The Line: Jacksonville's Notorious Red Light District
The rise and fall of Florida's largest early 20th century red light district: The Line.
The three-story brick building now known as 927 Events was a liquor warehouse in Jacksonville’s red light district during the early 20th century.
Today, there’s not much left, but 100 years ago Houston Street was the epicenter of Jacksonville’s bustling red light district. The district’s interesting history can be traced as far back as 1857 when the city’s first railroad was constructed, connecting LaVilla with Alligator Town (now Lake City). During the Civil War, in 1863 a gun emplacement named Fort Hatch was set up near the present day location of the Houston and Lee Street intersection. This location also served as a tent camp for the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, the African-American unit that inspired the movie Glory.
In 1866, the area was purchased and subdivided by Francis F. L’Engle, forming the Town of LaVilla with L’Engle becoming LaVilla’s first mayor. By 1870, 70% of LaVilla’s population were African-Americans, many of whom worked in Jacksonville’s booming hotel, lumber, port, building, and railroad industries. Early businesses include the Banes and Washington Lumber Dealership, the El Modelo Cigar factory, the Bergner and Engle Brewing Company, the Refrigerated Ice Works, carriage works, and beef dressing works.
Railroad passengers in the Jacksonville Terminal’s black waiting room. (State Archives of Florida)
By the 1890s, LaVilla’s Ward Street had developed into a red light district, giving the neighborhood its original aura of notoriety. The district originated in early 1887 as a result of Jacksonville mayor John Q. Burbridge chasing most of Jacksonville’s prostitutes over the city line to the suburb of LaVilla. Burbridge’s efforts were thwarted when Jacksonville later annexed LaVilla a few months later on May 31, 1887. With the January 1897 opening of Henry Flagler’s Jacksonville Terminal Company passenger railroad depot, LaVilla was rapidly engulfed in development, resulting the red light district growing and ultimately becoming known as “The Line”.
LIFE ON THE LINE
A Sanborn map with a list of madams and workers at brothels in The Line, according to the 1910 U.S. Census. (Ennis Davis, AICP)
Characterized by its large number of saloons, gambling houses, and houses of prostitution, the Line was recognized as a dangerous place where drunkenness, crime and harsh living were common. One famed resident was James Weldon Johnson, whose family resided across the street from a black-owned saloon and brothel owned by George Stevens at Ward and Lee streets. In his autobiography Along This Way, Johnson noted that his father served as a minister of a small church in the red light district and was one of a few willing to assist with the spiritual needs of sick and dying prostitutes in adjacent houses.
In 1900, the district, then home to more than 60 bordellos on four blocks of Ward between Lee and Bridge streets, claimed the life of Jacksonville Police Officer Henry Raley. Raley was attempting to arrest a man for drunkenness, but was surrounded by a crowd of his drunken friends, shot, and killed. The leader of what was called the “Bridge Street Gang”, John Baxter, was convicted of the shooting, sentenced to life in prison and sent to a phosphate mine forty miles from Starke. His father, Tom Baxter, owned and operated a saloon and theater at Bridge and Ward streets.
Photographs of The Court (State Archives of Florida)
The Line’s most celebrated establishment was operated by Cora Taylor Crane, the common law widow of esteemed author Stephen Crane. The Court was located one block east of the house where James Weldon and John Rosamond Johnson were born. It was a two-story brick building featuring 14 bedrooms, ballroom, kitchens, a dining room and an annex with eight bedrooms. Born into a relatively elite, white, Northeastern family, Crane traveled extensively for her time, and lived in a variety of locations across the world, including Boston, San Francisco, New York City, and Europe. She was known to pay for the burials of prostitutes who committed suicide in the district.
Stephen and Cora Crane. (State Archives of Florida)
Perhaps the most surprising thing to those not familiar with Crane’s story is that she was a writer with pieces published in magazines and newspapers. She also served as a war correspondent during the Greco-Turkish War in Greece when she traveled there with Stephen Crane. She is recognized as one of the earliest female war correspondents. She was also a contributor to magazines such as Smart Set and Harper’s Weekly, including during the time she was running her bordellos in Jacksonville and Pablo Beach (now Jacksonville Beach). Her obituary acknowledged both her role as proprietress of The Court and the fact that she was a “well-known writer of short stories” stating “[s]he was a brilliant woman and she had a light, snappy diction in her writing that classed her among the leading writers of the profession. Her works were read by thousands of appreciative readers.”
In addition to Crane, other madams in the district included Lyda DeCamp, Mabel Walker and Belle Orloff, operating places such as the New York Inn, Turkish Harlem, the Senate, and Spanish Marie’s. During a visit to The Line in 1908, temperance crusader Carry A. Nation had a heated argument with Orloff.
This 1970s photograph captures a row of aging buildings that were originally constructed as brothels along Houston Street between Davis and Madison streets. (State Archives of Florida)