Santa Anastasia – the Island of Adventure

275-SEAGULLSanta Anastasia – the Island of Adventure

Raphael Cosme
Special to Historic City News

Anastasia Island is a barrier island located off the northeast Atlantic coast of Florida. It sits east of St Augustine, running north-south in a slightly southeastern direction to Matanzas Inlet.

Santa Anastasia is about 14 miles long and an average of 1 mile in width. It is separated from the mainland by the Matanzas River, part of the Intracoastal Waterway. Matanzas Bay, the body of water between the island and downtown St Augustine, opens into St Augustine Inlet. Anastasia Island, a growing paradise for many centuries, has always had the first panoramic view of St Augustine.

In the early days, reaching the island was not an easy task. Beach-lovers from downtown St Augustine needed transportation to get to the beach. By the late 19th century businesses of all kinds opened providing sailboats, taxi-canoes and wood-floated ferries to carry visitors and supplies across Matanzas Bay.

After the turn of the 20th century most of the locals and visitors referred to the island as St Augustine Beach, but in 1959 the town with 4.921 kilometer of shining sand was incorporated as the City of St Augustine Beach which included beaches from Pope Road at the north to Ocean Drive at the south.

Anastasia Island Early Names

Few people in St Augustine know about the history involved in naming the island. Since the 1600s, the Spanish referred to the island as the island of the quarry (after the coquina mines located there) and Escolta Island (Escolta Creek appears on old deeds to this day). A Spanish colonial document from August 17, 1736 mentions Antonio de Arredondo, an engineer sent to Florida from Cuba on special assignment. It states that there were four infantrymen and one artilleryman assigned to Isla de Santa Anastasia. The visiting engineer wrote that on the island there was a chapel dedicated to Santa Anastasia that was never consecrated. The chapel and its tower were built of coquina from the island. The Florida colony governor Montiano ordered the chapel tower to serve as a watch tower at the inlet on guard for ships arriving to St Augustine, and directed a guard home to be attached to the chapel.

When Florida became an American territory in July of 1821, the island retained the Saint part of its name, and some residents referred to the Matanzas River as to the St Anastasia River. Over time the Saint portion of the name was dropped but the Anastasia Island name survived.

A Touch of History

The northwestern part of the island served the Spanish settlers well with many wooden watch towers as is shown in a 1586 sketch when corsair Francis Drake raided downtown St Augustine. That same year, the Spaniards built a more resistant watch tower near the inlet to protect against enemy ships.

The Spanish were quick to discover the usefulness of the coquina pits found on the island as a source of more substantial building material. Blocks of coquina rock were cut and used to build the Castillo de San Marcos and houses on the mainland. The island also held a campground with hundreds of colonists who needed to be close to their daily work in the mine. There was no other reason for colonists to be staying on the Anastasia Island other than being members of the coquina cutters, but over the years that changed.

In 1672, numerous quarries blossomed across a strip of the island south of the old watch tower. One of the sites was, presumably, the Spanish barracks were located which housed the quarry overseer, master masons, and stonecutters who were involved in the construction of the Castillo de San Marcos and buildings in St Augustine. Under the supervision of the quarry overseer, Alonso Diaz Mejia, the blocks were cut by hand, transported by wagon and then moved to Quarry Creek where they were then floated across the Matanzas River to the site of the Castillo. To the area west of the barracks, toward the old road to the Matanzas River, were rich veins of coquina which the Indian workers shaped into rough blocks. To the present day, the Spanish Chimney and well ruins remain south of the St Augustine Amphitheatre and Old Beach Road.

In 1740, the availability of coquina made possible the construction of a stone tower to replace the former wooden lookout, built one and half miles northeast of the current lighthouse. A massive amount of stone coquina was used to build Fort Matanzas to protect St Augustine from encroachment via the Matanzas River. Jesse Fish, who arrived in St Augustine in 1736 representing an English firm from New York, provided supplies to the garrison town. His business grew throughout the British period and into the early years of the second Spanish era. His forty acres of orange orchards called El Vergel with its plantation house stretched across the fertile soil of the island and extended south of the current Mickler O’Connell Bridge on route 312. In 1790, when Fish died, the orange industry had gained international interest.

In 1784, nine years after the British returned the Spanish territories, naval captain Lorenzo Rodriguez from Florida received a land grant of 124 acres on Anastasia Island to cultivate naming it Buena Vista. His property extended just west of the coquina watch tower to the creek bordering the coquina quarries. Over the years the land passed through many hands and remained intact until the early 1870s.

In 1871, James Renwick and Anna Aspinwall Renwick, members of a family representing some of the first island residents arrived. The Aspinwall family purchased the tract from the Renwicks and began selling the estate between 1879 and 1886. An island community was formed by investors and businessmen from the St Augustine mainland.

One of the early residences, a two-story frame house, was constructed in 1905 in an area now called Keegans Subdivision. The structure served as a government telegraph station until the end of World War II. After telegraph use was reduced to 50%, the property was purchased by Thomas W. Keegan for whom the surrounding subdivision was named. The northern tip of Anastasia Island remained marshland and uninhabitable for four centuries until a new plan developed by D. P. Davis in the mid-1920’s was established with other developments following over the years. What was the Island of the Quarry now is a vacation spot for 2.3 million people who visited St Johns County Beaches in 2014, as reported by the St Johns County Recreation and Parks Department.

© 2016 Raphael Cosme for Historic City News

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