The land that stretches between Mayport and the sands of Vilano Beach on Florida’s east coast may be the only populated barrier island in the country without a name.
Despite the fact that Ponce de Leon visited there briefly 500 years ago, and Jean Ribault met the resident Timucuan Indians there and claimed it for France with a plaque 450 years ago, no one apparently thought to name it.
Despite its anonymity, turn-of-the-18th-to-19th-century snowbirds found it the answer to northern winter woes. Movie stars, mobsters and Edward R. Murrow frolicked on its beaches. Even German saboteurs landed there in 1942.
Perhaps no one noticed it had no name. It's only been a barrier island for 100 years, since a canal dug to connect the San Pablo and Tolomato rivers created the Intracoastal Waterway.
Referred to as the Beaches, or Jacksonville Beaches, by natives, it now covers eight distinctive communities, two counties and a host of ghosts from its lively past.
Today, Mayport, a seven-block area of fishing village in search of a future, remains a far cry from the wild child of its past.
Minorcan seamen once made a living piloting boats through treacherous currents into the St. Johns River, spawning scary stories. The ghost stories began when one of the seamen, William Joseph King, built a house atop an old Spanish graveyard. King’s son enhanced the houses haunting stories, which include a woman pitchforked to death in her rocking chair. Then there was the man clad in a red suit who appears at the top of the stairs. Or the bald man who pulls the covers off sleeping guests. And the appearance of a ghostly bride in white. The apparition of a butler at the door. And many more. True? Who knows.
"Tragedies happened in that place. Some I'm positive are real," said author Bill Reynolds, who lived behind the King house and uses many of the stories in his "Jettyman" series
The pitchforked woman and the little butler who met people at the door and let them in, which infuriated King, for example. The bride in the wedding dress was driving with her husband to their honeymoon destination via the Mayport ferry when the car missed a nearby turn and she was killed.
"Right away the only place for her to go was John King's house," said Reynolds, adding that it often seems there's "an evil mist over Mayport. There's been some good people, but there's been some awful people."
At one point, Catholics held mass in the King house until, said Reynolds, the righteous decided they had to get out, proclaiming, "We can't have our religion mixed with all these ghosts."
People have thought Atlantic Beach was a good place to live since 3000-3500 BCE, according to Maarten van de Guchte, executive director of the Beaches Museum & History Center. That's how far back the finds around its northern border go for what is believed to be the first year-round Native American settlement in North America.
In the early 1900s, Henry Flagler built the grand 250-room, 56-bath Continental Hotel east of his railroad station to house the well-to-do snowbirds seeking to escape the cold. Barnstorming pilots also landed on these beaches. And automotive speed demons raced on them.
Now, except for a block of commercial strips and a couple hotels along its southern boundary, Atlantic Beach finds itself filled with houses and condos. Hannah Park, a magnet for surfers, beachcombers, campers and bicyclists at its northern border, keeps a bit of Old Florida alive.
Although platted in 1889, houses at Neptune Beach failed to catch on until Atlantic Boulevard was built in the 1900s. It’s been stubbornly residential ever since.
Through it all, the Jensen family, proud owners of Duval County Liquor License No. 1, has been offering cold beer, strong drinks and 25-cent billiards at Pete's Bar. Ernest Hemingway drank here. John Grisham drank and wrote about Pete's. Now it has become a Thanksgiving morning destination for thousands who enjoy coming here "while the turkey's cooking."
This hub began in 1884 as a tent city, including the canvas complex of Gen. Frances Spinner, treasurer under Lincoln. By 1915, a boardwalk with rides, games and pier became the place to have fun. Trains and snowbirds chugged south. But the roads also opened up the beaches to inlanders who wanted "a place at the beach" for the summer. Many watched on Sept. 4, 1922, when James H. Doolittle took off from the beach for what became a record-breaking transcontinental flight.
In 1925, at the height of the Florida land boom, the Casa Marina Hotel replaced Gen. Spinner's tents. The first fireproof hotel at the Beaches, it attracted Charlie Chaplin, Al Capone and Jean Harlow.
It’s still there. So are its ghosts.
Sterling Joyce, maitre d'hotel at the Casa Marina for seven years, has seen guests pack up and leave because of them. He claims to have had his own encounter with them in the elevator, which he thinks has a mind of its own – or has spectral operators.
"Man, it put chill bumps on me," he admits.
Other stories include the laughter of unseen children playing in the second-floor hallway, the former employee who accidentally severed his head who visits Room 104, and the spirit in striped pajamas who pulls people's hair and leaves indentations in freshly made beds.
Entrepreneurs have gone from mining minerals to mining the affluent. Private clubs, gated communities, 150-plus holes of golf, 60 tennis courts, oceanfront mansions and resorts, and the PGA Tour headquarters maintain the community's gold standard.
No ghosts reported yet, but the infamous No. 17 island green at TPC Sawgrass claims souls during THE PLAYERS Championship and throughout the year.
South Ponte Vedra Beach and Vilano Beach are residential strips along the Atlantic Ocean, but Palm Valley is another story. Now well on its way to gentrification, this was once an enclave of swamps, critters and pioneers who hacked out their living from the wilderness. One way involved cutting palm fronds.
"We made a living during Easter," said Sydney Mickler , a descendent of those families. "We'd cut 'em, stack 'em in the yard by the thousands." Dealers would arrive to buy and ship the fronds all over the nation.
In the summer, they hunted and skinned alligators. When the time and tide were right, they fished in the ocean. And from Prohibition until World War II, moonshine and liquor became the Valley's cash crop. Schooners anchored offshore and the rum and other spirits would be rowed in and hidden in a pit in the dunes. At a designated time, dealers descended there to buy their booty.
According to Mickler and his relative, author and historian Michel Oesterreicher, those are the only spirits they know about. "I never heard of a ghost story from Palm Valley," Oesterreicher said. "That doesn't mean there aren't some."
Just wait until a McMansion edges out the last Mickler.