The forgotten downtown waterway’s tribuaries come from Murray Hill and from the former Seaboard Shops in Lackawanna, near McDuff Avenue and Beaver Streets. A century ago, McCoys Creek was known as a wild, mendering waterway with associated swamps that caused routine flooding in the rapidly growing city.
At the time, editors of the Jacksonville Journal claimed that McCoys Creek was the “biggest swamp in any city the size of Jacksonville in the world.” In the years following the Great Fire, the creek flooded railyards at the city’s new train station and Myrtle Avenue on a regular basis. The regular stagnation of water led to health hazards born from mosquito breeding. This environment had already proven deadly to the city via the Yellow Fever Outbreak of 1857.
An 1903 image of McCoys Creek flooding nearby railyards. Couresty of State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/142388
As Jacksonville’s population rapidly increased, resolving flooding and mosquito-based health hazard concerns associated with McCoys Creek and Hogans Creek became major issues. In 1927, the city approved a $500,000 bond issue to improve Hogans Creek as a response to years of lobbying by the Springfield Improvement Association. With that project finally underway in 1928, the city turned its sights to McCoys Creek. Like Hogans Creek, this project was intended to control and beautify three miles of McCoys Creek. While Henry J. Klutho and city engineer Charles V. Imeson worked to design the Hogans Creek project, city engineer Joseph E. Craig, designed what became known as the McCoys Creek Improvement Project. From Columbus, GA, Craig had graduated from the College of Civil Engineering at Cornell University in 1903 before relocating to Jacksonville.
The Creation of a Shipping Channel
Gress, one of the largest lumber businesses in the south was established by George Valentine Gress. Gress’ planing mill stretched near 1,500 feet along McCoys Creek from the present day CSX “A” Line to Myrtle Avenue. In 1909, Morgan Gress, then company president and son of G.V. Gress, purchased the former Hillman-Sullivan property on McGirts Creek for the construction of a larger mill. That mill opened in 1912 and remained in business until 1955, when it was destroyed by fire. Today, that site is in the heart of Jacksonville’s Marina Mile. In later years the McCoys Creek Gress site was operated by a number of industries including Ponsell & Son Lumber Company and Lemacks-Cannon Lumber Company. Today, the Interstate 95/10 interchange consumes a part of the old planing mill property and the remaining land has reverted back to natural forestry
Despite their similarities, there was a significant difference in the surrounding context of the two creeks. While residential uses primarily lined Hogans Creek, McCoys Creek featured more heavy industrial and railroad uses. Some of the earliest industries lining McCoys Creek in the late 19th century included the E.E. Cain Sawmill, and George Valentine Gress’ Gress Manufacturing Company. Of interesting note, G.V. Gress donated the animals to start of the Atlanta Zoo in Grant Park and his house was the original Tara of “Gone with the Wind.” To better promote commerce along the waterway, Craig designed the channel to allow the creek to serve as an 36’ wide inland waterway for sport boating and barges, drawing five feet of water, to ship products from adjacent industries.
Both the Hogans and McCoys Creek Improvement Projects were manifestations of the City Beautiful Movement in Jacksonville. The City Beautiful Movement was an urban planning reform philosphy that flourished during the 1890s and early 1900s. The movement emerged in response to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The fundamental idea was that the city was no longer a symbol of economic development and industrialization, but could now be seen as enhancing the aesthetic environment of its many inhabitants. However, City Beautiful was not solely concerned with aesthetics. The term ‘beautility’ derived from the American City Beautiful philosophy, meant that the beautification of a city must also be functional. When it came to McCoys Creek, Craig’s design intended to control flooding and eliminate health hazards while also serving as the centerpiece for a linear greenway and inland shipping channel to stimulate economic development.
After Dr. M.B. Herlong, chairman of the city commission, signed a $415,000 contract with the Walter J. Bryson Company to channelize the creek, work commenced on December 27, 1928. As a part of the project, new stayed-girder and reinforced concrete bridges at Edison, Fitzerald, King, Leland, Myrtle, and Stockton Streets replaced againg 19th century wood-frame bridges over the mendering creek. In addition, 29 acres of wetlands and former creek bed were filled to become a two-mile linear public park. Known as McCoys Park, the green space also included the construction of the two-mile McCoys Creek Boulevard. Furthermore, near the heavily developed St. Johns River waterfront, an 800’ long concrete culvert was constructed to reroute the channelized creek under the Jacksonville Traction Company car barn and the Atlantic Coast Line Railway’s terminal.
The E.O. Fertilizer Company was one of many industries located near the present day Acosta Bridge and McCoys Creek culvert. The fertilzer company was owned by Edward Okle Painter, a New York born agriculturalist. E.O. Painter also operated The Florida Agriculturalist printing company which started in Jacksonville but is now in Deleon Springs, FL and still in operaton. Courtesy of the State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/53025
By the time the McCoys Creek Improvement Project was completed on September 11, 1930, $610,000 had been spent by the City of Jacksonville to bulkhead the creek, construct seven bridges, and park. In addition, the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad contributed $50,000 for a new concrete railroad bridge crossing the new channel and McCoys Creek Boulevard.
"The creek whose waters once made myriad lakes and stagnant pools is harnessed into a channel and the channel takes its cargo of water to the St. Johns River. Cleared away now are the swamps where once mosquitoes were hatched to swarm out at night in search of human blood. Now there is a beautiful lake and many acres of wonderful park land available for the city."
Source: Wild M’Coys Creek Is Put Into Channel, Jacksonville Journal, 9/11/30
McCoys Creek through Brooklyn in 1946. Courtesy of State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/33832
The Impact of Neglect
Like Klutho’s Hogans Creek project, this grand greenway was not meant to last. Time would quickly prove that the great dreams and deeds of Jacksonville’s political and cultural leaders of yesteryear were not reciprocated by future generations. With no continuing maintenance, McCoys Creek quickly fell victim to the industrial environment it stimulated and was meant to support. While the creek is approximately 3.48 miles long, its 5.34 square mile drainage area was arguably home to the highest concentration of heavy industrial facilities within Duval County. Stretching as far south as Murray Hill and north to Grand Crossings, run off from large factories and railyards such as Tropical Glass & Box Company, the Jacksonville Terminal Company, and West Jax yards drained into the channelized creek years before the creation of United States Environmental Protection Agency (1970) and the Clean Water Act (1972).
This Sanborn map highlights the location of Draper’s chicken processing plant in relation to the McCoys Creek Improvement Project. Also illustrated is the location of the original mendering McCoys Creek.
If that wasn’t bad enough, major pollution occurred from industries lining the creek in North Riverside, where neighbor children used to swim in the once untamed creek. For years, North Riverside residents complained about animal blood running off into the creek from the adjacent Draper’s Egg & Poultry Company’s chicken processing plant on McCoys Creek Boulevard. This now defunct company gained a lot of attention when in 1978, as a part of his workdays program, Governor Bob Graham spent a full day cutting the hearts and livers out of chickens at Drapers. A few blocks east, stood the Jones-Chambliss meat packing plant, whose waste flowed into the creek. To top it off, the City of Jacksonville operated a municipal solid waste incinerator on the banks of the creek from the 1940s until the 1960s. Being fouled by an incinerator, meat packers, poultry processors, and other industrial polluters have turned this public amenity into one of the dirtiest waterways in Duval County. Furthermore, 82 years of poor maintenance, bulkhead failures, downed trees, trash, and heavy silting have made the channel difficult to navigate, according to its original design.
Westbrook Creek, feeding McCoys Creek at Hollybrook Park. Hollybrook Park separates North Riverside from Lackawanna. The City acquired the park’s north three-quarters from the developer in 1922, and the south quarter from four different parties between 1922-52. The Hollybrook neighborhood, developed in 1921 and 1926, surrounds much of the park. It remained a large passive park until the period 1975-79, when a softball field, tennis courts, barbecue grills, and benches were added. The park winds in a north-south direction, following Westbrook Creek in the upper part before it joins McCoys Creek in the lower portion.
McCoys Creek Boulevard originally connected Hollybrook Park with Myrtle Avenue. The boulevard was a part of McCoys Park, which was a result of 29 acres of original creek bed and wetlands being filled. Similar to a century ago, this area is notoriously known for severe flooding.
In 2007, this 1,330’ long multiuse path was constructed within the McCoys Creek Greenway (originially McCoys Park) as a part of the McCoys Creek pond project. If the mobility plan and fee structure is allowed to operate, the fee will generate funds necessary to make the McCoys Creek Greenway a part of a trail network that would connect downtown Jacksonville with the Baldwin Trail. As apart of the pond project, two large ponds in the vicinity of King Street were constructed to help alleviate flooding in the area. A third pond is proposed on former Linde Company property on Stockton Street. Linde manufactured Liquid oxygen and acetylene acid gas dating back to the 1930s.
The now closed Smith Street Bridge once connected McCoys Creek Boulevard with Heywood Dowling Drive, at the steps of what was the old Technical High School. Smith Street, north of McCoys Creek was removed and replaced with this pond (below) in 2007.
Looking at Corbett Street from Stockton Street in 1954. The bulkhead of naviagable McCoys Creek is clearly visible to the right. Liberty Marine Services now occupies the buildings in the image. Courtesy of the State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/167539
Jones-Chambliss Meat Packing Company on Forest Street in 1949. This slaughterhouse opened one block south of McCoys Creek in 1937. In 1966, the company expanded its complex with the construction and opening of Henry’s Hickory House, a meat and bacon slicing plant, on the opposite side of railroad. In 1988, the Goedert family sold the entire meat processing complex to William “Billy” Morris. Courtesy of the State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/52878
In 2001, the business produced 600,000 pounds of bacon week or more than 31 million pounds annually. Today, Henry’s Hickory House is Florida’s largest bacon producer. However, the original slaugtherhouse and cattle pens that drained into McCoys Creek are gone. Instead, Henry’s buys the pork bellies, then does the rest of the process at the North Riverside facility.
The company also has a plant in Georgia that produces Bubba Burgers, the official hamburger of the Jacksonville Jaguars. In early 2012, William “Billy” Morris purchased another Jacksonville landmark company, Peterbrooke Chocolatier.</i>
The former Forest Street incinerator site occupies approximately 10.5 acres in an area of mixed residential and industrial land use, approximately one mile west of Jacksonville's central business district. The City of Jacksonville operated the Forest Street municipal incinerator from the 1940s until the 1960s. Although some of the ash waste was taken to other dump sites for disposal, a considerable amount was apparently deposited at and near the incinerator location. The former incinerator area is now enclosed by a chain link fence to prevent access. The site also includes adjoining land used or potentially affected by waste handling or ash disposal activities, including the present location of the Forest Park Head Start School on the west portion of the site and a city park facility in the south portion of the site.
Despite the cleanup challenges ahead, a visit to the creek enables one to visualize the vision of Jacksonville residents eight decades ago and hope for the future.
Source: Wild M’Coys Creek Is Put Into Channel, Jacksonville Journal, 9/11/30
Article by Ennis Davis