeadows neighborhood to consider living in Murray Hill, sharing their route with travelers from across the U.S. The Dames Point Bridge (more formally the Napoleon Bonaparte Broward Bridge) makes it possible for Jacksonville to be the largest container shipping terminal in Florida, and the second largest automobile shipping port in the U.S.

For roughly 36 miles, the St. Johns River flows mostly peacefully through Jacksonville. Every day, tens of thousands of Jaxsons share the experience of crossing the city on some of its seven highway bridges, passing over the border that the St. Johns River imposes. A downtown railroad bridge and a car ferry at Mayport complete the network. The city and the region have always been defined by how they adapt to the river, and they always will be. In Jacksonville, seeking an identity while nearing its 200th anniversary, we could do worse than to focus on the unique historical geography of the St. Johns River.

Alan J. Bliss, Ph.D.
CEO, Jacksonville Historical Society

Recent Posts