Historic City Memories: D. P. Davis – Part III

The Mysterious Disappearance of D.P. Davis

Part III of a series
D. P. Davis sails for Europe — and disappears.

By Geoff Dobson

In the early morning hours of October 12, 1926, an officer of the Royal Mail Ship Majestic awakened ten year old George Davis with disturbing news. At about the same time, the ship’s wireless operator tapped out a message destined for Arthur Yeager Milam, Vice President of D. P. Davis Properties, and the developer of St. Augustine’s Davis Shores: “Dave lost overboard early this morning. Ship circled over an hour. Everything possible done. No hope.”

George’s father, D. P. Davis, had vanished from the ship. If his father had gone overboard as suspected, George and his younger brother, five-year old David Paul Davis Jr., were now orphans. Their mother had died in 1922.

D. P. Davis, Florida’s most famous developer, was one who was not without political influence.

Jacksonville lawyer Arthur Y. Milam in 1925 had been Speaker of the House of Representatives. In 1923, the legislature adopted a law granting Hillsborough Bay bottom lands to the City of Tampa. The law enabled Davis to bulkhead two mosquito infested islands in Tampa Bay to create “Davis Island”. Two years later, a similar bill granted Matanzas Bay bottom lands to the City of St. Augustine and expanded the city limits. With the expansion of the city limits, the St. Augustine City Commission approved the “Davis Shores” development.

Davis was not the only developer active in St. Augustine. Across the inlet from Anastasia Island, August Heckscher was busy developing Vilano Beach. Heckscher made his fortune operating zinc mines in Vermont and New Jersey. In Jacksonville, he constructed a toll road, now Heckscher Drive, connecting Fort George Island with Jacksonville.

Expected development along the north side of the St. Johns River did not occur and there was little traffic. It was rumored that the principal businesses in the area were those of bootleggers bringing illicit booze in from the Bahamas. If that were so, Heckscher’s toll road would certainly have been convenient.

The center piece of Davis Shores was to be a 17-story hotel with a lagoon and gondolas. There was also to be a separate beach-front hotel to be named the “Fort Marion Hotel.”

The center-piece of Vilano Beach was the Grand Vilano Casino. Heckscher’s development, however, was reached over a rickety palmetto log bridge as contrasted with Davis’s magnificent arched bridge (the Bridge of Lions).

Heckscher’s Casino had a swimming pool which used salt water in the summer and fresh water in the winter. The casino was some 300 feet long and 250 feet wide. Within, party-goers danced the night away to the music of Dick Parks and his Orchestra. Dick Parks later served as a long time member of the St. Johns County Commission.

Vilano Beach periodically has problems with erosion. In August 1937, a tropical storm crossed Florida. It generally caused minor damage. However, the beach eroded and, in spite of steel bulkheads installed by Heckscher, the casino’s swimming pool fell victim to the waves. Another victim was the orchestra’s piano. Somewhere beneath the sands of Vilano lie the remains of Dick Park’s piano.

The circumstances of Davis’s disappearance were suspicious. Davis had remarried in the previous year. Although he took his son on the voyage, he was not accompanied by his new wife. Instead, accompanying Davis was his former girl friend, movie starlet Lucille Zehring.

Zehring was the only witness to Davis’s supposed fall through a porthole of the ship into the ocean. It was later learned that Davis, because of the end of the Florida Boom, was probably insolvent. Nevertheless immediately prior to his departure from New York, Davis made a large purchase at Tiffany & Co., making payment with a promissory note in the amount of $19,000.00.

Earlier that year, Davis took out a new $300,000.00 insurance policy with Tampa insurance mogul, Sumter Lowry. The policy was security for certain debts that would otherwise probably been payable from his estate if anything happed to Davis. The insurance was in addition to other insurance in the amount of $201,135.39. The additional insurance was payable for the most part to trustees for the benefit of his two children and his aged father. Davis made no arrangements for his new wife.

Rumors swirled around like waves in the ocean that Davis was carrying with him on the voyage some $50,000.00. But Davis rarely carried money. The rich do not carry money. Do we really think the Queen carries spare change in her ubiquitous purse so that she can feed parking meters for her Phantom V?

If Davis was carrying $50,000.00, it was not deposited with the Purser’s office, nor has any trace of it ever been found. On the voyage, Davis did not seem concerned about his precarious finances. Immediately before Davis’s disappearance, a ship’s steward overheard Davis telling Miss Zehring, “I can make money or spend it. It all depends on you.”

If Davis’s financial behavior was suspicious, Miss Zehring’s behavior was positively bizarre. George Davis later recalled that rather than immediately returning grief stricken to New York, Miss Zehring continued on to Paris taking young George with her. There, Miss Zehring and ten-year old George saw the sights including, among other things, the Moulin Rouge. It was, George later told a newspaper; the first time he ever saw a topless show.

Thus it was that Sumter Lowry, whose company was on the hook for $300,000.00 in insurance, dispatched a private investigator to the United Kingdom to investigate whether D. P. Davis, the developer of Davis Shores, had faked his own death.

Next Week: Part IV, A Giant Wave.

Geoff Dobson, a St Augustine resident for the past 32 years, is a western and Florida history writer. He is a former president of the St. Augustine Historical Society and a regular contributor of nostalgic memories to Historic City News. Before his parents moved to Florida, his father was a Black Angus cattleman. Geoff has written extensively on Wyoming history (“Wyoming Tales and Trails”). When Geoff was in high school, his family lived in the cattle country of eastern Sarasota County. The family spread, which his parents called “Wild Cat Slough,” was reachable only by a pair of ruts over the sand hills and through a snake and gator infested slough. Now, it is an area of four-lane roads, expensive subdivisions, shopping centers, and office parks. . His undergraduate degree is in history. Geoff received his post-graduate degree from the University of Florida. He may be reached at horse.creek.cowboy@gmail.com

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