The late 19th century expansion race between railroad barons Henry M. Flagler and Henry B. Plant laid the foundation for the growth of Florida’s largest cities during the following century. Many of their grand hotels across the state are still viewed as places of lavish extravagance. However, what has become increasingly forgotten is the development of the support system needed to facilitate the Florida East Coast Railway’s (FEC’s) and Plant System’s rapid expansions. One late 19th century example continues to exist 18 miles southwest of St. Augustine.
In 1878, following the advice of his physician, Standard Oil’s co-founder Henry M. Flagler visited Jacksonville with his ill wife, Mary. After her death, Flagler married her former caregiver, Ida Alice, and traveled to St. Augustine. Here, the oil tycoon discovered a charming city lacking adequate hotel and transportation facilities.
Thomas Horace Hastings courtesy of http://www.drbronsontours.com/bronsonhastings.html
Soon Flagler gave up his day-to-day involvement with Standard Oil in order to pursue his investment interests in Florida. In 1885, he returned to Florida and began construction on the Ponce de Leon Hotel in St. Augustine. To support his hotel ventures, Flagler began purchasing short line railroads in the region and modifying them to accommodate more freight and passenger traffic. The first line he acquired was the Jacksonville, St. Augustine, and Halifax River Railway (JStA&HR;), between South Jacksonville and St. Augustine, on December 31, 1885. By 1889, Flagler was offering service from Jacksonville to Daytona, after purchasing the St. John’s Railway, the St. Augustine and Palatka Railway, and the St. Johns and Halifax River Railway. With three hotels in St. Augustine and another in Ormond Beach, his resorts needed a nearby source for fresh vegetables and fruits. With this in mind, Flagler turned to his cousin Thomas Horace Hastings.
Flagler asked Hastings to start a farm to grow food for his guests. In 1890, Hastings and his family settled on 1,569 acres owned by the Model Land Company. Here, Hastings established Prairie Garden, a plantation consisting of Hastings’ house, green houses, and log cabins for his foreman and 40 workers. A railroad depot was also constructed.
For Hastings, Prairie Garden was not just about supplying Flagler’s hotels, but also hotels in the north, and for experimenting with various crops and farming methods. Soon he began experimenting with cauliflower, cabbage, Bermuda onions, rice, and tomatoes. During the winter season, Hastings supplied New York hotels with strawberries and cucumbers.
According to his son, George, “When I visited my father in Florida … he had the same enthusiasm and believed that Florida would raise fresh vegetables for the big hotels of the north as well as for Flagler’s hotels in Florida. I remember …his feeling that by expert care the vegetables would be of such superior quality they would command big prices…”
By 1891, the area had become known as Hastings station and was officially recognized with its own post office. Unfortunately for Thomas Hastings, his plantation was so successful he fell ill on the account of it being too much work for him to handle. He died in July 1897, after moving to St. Augustine in 1896.
The Hastings Hotel was owned by A. I. Freeman of Hastings and built in 1908. It burned down in March 1943. Courtesy of http://www.drbronsontours.com/bronsonhastings.html
Nevertheless, by the time of Hastings’ departure, a small farming community had already been established. In 1909, the community was incorporated and officially named in honor of Hastings. By the 1910 census, it boasted 339 residents. Over the next decade, Hastings grew into a thriving town with its population exploding 91% to 761 by 1920. Businesses included general stores, drug stores, meat markets, a bakery, bank and hotel. Downtown’s Main Street became a bustling scene characterized by new brick buildings and businesses including the Big Brick Garage, Hastings Cold Storage Company, Langford’s Garage, and the Hastings Herald Publishing Company. An agricultural mecca, the community was also home to an ice plant, grist mill, and barrel manufacturer along the Florida East Coast Railway. By 1940, Hastings’ population increased to 1,035.
Whitehouse Barrel Company in Hastings in 1930. Courtesy of http://www.drbronsontours.com/bronsonhastings.html
However, changes in the regional transportation network would bring Hastings’ boom period to an end. Prior to 1925, the FEC’s mainline between Jacksonville and Miami traveled through town. In 1925, a cut-off was completed between St. Augustine and Bunnell, making the serpentine path through Hastings redundant. This led to rails being abandoned between Bunnell and San Mateo, making the remaining line through Hastings a seldom used agricultural branch. Shortly after the beginning of World War II, the railroad’s St. Johns River bridge was removed as a navigational hazard, severing Hastings connection with Palatka.
By 1970, Interstate 95 stretched south from Jacksonville to Daytona Beach, siphoning the majority of vehicular travel from the highways serving small towns in Putnam and St. Johns Counties, to its new path. To make matters worse, rail service between Hastings and East Palatka was abandoned during the early 1980s. In 1988, the remaining rail line between Hastings and Tocoi Junction was eliminated, meaning the connection that originally built Hastings was no more. The dramatic impact of the transportation network on Hastings is evident with the change in the town’s population. In 1940, it was home to 1,035 residents. In 2014, the US Census Bureau estimated the population at 620.
Despite being largely forgotten, Hastings remains a rural agricultural center recognized as the “Potato Capital of Florida” with 21,000 acres of potato farms in the vicinity. Here’s a brief tour of the forgotten Northeast Florida community the railroad built.
Next Page: Hastings Photo Tour
22. Remnants of the abandoned FEC rail line through Hastings. This rail corridor was originally constructed as the 22-mile St. Augustine and Palatka Railway in 1886. After Henry Flagler convinced his cousin Thomas Hastings to establish Prairie Garden, it became the conduit between Hastings and the outside world.
30. The Old Florida Antique Museum is an eclectic private museum owned by Hastings farmer Tommy Lee. The main building is the former Hastings railroad depot. Lee relocated the depot to its current site to avoid it being demolished.</i>
Article by Ennis Davis, AICP. Contact Ennis at firstname.lastname@example.org