By Sandra Ketcham

Some historians believe the artsy, seaside city of New Smyrna Beach is the original St. Augustine, the Spanish-colonized town in Northeast Florida known as the nation‘s oldest city.

While claims that New Smyrna predates St. Augustine delight or frustrate history buffs, depending on whom you talk to, there's no way to prove it true or false more than 500 years after the Spanish first stepped foot in Florida.

What intrigues historians is the 40-by-80-foot coquina ruins, reminiscent of St. Augustine’s Castillo de San Marcos, that overlook the Intracoastal Waterway near New Smyrna’s downtown. At first glance, the ruins appear to be those of a Spanish fort, but credit for the structure is generally given to a Scottish physician named Andrew Turnbull.

Dr. Turnbull colonized the area for England in 1768. He came to Florida by ship, bringing with him nearly 1,500 Greeks, Corsicans, Italians and Minorcans in hopes of establishing a new colony to grow indigo, sugar cane, hemp and other crops.

Some of the settlers died on the way, while others perished quickly after arriving in the new land. Food shortages, Indian attacks, heat, mosquitoes, inadequate housing and intense labor under harsh supervision resulted in considerable hardship, sickness and death among the settlers. Because of these conditions, the remaining settlers abandoned the colony in 1777 and made their way north to St. Augustine.

About a year later, Dr. Turnbull moved to Charleston, S.C., leaving behind what was left of his colony and partially built mansion. The general consensus is that the Turnbull Ruins are the remnants of this abandoned mansion, but some local historians suggest the coquina foundation may have existed before Dr. Turnbull ever landed on Florida’s shore.

The appearance and location of the structure have led to much speculation about its origin and purpose. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely anyone will ever know for certain whether the structure was a colonial church, Dr. Turnbull’s mansion, a site for constructing ships or the original Castillo de San Marcos.

Any clues to the ruins’ origin have likely been lost over the centuries, but local historian and publisher Gary Luther believes there are many reasons to suspect the structure dates back to Spanish times. In his book, History of New Smyrna, East Florida, Luther points out the striking similarities between the Turnbull Ruins and the Castillo de San Marcos.

The ruins are constructed of coquina, a sedimentary rock composed primarily of shell fragments. This is the same material used to construct the Spanish fort in St. Augustine in the late 1600s. Building something the size of the Turnbull Ruins from coquina would have taken an enormous amount of time and labor, and Dr. Turnbull’s colonists were tired and sick and in no form to build such a massive structure.

Additionally, there are buttresses on the thick exterior walls of the foundation, which implies a defensive purpose for the structure. Personal homes did not receive this type of fortification and were typically built farther inland, near smaller bodies of water.

However, considering its location next to a wharf, it’s possible the foundation was built to support a large warehouse for storing supplies brought in by boat. If this was its original purpose, it could explain the extra fortification.

Dr. Turnbull never mentioned the structure in any of his writings, but this may be because the Spanish buried it when it was no longer useful. Fortunately, there are records of what happened to the site after Dr. Turnbull’s departure from Florida.

In 1801, Dr. Ambrose Hull from Connecticut attempted to start a new settlement on the coast to grow cotton and sugar, but his plans were delayed after Indians attacked his plantation. Eventually, Hull regrouped, called the area "Mount Olive," and built his house on top of what is now called the Turnbull Ruins. Hull's house was destroyed in 1812 during the Patriot's War.

About 18 years after the destruction of Hull's home, a sugar planter named Thomas Stamps started a large sugar plantation in the same location. The Seminole Indians burned it to the ground in 1835.

And, while there's no mention of Turnbull or a Spanish fort, there is a plaque at the site commemorating the destruction of the Sheldon House, a 40-room hotel built on top of the ruins in 1854 by John D. Sheldon. The hotel was destroyed during the Civil War, in July 1863, when Union ships shelled the town. Sheldon rebuilt the hotel in 1867 from salvaged wood, but this structure was torn down in 1896. 

Today, the ruins are part of the larger Old Fort Park. The destination isn't widely known—surprising considering its significance and mystery—and is enjoyed mostly by locals, historians and the occasional ghost hunter. Visitors can explore and photograph the site and then grab a bite to eat at one of the many downtown restaurants just a few blocks away.

About three miles southwest are the Sugar Mill Ruins, another coquina structure dating back to the early 1800s. Other historical sites in the area include the Eldora House, located about 12 miles southeast of New Smyrna, and Dummit's Tomb on Canova Drive, the above-ground gravesite of one of the town’s first settlers. The New Smyrna Museum of History is at 120 Sams Ave., about one block from Old Fort Park.

Some residents believe the city or county should put more effort into dating the ruins to determine their origin, but this is a difficult task, according to Irene Beckham, New Smyrna Museum of History board member and descendent of one of Turnbull’s settlers.

“The rest of New Smyrna history is still being explored and each day more is found. Some day we hope to have the true and complete story of this site. Funds are not always sufficient to continue with research.”

So for now, the ruins -- though listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places -- remain a mystery.

Getting There:

The Turnbull Ruins are located at Old Fort Park on N. Riverside Drive, near downtown New Smyrna Beach.

From U.S. 1 (Dixie Freeway), take Canal Street (traveling east) to Riverside Drive; turn left (north) onto Riverside Drive, and continue one block to Old Fort Park.

From SR 44 (traveling east), turn left onto Live Oak Street and continue to Canal Street; turn right and continue to Riverside Drive; turn left and travel one block to Old Fort Park.

Street parking is available between Julia and Washington streets.