H. E. Hernandez, proprietor of the Ocean View Hotel on Bay Street, has been in the hotel business in St. Augustine for many years. He is a member of one of the oldest families in the Ancient City and his recollections of the old days here are very interesting.
Mr. Hernandez' grandfather, John S. Masters, was prominent in the early life of the city. He fought in the Indian Wars and figured in the capture of Osceola near Moultrie. During the building of the seawall, Mr. Masters acted as overseer and also directed the work at the coquina quarries on Anastasia Island. His home was built on the Island and all that remains of it now are the old Spanish chimneys on the road to St. Augustine Beach. It was in this home that Mr. Hernandez' mother was born.
Mrs. Hernandez was the first to open a small hotel in St. Augustine after the war between the states. She ran several establishments -- one on St. George Street on the site where the St. Augustine Music and Furniture Company now stands, and another in one of the older buildings, still standing, on St. George Street, north of Cuna Street. Mr. Hernandez says that his mother used to have many guests who arrived by the old stage coach which ran between here and Picolata.
In 1888 the Ponce de Leon Hotel opened and during this period many other hotels were built including the Magnolia, the St. George, the Florida House, the Planter's Hotel and many others. At this time Mrs. Hernandez was running the Hernandez House on the corner of Charlotte and Treasury Streets.
Tocoi Railroad Built. Mr. Hernandez tells many interesting stories of life in St. Augustine in the '80's. When he was a boy, John Jacob Astor built the Tocoi Railroad by which tourists, who made the trip down the St. Johns by river steamer, could reach St. Augustine. The fare for the trip was $2.00 and the engine on the railroad was so small that if a cow strayed on the tracks the engineer had to dismount from his cabin and drive the animal off with a cattle whip, which was always carried for just such emergencies. An occasional excursion boat came down from Jacksonville by the ocean route and these were the only two ways of reaching the Oldest City in those days.
In spite of this, Mr. Hernandez says the town was always crowded with visitors and in the summer time there were almost as many as in the winter. People living in all the interior towns, including Gainesville, Lakeland and Palatka, spent their summers in St. Augustine and during the winter, wealthy people from the north came to enjoy the mild climate of the Ancient City.
Many Amusements. When asked about how tourists in the 'Eighties amused themselves, Mr. Hernandez told of the many ways in which they could pass their visit pleasantly. In those days the beaches were rather inaccessible but Capo's Bath House, located in front of where the Monson Hotel now stands, provided a place to swim right here in the city. A brick pool filled by the waters of the bay offered a sheltered, safe place for a swim and there were also private pools with hot water for those who didn't care to swim in the larger pools. There were dozens of sailboats for hire along the bay front and beach picnics and moonlight sails were favorite amusements. Genovar's Opera House on Charlotte Street was the scene of many plays by local talent and entertainments put on the professional troupes. Mr. Hernandez especially remembers "Pinafore" as presented by a local theatrical group with Mrs. Theo. V. Pomar in the part of Buttercup. Traveling minstrel shows often came to town and gave performances on the Fort Green.
Splendid Horses and Carriages. In the 'Eighties, St. Augustine claimed the honor of having the finest livery stables and horses of any city in America, not excepting New York. Many fine landaus and victorias could be seen driving about the city every day and horseback riding was a favorite sport. Horseracing was also a popularsport of those days and a leader in this activity was George Lorillard of the Lorillard Tobacco Company who had a winter residence on St. George Street, between Hypolita and Cuna Streets and brought many fine horses here to race with those owned by local people. He built the Lorillard Race Track on the site of the old airport on the Mill Creek Road where many exciting races were held. Sailboat racing was a very popular sport and rivalry was keen over every regatta. Every holiday, games used to be played in front of the Slave Market, featuring climbing the greasy pole, chasing the greased pit and similar sports.
Dancing at Hotels. The most popular amusement of all, however, was dancing. All the hotels had orchestras and there was dancing at the old Armory on Marine Street, which stood on the lot now used by the Tourist Club for its shuffleboard courts and croquet field. The Valencia Hotel, headquarters for the officers of the two companies of soldiers stationed here in those days, was another popular hotel, and the San Marco, which stood on the site where the new Tourist Center is being erected, had a gypsy orchestra which was very popular. The Ocean View Hotel, which Mrs. Hernandez still owns and operates, also gave very popular dances which many people still remember.
Other colorful features of life here in the 'Eighties and early 'Nineties were the activities of the two companies of soldiers quartered at the barracks. Guard mount every morning and dress parade in the afternoon were two daily spectacles which both tourists and town people always turned out to watch.
City Much Smaller. Mr. Hernandez remembers the appearance of the city when he was a boy before the Flagler System erected the Hotels Ponce de Leon and Alcazar and understood numerous other projects of building and improvement here. In those days Maria Sanchez Creek ran through what is now the middle of town and St. Augustine ended at the west side of what is now Cordova Street. A small coquina bridge spanned the creek at the foot of King Street and led to Dr. Anderson's orange grove. Opposite Dr. Anderson's holdings was the Gilbert Property and just back of the Anderson Grove, the Ball orange grove. Beyond these three properties, starting at the present location of Riberia Street, there was a causeway leading across a stretch of marshland and a bridge across the San Sebastian River to the settlement of New Augustine. Here the depot of the Tocoi Railroad was located and visitors arriving in the city had to drive across the two bridges and the causeway to reach the city proper. When he was a boy, Mr. Hernandez says, there were no more than a dozen houses beyond the city gates and an old shell road ran north only as far as what is now May Street. At the south end of the city was the barracks and arsenal and Lewis Park was in those days called the Powder House. A rifle range for the soldiers was located there.
Shell Used for Paving. Shell was used on most of the streets for paving and later on experiments were made with wooden blocks which proved unsuccessful as the floated off during high tides. In the 'Nineties the Horn Road or Five-Mile Drive was built, and was very popular with those who wished to go driving. It was always crowded with bicyclists.
Mr. Hernandez believes that during the old days St. Augustine had as much to offer its tourists as it has today, though amusements are of a different nature. He is looking forward to a banner season this year and hopes that the '34 tourists will enjoy their visit in the Ancient City as much as did winter visitors in the 'Eighties and 'Nineties.
H. E. Hernandez Tells of Former Tourist Years Reprinted from The St. Augustine Record, October 21, 1934