Heckscher Drive: The Jacksonville You Forgot
Sandwiched between the tidal saltwater marshes of the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve and the St. Johns River, Heckscher Drive is not only one of the most scenic thoroughfares in Jacksonville, it is also one that highlights the unique environmental and cultural characteristics that make the First Coast special. Here, everything from recreational fishing, beaches, fish camps, seafood markets, waterfront restaurants and shipbuilding to Pre-Columbian Timucua, Gullah Geechee, Civil War and maritime history all combine to provide an authentic taste of the region.
The Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve from Fort George Island.
Prior to the construction of Heckscher Drive, Fort George and Batten Islands were isolated low country sea islands that were separated from the mainland by miles of saltwater marshes. On Batten Island, Pilot Town originated as a community during the 1840s for river pilots and their families, including free and enslaved Africans, which guided ocean-going ships into the St. Johns River. By the time of the civil war, its colony of fugitive enslaved Africans regularly interacted with the Union blockading fleet stationed at the mouth of the St. Johns River and provided black enlistees for the Union military. Adjacent to Batten, Fort George Island had been the site of the longest and most continuous record of civilization in Duval County, dating back to the days of the Timucua and Kingsley Plantation.
The Broward House at 9953 Heckscher Drive was once the home of Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, Jr. Broward was a Pilot Town bar pilot that became the 19th governor of Florida in 1905.
Following the civil war, these Duval County sea islands remained in isolation with nothing but marsh, creeks, mud flats and oyster beds separating them from New Berlin. For several decades, this piece of natural Northeast Florida became a popular place for fishing, with many making their living catching fish, shellfish and oysters and selling their catch downtown at the Ocean Street fish market.
The road to Kingsley Plantation. Maintained by the National Park Service, Kingsley Plantation is the home of Florida’s oldest surviving plantation house and related to one of the Antebellum South’s most surprising historical civil rights cases.
Isolation came to an end with the arrival of the Florida land boom and August Heckscher during the 1920s. Immigrating from Hamburg, Germany to the United States in 1867, Heckscher had become a multimillionaire, after organizing the New Jersey Zinc Company. Also a philanthropist, he founded The Heckscher Foundation for Children and created playgrounds in lower Manhattan and in Central Park. Today, the Heckscher Museum of Art in Huntington, NY, Heckscher State Park in East Islip, NY and Heckscher Playground, Central Park’s largest playground, are all named in his honor. Also a real estate developer, Heckscher saw great potential in Northeast Florida’s Sea Islands.
August Heckscher (left) and bridge fishing from an original former Heckscher Drive wooden bridge in 1985. (Florida State Archives)