Just north of Jacksonville, Fernandina Beach is the only municipality in the country that has flown eight different national flags. The town of Fernandina was officially established in 1811 and named for King Ferdinand VII of Spain by the governor of the Spanish province of East Florida, Enrique White. The last town platted under the Laws of the Indies in the Western hemisphere, it was established to serve as a bulwark against U.S. territorial expansion.
While the original town still remains, In 1853, the city was moved just south to take advantage of the new Florida Railroad and the subsequent tourism boom. By 1857, the city had developed into a thriving community attracting free-booters, pirates and smugglers. By the late 19th century, Fernandina had become a major Florida port.
Today, Fernandina’s 55-block downtown historic district features 400-plus historic structures on the National Register of Historic Places. At the heart of the district is Centre Street. Connecting the historic waterfront with the beach, two miles east, centre Street Centre Street is home to a number of quaint shops, galleries, and restaurants.
2. Fernandina Beach’s historic district is sandwiched between two large paper mills along the Amelia River. Pictured above, Rayonier’s Performance Fibers Fernandina dissolving sulfite mill produces 155,000 metric tons of chemical cellulose. These high purity wood pulps are used in manufacturing photographic film, cigarette filters, whipped topping, eyeglass frames, vitamins, rayon fabric, kidney dialysis filters, toothpaste, and ice cream. 320 people are employed at Rayonier’s mill.
The RockTenn Company operates a large mill, employing 440, just north of the historic district. At a level of more than 8 million tons annually, RockTenn is the second largest producer of containerboard in North America. The Fernandina Beach facility produces both linerboard and corrugating medium. The linerboard and corrugating medium are used together to make new containerboard for packaging and other uses.</i>
3. The docks at Front and Centre Streets are the birthplace of the modern shrimping industry. Amelia Island used to be a shrimping hub with a processing plant that serviced more than 130 shrimp boats, but an increase in imported farmed shrimp has seen the industry decline so there are now only five shrimp boats based on Amelia Island.
The picturesque and historic harbor of Fernandina Beach, once a haven for pirates, became one of the most productive shrimping and fishing centers in the southeast. Shrimping evolved into the modern commercial industry in Fernandina in the early 1900s. The evolution was threefold: a change in location from inshore to offshore; a change in method from cast nets, haul seines and bar nets to the modern otter trawl; and a change in power from rowboats and sailboats to fleets of motor-powered vessels. Fernandina is where shrimpers put it all together and where the great international fleets of today had their humble beginnings. Around 1900 commercial shrimping began. In 1902 Sallecito Salvador, a Sicilian immigrant living in Fernandina Beach, developed a shrimping technique using a small horsepower engine on his boat. Utilizing this engine provided enough power to pull the shrimp seine across the ocean floor in deeper waters. In 1906 he started his own company, S. Salvador & Sons. Anecdotal information obtained from descendants of Sallecito Salvador have stated that his true name was Salvador Sallecito but upon his arrival his name was transposed and not wanting to do anything that might prevent his entry into America, he accepted the changed name. At this time Jacksonville was not supporting much commercial fishing. However it was known as the "Gateway to Florida," because distributors and packers were handling so many products from Fernandina, Mayport and St Augustine. Sallecito was joined by other Sicilians, his two brothers-in-law, Salvatore Versaggi and Antonio Poli, plus Joseph Gianino. Times were poor with shrimp selling locally for a nickel a pound, so Versaggi went to New York to work. There he made valuable contacts at the Fulton Fish Market for the future distribution of his shrimp before returning to Fernandina in 1912 to found his own company. Versaggi's start was hardly promising. When he first shipped shrimp back to New York, the selling price would barely cover express charges. At best, he would be paid off with a few postage stamps. The real boom in the evolution of Fernandina's shrimping industry came in 1913, when a newcomer from Massachusetts, Captain Billy Corkum, adapted the otter trawl to catch shrimp. This is essentially the same bag-like net with iron weighted doors which you see on shrimping boats today. The otter trawl enabled the fishermen to fish in deep water and drag where the concentration of shrimp is the heaviest. The first power driven boat to drag the trawl net successfully in deep water was manned by local pilot, Capt. William Jones Davis. Shrimp were so plentiful then that the first crude trawls worked with great success. In 1922 David Cook and Emmett Freeman refined the local trawl by adding corners and wings for better operation. In 1922 Mr. Salvador moved his firm to St. Augustine. Here production climbed rapidly until 1929 when the depression hit the industry. By 1934 the catch was restored to its former high level and continued to increase until 1940. Around 1949 another decline in production was one reason for the exploration of new grounds which resulted in the development of Key West as the chief shrimp port of Florida. John Salvador (the son) discovered the Key West grounds in 1950. While examining a daylight trawl at about dusk, he found many more shrimp than normal in his catch, prompting him to put the nets back overboard. This second trawl was filled with shrimp and "pink gold" had been discovered. In 1953 the nine major fishing areas of Florida were: Pensacola, Apalachicola and vicinity, Cedar Key, Tampa & tributaries, Key West, Biscayne Bay, Lake Worth, Indian River and the northeast coast.
5. The Port of Fernandina provides terminal service to numerous pulp and paper producers located throughout Florida and the Southeast, and provides steel export services to several mills in the Southeast. Fernandina supports a number of independent container lines serving Colombia, Ecuador, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Jamaica, Aruba, Curacao and Bermuda.
7. The First Coast Railroad (FCRD) is a 32-mile short line freight railroad that interchanges with CSX Transportation and St. Mary’s Railroad. The railroad’s primary customers are the Port of Fernandina, Rock-Tenn, and Rayonier paper mills. Commodities transported include chemicals, coal, forest products, metals, pulp and paper products and petroleum products. The FCRD was acquired by Genesee & Wyoming in 2005.
Fernandina Beach’s preserved historic downtown core and urban waterfront has developed into an attraction for tourists. As the First Coast searches for multimodal options to better connect its cities with one another, this popular pedestrian friendly destination could be the perfect northern terminus for a local commuter rail system. To visit Historic Fernandina Beach, the city can be reached from Jacksonville by heading north on I-95 and east on SR A1A in Nassau County.
Article by and photographs by Ennis Davis, AICP. Contact Ennis at email@example.com