City directories listed Christopher’s Pier at 4310 Apollo Avenue, one block from the river, and a swimmer’s length from Goat Island.
The closest address on Apollo south from New Berlin Road is 4302 where, beside a two-story house built in 1930, I descend a one-lane sand and riprap road that declines into the river. I imagine driving the road as it goes underwater, crossing the riverbed beneath, and sticking to the road as it ascends the other shore.
For as the rat-skeleton palm fronds click-clack in the wind just over my head and crooked cedars blur the shade blue-green, the concrete berms and blue metal cranes of Blount Island spread just across the water.
“There it is right there,” Joseph Leonard Johnson II tells me when I mention Goat Island, though it’s Blount Island today.
I’d seen Joe climb down scaffolding on the side of a red-hulled 80-foot shrimp boat called Overstreet Pride at dock behind the two-story house at 4302. I waved to him and he waved tentatively back. He craned across the grassy sand and rock between us the way only a tall man who’s light on his feet can move.
“How old is that shrimp boat?” I ask.
“I don’t know,” he says irritably. “Old.” When a short silence makes him impatient, he says, “I got it from a cousin who got it from a cousin and that cousin’s dead.”
This tall man who says he spent 45 years at sea bears a striking resemblance to Rollie Christopher. His skin’s the color of coffee, his facial features are fine-boned, and his hair is long and black and pulled into a wire-brush pony tail.
Rollians Christopher, or Rollie, lived on Goat Island for decades. In the 1950s, his refusal to leave the island, on which he claimed squatter’s rights, made him central to the Duval County Commission’s fight with the Florida Ship Canal Authority, which sought to dig a canal across the state, an ambition compared at the time to building the Panama Canal. Both entities sought to develop Goat Island for the shipping industry. When the Board of Commissioners acquired Goat Island, they renamed it for County Attorney J. Henry Blount.
Anita Johnson, Joe’s sister, says the shipping industry killed the fishing industry at New Berlin, and when that happened, JaxPort and Blount Island together killed the community.
Rollians Christopher’s decision to stand his ground, with all the island’s rattlesnakes and his 1100 goats, led to a protracted battle against multiple government entities that made statewide and national headlines.
Joe says Rollie kept to himself, that “they threw him in jail, but it was all just a scheme to take his land.” Junior Hodge grew up in New Burr-l’n and says Rollie shot a man in the face with #8 birdshot. The men were fighting over a woman. The man Rollie shot “looked like he had Morse Code on his face.”
Joe remembers Rollie transporting a horse from New Berlin to Goat Island. “He had two rowboats. He put the horse’s front feet in the first boat and his back feet in the second boat, and he took the horse across.”
Joe speaks rapidly, hammers his words irritably. “I used to swim across to Goat Island,” he says, “with my gun in the air, hunt rattlesnakes, wrap ’em around my legs, and swim back.”
Since by accident I found this shrimping boat and Joseph Leonard Johnson II while looking for the spot where the tavern and seafood shack called Christopher’s Pier served finfish and beer from the 1930s to the early 1970s, I ask Joe if he remembers where it was.
“Of course I do,” Joe says, as the water laps against the rocks beneath the palms. “It was right here where we’re standing.”
Article by Tim Gilmore of Jax Psycho Geo. Tim Gilmore is the author of Devil in the Baptist Church: Bob Gray’s Unholy Trinity (2016), Central Georgia Schizophrenia (2016), The Mad Atlas of Virginia King (2015), Ghost Story / Love Song (2015), In Search of Eartha White (2014), The Ocean Highway at Night (2014), Stalking Ottis Toole: A Southern Gothic (2013), Doors in the Light and the Water: The Life and Collected Work of Empty Boat (2013), This Kind of City: Ghost Stories and Psychological Landscapes (2012) and Ghost Compost: Strange Little Stories, illustrated by Nick Dunkenstein (2013). He is the creator of Jax Psycho Geo (www.jaxpsychogeo.com). His two volumes of poetry are Horoscopes for Goblins: Poems, 2006-2009 and Flights of Crows: Poems, 2002-2006. His audio poetry album Waiting in the Lost Rooms is available at https://eat-magazine.bandcamp.com/album/waiting-in-the-lost-rooms. He teaches at Florida State College at Jacksonville. He is the organizer of the Jax by Jax literary arts festival. www.jaxbyjax.com