Hidden Jacksonville: Marco Lake

Converted from a brickyard claypit into a manmade lake during the construction of Jacksonville’s popular San Marco neighborhood in the 1920s, Marco Lake is one of the city’s most picturesque spaces. Mostly surrounded by private property, it’s also easy to miss even for locals. Fortunately, historic photos and modern drone footage can help capture this Jacksonville treasure.

The South Jacksonville story

South Jacksonville in 1918. The Gamble and Stockton brickyard is shown to the south of town. Courtesy of the University of South Florida.

Marco Lake started out as a claypit for the Gamble and Stockton Brick Company in what was then the town of South Jacksonville. Located across the St. Johns River from Downtown Jacksonville, the residential community of South Jacksonville grew up on former plantation land just after the Civil War. Further growth came when the Florida East Coast Railway built a railroad bridge in 1890, connecting the North and Southbank for the first time. In 1907, South Jacksonville incorporated as a town.

Telfair Stockton.

The Gamble and Stockton brickyard was located just south of the town, on land that had once been part of a Villa Alexandria, the sprawling winter home of socialites Margaret Reed Mitchell and Alexander Mitchell. The company was founded by two of Jacksonville’s elite: Robert Gamble and Telfair Stockton.

Gamble’s family had owned brickworks around Florida prior to the Civil War, and he was also involved in the Florida Ice Manufacturing Company and Florida Southern Railway. Stockton was one of Jacksonville’s most prominent developers; his company developed upscale Avondale in 1920.

The Stockton and Gamble claypit in 1923, showing the two layers of clay. From the Florida Geological Survey Vol. 15, 1924.

Gamble and Stockton produced bricks, hollow blocks, roof tile, drain tile, ceramic materials and more. Workers dug up wet clay from the pit and took it to the manufacturing facilities to be molded into shape and fired. The claypit was relatively deep as it contained two deposits: a red clay layer on top of blue clay that went down at least 22 feet. In the 1920s, the Florida land boom greatly increased demand for construction materials, and Gamble and Stockton doubled the capacity and size of the brickyard. By 1923, it was producing 50,000 bricks a day.

San Marco: A neighborhood molded from the clay

San Marco under construction in 1928, with Marco Lake visible to the left. Image from Jacksonville’s Architectural Heritage, 1996.

The opening of the St. Johns River Bridge in 1921 brought a new wave of growth to South Jacksonville. With a statewide land boom in full swing, Gamble and Stockton determined their property would be more profitable as a residential development. In September 1925, they relocated the brickyard to a site on Doctors Inlet in Clay County, and Stockton announced the original property would be transformed into a new neighborhood called San Marco. Taking its name from Venice’s famed district, the development was so popular that after South Jacksonville was annexed by the main city in 1930, the name “San Marco” came to be applied to most of the former town.

The original San Marco development was relatively small, consisting of 80 acres of the former brickyard property divided into 250 lots. To improve access to the development, Stockton created San Marco Boulevard, which connected directly from the St. Johns River Bridge south to the intersection of Hendricks Avenue and Atlantic Boulevard. Where these three streets met, he planned San Marco Square, inspired by the Piazza San Marco in Venice.

1940s Postcard depicting “Lake Marco and Homes”. Courtesy of the University of North Florida Digital Commons.

Just a block from this commercial center was the Gamble and Stockton claypit. Rather than filling it in, Stockton decided to turn it into a roughly quarter mile long water feature. He shored up the sides with a concrete seawall and dug a canal out to the St. Johns River, creating what became known as Marco Lake, or Lake Marco. From these industrial beginnings came one of Jacksonville’s most picturesque spaces.

For many years, Marco Lake was a mostly passive feature. A 1935 report said that the lake then had no docks and the canal was gated to keep out invasive water hyacinth plants. Pictures from the 1940s and 50s show few docks and boats at that time. Since then, many of the surrounding houses have added docks, and boating and fishing are popular pastimes on Marco Lake.

Marco Lake in the 1950s. Courtesy of the State Library and Archives of Florida.

However, as the former claypit is almost entirely surrounded by private property, public access is limited. Despite its proximity to one of Jacksonville’s most popular commercial districts, Marco Lake is easily missed even by San Marco residents. From the perspective of a drone, however, it offers some pretty impressive views.

Next page: Marco Lake today – video and photos