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America’s Oldest City

Originally Published in MotorHome Magazine

I’ll take St. Augustine or leave my bones before its walls,” swore James Oglethorpe, as he
laid siege to he Castillo de San Marcos and its Spanish garrison at St. Augustine in 1740.
Oglethorpe intended to drive the Spaniards from Florida before they could attack his new
British colony of Georgia. But the Spanish commander, Governor Manuel de Montiano, had
other ideas. He pledged to “shed his last drop of blood in defense of St. Augustine.”
Standing behind the parapet atop the Castillo’s San Carlos Bastion, we peered across
Matanzas Bay toward low-lying Anastasia Island. It wasn’t difficult to imagine Oglethorpe’s
fleet in the Atlantic beyond, out of cannon range, or his guns and mortars lobbing fire
from the island. Nor was it hard to imagine artilleryman Tomás González y Hernández
confidently returning fire with his 24-pounder. Throughout our weeklong visit in St.
Augustine, the oldest continuously inhabited European settlement in the continental United
States, we discovered a lively city with nearly 450 years of singular history. In 1565,
some 55 years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, Pedro Menéndez de Alvarez led a
force of soldiers and missionaries ashore to found San Augustin. By the time Spain ceded
Florida to the United States in 1821, St. Augustine had served as an outpost of the Spanish
(and briefly, the British) empire and as capital of Florida for two and one half centuries.
The oldest city’s oldest structure is the Castillo de San Marcos (1695), declared a
national monument in 1924. Constructed of coquina, a soft limestone composed of seashells
and coral, the Castillo took 23 years to build. Rangers provide hourly programs for
visitors. We learned about cleverly designed latrines, which were automatically flushed
twice daily by tidal action, as well as about the siege of 1740, when the relatively soft
coquina literally absorbed the impact of bombardment by yielding without breaking, even
“swallowing” an occasional cannonball! The González-Alvarez House, the city’s oldest house
and now a national historic landmark, was acquired by the historical society in 1918. It
illuminates nearly three centuries of life in St. Augustine. Our guide told us that the
earliest documentation of the house dates from 1727, though it had been built sometime
prior, perhaps around 1715. The house began as a two room flat-roofed structure of coquina,
in appearance remarkably similar to an adobe house of that same period in Santa Fe. Nearby,
the Old St. Augustine Village museum complex contains nine historic houses acquired during
the mid 20th century by philanthropist Kenneth W. Dow. Curator Tom Muir explained that the
Prince Murat House, the oldest, dates from about 1790. Living history of the Spanish
Colonial era, circa 1740, inhabits the Spanish Quarter Village. Costumed docents
demonstrate traditional crafts, such as blacksmithing, wood carving and palm thatching. The
site includes nine mostly reconstructed buildings and gardens. Florida’s fourth graders get
a hands-on lesson in the city’s unique colonial history at the Spanish Quarter Village, and
so did we. “Señora Gallegos” escorted us on a tour of her comparatively comfortable home,
which has a rare indoor kitchen. The nearby city gate, dating from 1808, brackets the
northern end of St. George Street, colonial St. Augustine’s main commercial thoroughfare
and today a pedestrian-only street from the gate to the central plaza. Just outside the
gate, the main visitor information center is a good place to begin a visit to historic St.
Augustine. It’s also reasonably close (a couple of long blocks) from the designated RV
parking area. Navigating the narrow streets of the old city in a motorhome is not
recommended, but historic St. Augustine is compact enough to sightsee on foot. Or, enjoy a
ride on the Red Train or the Green Trolley while listening to a narrative on the city
sights. Horse-drawn open-air carriages also ply the streets of the old city, offering a
more leisurely, historically correct, mode of travel. We walked through the city gate and
strolled south along St. George Street, where one- and two-story buildings in the Spanish
style crowd the street, some with overhanging second-floor balconies. Many are careful
reconstructions of colonial-era buildings that once occupied the sites. Others are
original, among the 36 buildings in town that date from before 1821. Restaurants, shops and
museums occupy most of the ground-floor spaces, making for a lively street. After 60 years
of relative quiet following Florida’s acquisition by the United States, Henry Flagler
determined to make St. Augustine, with its salubrious winter climate and nearby beaches,
into the Newport of the South, attracting wealthy Northerners for the season. Flagler
constructed the sumptuous Ponce de Leon and Alcazar hotels, and amused his guests with
yacht races, golf tourneys and oyster roasts on North Beach. Wealthy winter visitors
eventually moved south with the railroad, but Flagler’s two neo-Moorish style hotels, of
innovative, poured-in-place concrete construction, still dominate St. Augustine’s skyline.
The Ponce de Leon is now Flagler College, and the Alcazar serves as St. Augustine’s City
Hall and houses the Lightner Museum. The Lightner’s large and eclectic collection of
collections, including glass, porcelain, furniture and cigar bands as well as painting and
sculpture, have gained it the nickname “The Smithsonian of the South.” Perhaps our hunger
for history stimulated our hunger for food. We dined on the huge house salad, tasty paella
and Cuban roast pork, accompanied by sangria, at the Columbia Restaurant on St. George
Street. Another evening, we chowed down on ribs and corn-on-the-cob in the friendly
ambiance of the Salt Water Cowboys, sitting atop piers overlooking wetlands on Anastasia
Island. St. Augustine’s Spanish garrison constructed Fort Matanzas between 1740 and 1742 at
the southern end of Anastasia Island to guard against attacks from the south. At the fort,
now a national monument, rangers conduct free guided tours, bringing visitors to the fort
in a small boat. Florida’s first official lighthouse was built in 1824 near the northern
end of the island. The present candy-striped tower was constructed in 1871 when coastal
erosion threatened an earlier light. Now automated, the light retains its first-order
Fresnel lens. We summoned the energy to climb the 219 steps of the 165-foot tower and were
rewarded with a fine view of the coast, the harbor and the city. Nearby is a bit of living
history dating from the Henry Flagler era. The St. Augustine Alligator Farm was the first
attraction of its kind in the world when it opened in 1893, and this zoological park has
been wowing visitors ever since. It boasts the only complete collection representing all 23
species of crocodilians, including many that are endangered. It also offers a remarkable
up-close view of wild aquatic birds nesting in an enormous rookery. Ghost Tours of St.
Augustine revealed another historical dimension of the old city during an evening walk. As
we stood in the pale moonlight, huddled around the ancient Tolomato Cemetery gates, a young
woman in period dress recounted some haunting tales. We heard about a woman buried alive
behind the gates, about grave robbing and about the haunting of Henry Flagler by his dead
wife. History permeates America’s oldest city, but if you want a change of pace there’s
plenty more to do: miles of sandy beaches, numerous golf courses, saltwater fishing,
kayaking, art galleries and antique shops, or take a harbor cruise. As the Victory III
pulled away from the dock, we enjoyed the view and the fresh breeze from the top deck.
Passing beneath the 1920s-era Bridge of Lyons, Castillo de San Marcos loomed to our left,
its purpose unmistakable. Our boat continued around Matanzas Bay, providing views of
Anastasia Island and the St. Augustine Light, of shorebirds wading on a sand bar and a
dolphin in our wake, and revealed a panorama of St. Augustine at sunset, seemingly still
defended by its squat, massive fortress. It turned out that neither Montiano nor Oglethorpe
gave his life in the siege of 1740, but Oglethorpe had to eat his words, departing without
capturing the city. Artil-leryman Hernández returned to his home, now the city’s oldest
house, where he resided with his family for another 23 years. Through the succeeding 250
years, St. Augustine has persevered, protecting its unique heritage. Neither a theme park
nor an outdoor museum, historic St. Augustine remains a living city on intimate terms with
its past.

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