Historic City Memories: Ghost Towns

Ghost Towns of the St. Johns

” Tocoi Landing ”

By Geoff Dobson

There are many reasons why a thriving community will become a ghost town. Some, because the mines fail while others, because a new and modern form of transportation by-passes a community. Picolata, discussed last week, faded as a result of its being replaced by the St. Johns Railway running from Tocoi Landing to New Augustine, itself now a ghost town, on the west side of the San Sebastian River.

Tocoi Landing’s principal industries were nearby orange groves and a Spanish moss factory, which processed Spanish moss for use as furniture stuffing. The stage line had been uncomfortable. Edward King noted of the former stage road:

“The traveler was formerly condemned to journey from Picolata to St. Augustine, over a terrible road, through cypress clumps and masses of briars, and palmettos, in a species of volante, in which his bones were so racked that he rarely recovered before it was time to make the journey again.”

The description of the Picolata stage reminds one of the Cody to Meeteetse, Wyoming stage which used spring wagons. As Elmer Carlson of Cody noted:

“One young eastern fellow rode the stage from Cody to Meeteetse and when asked if he would ride it back replied it would be a whole lot more comfortable to walk back. Andy Wilson said he wouldn’t pay a dollar to ride from Meeteetse to Thermopolis, couldn’t earn a dollar easier than to just light out and walk it.”

The Tocoi Railway would be regarded today as somewhat crude. The Railway was constructed in 1859 by Dr. John Westcott. At first, the railway carriages rode on wooden rails overlain with flattened sheet iron. It was, nevertheless, a big improvement: Notwithstanding the discomforts of the old stage line, King complained that the railway would “rob good old St. Augustine of its romance. I object to it on that account; and so, I am sure, will many hundred others. What! Must we lose the pleasure of arriving at nightfall at the Sebastian River, and hearing the cheery horn sounded as we dash through the quaint streets, and alight at the hostelry?”

King described the new improvement:

“Out through a seemingly interminable forest leads a straight road, bordered here by pines, and there by the palmettos which spring in dense beds from the rolling ground. There is a little group of houses at Tocoi, and along the river bank, under the shade of the beautiful moss-hung oaks, several Northerners have established charming homes. A few miles back from the river, on either side, are good sugar-lands, and the Negroes about the station are munching stalks of cane. An old mill nearby is half-buried under a wilderness of tropical vegetation. At intervals in the forest, palm-trees shoot up their slender, graceful trunks.”

King continued:

“Sometimes the roll of the wheels startles an alligator who has been napping on the track; and once, the conductor says, they found two little brown bears asleep in the run directly in their path. It is night ere you approach the suburbs of the old city. The vegetation takes on a ghostly aspect; the black swamp canal over which the vehicle passes sends up a fetid odor of decay; the palm thickets under the moonlight in the distance set one to tropical imaginings.”

At the San Sebastian river, the passengers, were transferred to an omnibus, where, according to King, “brown-skinned Minorcans and French touters for hotels surround you; the horn sounds ta-ra! ta-rata-ra! and you rattle through the streets to the hotel.”

Writer’s note: In the 19th Century, travel writers made frequent note of emerging from French customs offices and being greeted by numerous touters for hotels who swarmed as thick as mosquitoes, hence the reference to “French touters” greeting the intrepid traveler to St. Augustine. In the 1960’s and ‘70’s a similar problem existed in St. Augustine with touters for the competing trailer train companies dressed up in conquistador costumes greeting tour busses pulling into the lot of the old Visitors’ Information Center.

Others, however, complained of the mule-drawn railway. The distance from Tocoi Landing to New Augustine was some 18 miles. Frequently, the mules would tire and lie down on the tracks to rest and would refuse to budge. Thus, the trek from Tocoi to the Ancient City would often take from three to five hours.

In late 1860, Dr. Westcott upgraded the railway and obtained a small steam locomotive, several freight cars and one small parlor car. But even after the addition of the steam locomotive, the railway got less than glorious reviews by some travel writers. Charles Hallock, a travel writer complained:

“About noon we arrived at Tocoi—or, as we afterward dubbed it, Decoy—forty-five miles from Jacksonville. This miserable apology for a place contains one old tumble-down house, and two rough board shanties, which latter constitute the depot at the western terminus of the St. Augustine railroad. This road is fifteen miles in length, and should make an easy approach to St. Augustine. We thought we were nearly there, but we knew more about it soon afterward. Could we have but foreseen the hardships we were to go through, we might have decided not to proceed. Two hours’ strolling about or sitting on logs under the shadeless pines used up our time, while a little asthmatic tea-kettle of a steam-engine was being tinkered into going condition. Finally, ready for its task, it was hitched to two dilapidated boxes on wheels, into which, by tight crowding, we succeeded in squeezing ourselves. The day was chilly, the cars full of cracks and drafts; where there should have been windows but the holes remained; and water-proofs and capes had to be substituted for glass. We needed but a rain to complete our discomfort. The road itself is, if possible, more disgraceful than the cars, the rails of pine and cypress (no iron) were worn, chipped, shivered, and rotten. We smashed one flat to the ties, and had a narrow escape*from being capsized into the swamp; and had our engine the power to have bumped us along a few feet further, we should have had a serious, perhaps fatal, accident to wind up our pleasure trip. As it was, all hands turned out, and lifting our crazy vans again upon the track, we crawled along for nearly five hours, delaying at times to put a new rail on the track, to dip a few bucketfuls of muddy water from the ditch into the boiler, or to cut up a log to furnish nutriment to our wheezy little engine. At last, the fifteen miles accomplished, we reached St. Augustine tired and worn-out.”

The new operation did not last long, however. In 1862 during the “War of Northern Aggression,” a Yankee gunboat steamed up the St. Johns and blasted away the pier, depot, locomotive, and cars belonging to the railway. The railway was not rebuilt until the early 1870’s.

Dr. Westcott (1807-1888), a native of New Jersey, briefly attended West Point but left to study Medicine. He came to Florida and served as a physician during the Second Seminole War. Thereafter, he served as a representative in the Florida Legislature from Madison County. There, he founded the local Masonic lodge. From 1852 to 1859 he served as Surveyor General of Florida. During the Civil War, he served as Confederate commander at Fort Brooke (present-day Tampa) beating back several Yankee attacks and was promoted by President Davis to be Major. In St. Augustine, Dr. Westcott is remembered in the name of a bed and breakfast on the bayfront.

In 1870, Dr. Westcott sold the railway to William Astor, heir to the John Jacob Astor fur fortune. Astor’s daughter-in-law was responsible for bringing the expression “the Four Hundred” as referring to the elite of New York. The 400 were those that received the annual card from Mrs. Astor reading “Mrs. Astor at Home, Small Dance. R.S.V.P.” One did not, of course, have to ask who Mrs. Astor was or where her home was. Everyone knew that “Mrs. Astor” referred to Mrs. William B. Astor of 842 Fifth Avenue. The dance was “small” only in Mrs. Astor’s imagination and in the sense that it was dictated by the size of Mrs. Astor’s ballroom, a modest little chamber which could comfortably hold a mere 400.

With the railroad revived by Astor, travel to St. Augustine could once again could by-pass the stage line from Picolata. A British traveler, Lady Duffus Hardy, described the revived railway and Tocoi:

“Tocoi is nothing but a rough wooden shed dignified by the name of a railway station, where tourists, when they have landed from the boat, may find temporary shelter from the sun’s burning rays while they wait—and they always have to wait—for the train to carry them on; as there is only one narrow line of rail aud one train passing to and fro this waiting process is sometimes trying to the patience. There are not more than half-a-dozen of us landed from the steamer, and having seen us safely off her deck she gives a little shriek of delight, as though glad to be rid of us, and puffs on her way again. We glance round upon our somewhat dingy, dirty surroundings, then along the line for our train. There are no signs of it; there is nothing in sight but a miserable shanty in the last stages of dilapidation. Outside, in the tumble-down porch, a colored woman with a gaudy handkerchief tied round her head is busy at the washtub, while her dusky brood are tumbling about with a colony of fat pigs and long-legged Cochin-Chinas. We seat ourselves on a hamper under the eaves of the shed—it is close and fusty inside—and wait.

“Presently a train that does not seem much larger than a child’s plaything comes puffing slowly along as much as to say, ‘I’m coming! I’m coming! Don’t be in a hurry.’

“We enter a miniature car, wherein we sit three abreast; our Liliputian engine gives a series of asthmatic gasps, as though it had hardly strength to carry itself along, and objected to its living freight, but it is presently lashed by its fire fiend into obedience, and sets off with a jerk.”

“Our road lies through the densest of dense jungles, a wild and seemingly impenetrable forest, whose tangle of palms, cypresses and oaks, all entwisted with heavy Spanish moss, ‘Let’s not one sunshaft shoot between I’

“After a delightful drive of about an hour and a half our little toy train rings a tinkling bell, and we slacken our already slack pace into the shed dignified by the name of the St. Augustine depot.” Hardy, Lady Duffus, “Down South,” 1883

In 1888, Henry Flagler then putting together his railway and hotel empire acquired the little railway from William Astor, Jr. who inherited from his father. Flagler upgraded it to standard gauge and constructed a new line to East Palatka branching off from the line to Tocoi at Tocoi Junction two miles to the west of New Augustine. There was no need for two lines to the St. Johns River and in 1896 service to Tocoi Landing was discontinued and like Picolata, Tocoi Landing and Tocoi Junction faded away. The orange groves and the Spanish moss factory are now gone. The only sign of Tocoi Junction is a small wayside park.

Next week: Mandarin, New Switzerland, and Orange Mills

Geoff Dobson, a St Augustine resident for the past 33 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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