Secret Jacksonville: Bulls Bay Preserve and Waterfall

A little known nature preserve on Jacksonville’s Westside is home to a hidden natural treasure: one of Florida’s rare waterfalls. It’s also the source of two significant creeks and has a human history going all the way back to Isaiah D. Hart, the founder of Jacksonville. Photographer Erik Hamilton and The Jaxson’s Bill Delaney take a look at one of Northeast Florida's best, longest kept secrets.

Article by Bill Delaney, photos by Erik Hamilton

Hart of Jacksonville

The Bulls Bay waterfall is on an unnamed tributary of the Cedar River.

The Bulls Bay Preserve encompasses 1200 acres of the Bulls Bay Swamp, the wetlands that serve as the headwaters of two different tributaries to the St. Johns River, the Cedar River and Sixmile Creek, which cross through huge stretches of Jacksonville. Also on the preserve are a series of smaller tributaries, one of which flows into the Cedar River across a small, picturesque waterfall.

Though it was largely inaccessible until 2019, the preserve has a storied history: from the 1820s until the Civil War, it was home to Paradise Plantation, the personal slave plantation of Jacksonville’s founder, Isaiah D. Hart. Hart started out as a marauder who kidnapped and sold enslaved and free African Americans. Later he put these ill-gotten profits into real estate, becoming one of the First Coast’s biggest landholders by the 1820s. In 1822 he carved the initial blocks of the City of Jacksonville out of his considerable holdings on the St. Johns River.

A tour of Bulls Bay Preserve’s waterfall trail.

Eight miles east, Hart established Paradise Plantation in what’s now known as the Bulls Bay Swamp. At its peak it comprised 2,000 acres worked by more than 50 enslaved, for whom the plantation was surely no kind of paradise. According to Jacksonville parks director Daryl Joseph, at this time, the small waterfall on the property may have been used for a gristmill where grains were ground into flour.

Hart’s large family primarily lived in Jacksonville, but spent part of each year at Paradise. Isaiah’s son Ossian Hart, later Governor of Florida, wrote of the natural beauty of the place:

“In the open pine woods, I loved to wander all day long, and while driving the cows home, admiring the tall towering Pines that rose boldly from their footstool earth, and reached high up into the air-amongst which no intruding undergrowth obstructed the view of their noble trunks upon whose smooth flakes of bark, as smooth to the touch as the velvets of the north, you might write your name; or a complimentary to your Lady Love.”

Cracker Swamp

“Cracker Swamp,” from an 1898 property map. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

During the Harts’ time, the wetlands were known as Cracker Swamp. The name comes from its main population, the Florida crackers, the rugged white “plain folks” who inhabited the state’s untamed interior. Another account attributes the name to a train car of crackers raided by Confederate soldiers in the Civil War, but this story seems dubious.

A few early references, as well as a 21st century informant of writer Tim Gilmore, used the name “Cracker Swamp” for the area of McGirts Creek five miles west, suggesting it may have once been applied more widely. Either way, the Cracker Swamp name appears to have mostly fallen out of use by the early 20th century.

A restored cracker cabin, a typical dwelling of rural Floridians in this area in the 19th century, at Camp Milton Historic Preserve.

A review of old maps suggests the name “Bulls Bay” was well established by at least the 1930s, when Bulls Bay Highway was built. The origin of this name is unclear. Neither Daryl Joseph, director of Jacksonville’s parks department, nor Mark Middlebrook, a former city employee who spearheaded the preserve’s establishment, know of any source explaining it.

Middlebrook thinks the “Bulls” may refer to the cattle once extensively farmed in the area. Cattle were a main staple on Paradise Plantation and cracker homesteads alike, and cattle operations remained common in the area through the 20th century. Even today a few farms still raise cows not far from Bulls Bay.

The “Bay Gall” from the 1898 map, just west of what’s now Bulls Bay.

“Bay” is harder to explain. The swamp is miles from the ocean. It’s possible the wetlands were wet enough to remind observers of a bay, or else of some other location of the same name, such as South Carolina’s marshy Bulls Bay. Alternatively, like Downtown Jacksonville’s Bay Street, it may reference the bay tree. The old Southern terms bay swamp or baygall refer to a low boggy area overgrown with bay trees; one 1898 map labels a wetland west of the Cracker Swamp as “Bay Gall.”

Paradise after Isaiah Hart

Ossian Hart, son of Isaiah D. Hart. Courtesy of Florida Memory.

Isaiah Hart died in 1861, leaving his estate in the hands of his son Ossian and friend Ozias Buddington. Ossian, a staunch supporter of the Union against the burgeoning secession movement, had grown disillusioned with slavery, but found himself in charge of a major slave plantation just as the Civil War commenced.

The Union occupied Jacksonville four times during the war, and permanently after February 1864. During these times Paradise Plantation was a no man’s land between Union Jacksonville and Confederate-held Baldwin. Both sides periodically performed operations around Bulls Bay. Notably, in March 1864, Union and Confederate troops skirmished at McGirts Creek and the Cedar River after the Battle of Olustee.

Unable to sell off Paradise Plantation during the war, Ossian Hart ran it with a skeleton crew of enslaved. When the war, and slavery, ended in 1865, he could finally sell the property and divide his father’s estate. He then entered Republican politics, joining black freedmen, white Unionists and northern newcomers to fight for Reconstruction and African-American rights against the ex-Confederates and their sympathizers. From 1873-1874, he served as Florida’s first native born governor.

Change comes to Bulls Bay

The Bulls Bay area in 1884. Courtesy of the Library of Congress. U.S. Geological Survey quad map of Bulls Bay, with Marietta to the west and Hart Haven to the east.

An 1884 property map shows only two major holdings in the Bulls Bay Swamp, owned by F. Barber and J. Bradly (or Bradley). By the turn of the century, development had crept in; the town of Marietta had sprung up on the swamp’s western edge. Through the 20th century Bulls Bay passed through several owners. The swamp saw use for sand mining, timber harvesting, farming, and cattle grazing, and development progressively encroached upon its edges. To the east, a small community initially known as Carnegie grew around the railroad line. The name later changed to Hart Haven, which it still bears today. Though not open to the public, the swamp was known to many locals. “The Pits,” as it was called, was a popular hangout for Westside teenagers.

Hart Airport in the 1940s. From the collection of John Giffis; courtesy of William R. Gallup.

In 1942, the U.S. Navy established a 220 acre airfield on the eastern side of Bulls Bay, Hart Naval Outlying Field. The Navy departed shortly after, but according to Paul Freeman of Abandoned & Little-Known Airfields, the owners adapted it as a small civilian airport, Hart Airfield. The airfield closed in the 1950s and part of property was redeveloped for industrial use, though one hangar still remains off Commonwealth Avenue.

In the 1970s, the government of Florida created Water Management Districts to oversee the state’s water resources. Bulls Bay Swamp fell under the St. Johns River Water Management District, which implemented new regulations and mitigation standards. In the 1990s, the land’s then owners initiated a development request that led to Bulls Bay becoming a nature preserve.

Next page: The creation of Bulls Bay Preserve