The uncovering of Sand Hills Cemetery
Underneath a forgotten Northside shopping mall lies the remains of a 19th century cemetery associated with the yellow fever epidemic of 1888.
Image from Harper’s Weekly, 1888
Heading into the summer of 1888, Jacksonville had become a booming city. The gateway to Florida, the Bahamas, Cuba and the terminus of eight railways, more than 130,000 people registered at the city’s hotels during the season of 1887 and 1888. However, the city’s economy came to a screeching halt when Tampa saloon keeper Richard McCormick became the city’s first confirmed case of Yellow Fever on July 28, 1888. Despite attempts to prevent an epidemic of the disease, 130 additional cases and 20 deaths had been reported by August 29th. Yellow Fever struck Jacksonville with so much force that the New York Times’ front page reported it was “every one for himself.”
A 1918 topographic map illustrating the general location of Sand Hills hospital and associated cemetery.
Facing a pandemic, three miles north of town, the Sand Hills hospital was expanded with the erection of a forty-foot pavilion fitted with beds and several other buildings. The Yellow Fever epidemic of 1888 peaked the last week of September with 944 new cases reported and 70 deaths. When it was all said and done, of the estimated 14,000 people who did not flee the city, more than 4,700 ended up suffering from Yellow Jack, leaving 400 dead.
Many of those lost souls were buried in graves in the elevated pine woods near the hospital. This forgotten part of Jacksonville’s history eerily resurfaced with the construction of Gateway Town Center which paved over the old hospital and cemetery. According to John Hal Price, who grew up nearby, “When they tore down the peat hills, we found so many bones. I had two bags full of them and the museum came and took them. I cried.”
Image courtesy Charlie Suggs, Tom McMurry’s Wagonmaster at Gateway in June 1971.
Developed by Sam Morris Spevak, Gateway originally opened as an open-air strip shopping center in 1959. In 1967, it was expanded to include a 300,000 square foot indoor mall anchored by JCPenney and Montgomery Wards. “I grew up right next to Gateway Mall when they were building Montgomery Ward’s, says John’s childhood friend Mark Hodges. “As kids, we found all kinds of bones and skulls. We built play forts in the peat hills and we used to stand the skulls we found on sticks to scare away our enemies.”
Inside of Gateway Town Center today. Image courtesy of Tim Gilmore.
Gateway’s days as a regional shopping mall peaked in the late 1970s with the most devastating blow coming in 1992 with the closing of Service Merchandise and JCPenney. Nevertheless, Tim Gilmore of JaxPsychoGeo provides us with an in depth look into the story behind the uncovering and paving of the 19th century hospital and cemetery on Norwood Avenue.
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*Summary by Ennis Davis, AICP. Contact Ennis at firstname.lastname@example.org.