The Swimming Fire Horses
One winter day over 50 years ago, strollers on the seawall were startled to
see two old fire horses dashing down Hypolita Street with the fire wagon careening
behind them and the driver tugging frantically, on the reins. They charged across
Bay Street, headed straight for the seawall, and when the front wheels of the wagon
hit the wall, the harness broke and both horses went over the barrier and into the
bay, dragging their driver with them.
It all came about this way according to a witness: Although the fire department had,
by then, motorized its equipment, the old horse-drawn wagon was kept on standby and driven
to all fires, in case it was needed. A city employee, whose name bas been lost in the mists
of time, was given the job of driving the two old steeds to the scene of each blaze, but
he was warned in the strongest terms not to ring the bell, because that was the signal to
the two veterans of many a conflagration to take off at their fastest gallop. Alas, the first
time he was called upon to perform his new duty he forgot, and the two horses, nostrils
flaring and hoofs striking sparks from the pavement were off full tilt. There was no stopping
them until they took their unscheduled plunge into the bay. The witness reports that they
thoroughly enjoyed their swim, although Captain Ranti and Fireman Manucy were not so happy
about the four hours they had to spend trying to persuade them to climb the stone steps in
the seawall and get home to the firehouse.
The luckless driver was chastened by the experience and evidently promised to remember to
keep the bell silent on his next outing, because he was kept on the job. His next trip proved
equally disastrous, alas, though it was not nearly so much fun for the horses. As he drove out
of the firehouse, he kept his hands resolutely off the bell, and also the brake. The horses,
this time, only made it as far as the Elks Club on Bay Street. They stopped there utterly
exhausted from pulling the heavy wagon with the brake set. They were worn out, and so were
the rubber tires on the firewagon, which were right down to the rim on both back wheels.
The wagon was out of commission for the next six weeks, but there is no record
of the future career of its driver.
CHAPTER VII Outlying Areas
Anastasia Island has always seemed like a part of St. Augustine and, in fact, the city
limits include its northern tip. It was not always so easy to get to (when the draw doesn't
hang up), but from the earliest days people from town went there.
As early as 1586 the Spaniards built a watch tower near the inlet to spy out approaching
ships and they were quick to discover the usefulness of the coquina pits as a source of material
for their more substantial building. It was hauled by oxcart to the banks of Escolta (Quarry)
Creek, in those days not so marshy, which runs roughly parallel to Coquina Avenue on Davis Shores,
and then ferried by barge across the bay. It is believed that the old chimney and well near the quarries
are all that remain of a barracks where the workmen lived.
If the Spaniards ever swam and surfed in the ocean, there is no record of it, but in the 19th century
the island became a mecca for beach-lovers. They crossed Matanzas Bay in sailboats. One lady, Mrs. Bertha
M. Peele (nee Barnitz) who spent the winter of 1879 in St. Augustine as a child, bemoaned the bridge when
she returned as an old lady in her nineties, because she felt it spoiled the beauty of the harbor.
Once across, the early holiday-makers had a problem in getting to the ocean side. It was solved
by Paul Capo who provided a horse drawn railway which traversed the marsh on wooden rails over a narrow,
causeway. Later, when the bridge put him out of business, he moved his conveyance to Capo's North Beach
which he operated for many years. Many people can still remember riding from the North River to the beach
in the horse-drawn car.
The first bridge, all of wood, started at the foot of King Street. Over it ran the South Beach Railway,
known as the "old Dummy Line." Edward Forward was the engineer who operated a little steam
locomotive which pulled two small cars. Later on it was replaced by a trolley car.
When the trolley lines ceased operations in 1930, South Beach went into a temporary decline, since the
teenagers of the day found it too far to go on their bicycles and then the family car was not so easy to
get. They began to swim at Anastasia Beach (now Lighthouse Park), at that time, a 200-foot expanse of
white sand, which the city fathers decided to improve. Umbrella-like palmetto shelters were set up and
in 1932 the municipal fishing pier opened. Miss Raymondine Ponce cut the ribbon on opening day, Mayor T.
Rogero Mickler made a speech, and there was a fishing contest supervised by Ray Hellier, won by Carl Todd
for the biggest fish and Winton Rogero who caught the most. South Beach began an era of redevelopment
soon after with its own fishing pier.
Anastasia Island's trademark, of course, is the lighthouse. The Spaniards had erected an improved
watchtower of stone and in the days when the British ruled, a cannon was mounted on it which was fired
to announce a vessel was off the bar. In 1824 it was converted into a lighthouse by an oil lamp atop it,
first lit on April 3. The sea, however, began to encroach on the foundations of the old building and in
1874 the present, spiral striped lighthouse was built. It was just in time since the old one tumbled into
the sea finally, in 1880.
On the bayside of the island drastic changes came with the arrival in town of D. P. Davis, the real
estate developer of the 1920's, who filled in the marsh and envisioned a vast complex with winding
waterways, golf courses, and big hotels. But the real estate boom burst, and it was not until after
World War II that Davis Shores came into its own as one of St. Augustine's finest residential areas.
Today there is talk of horizon to horizon condominiums from Salt Run to Matanzas Inlet. Changes are
sure to come, as they have in the past, but the charm of Anastasia Island will stay.