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Digging into the past, reveals forgotten neighborhood history. For example, how many people know that Gary Rossington, a founding member of Southern Rock group Lynyrd Skynyrd, grew up on Stimson Street or that serial killer Ottis Toole burned down his mother’s house at 708 Day Street following her death in 1981. How about the 1964 KKK bombing of six-year-old Donal Godfrey’s house on Gilmore Street for the crime of integrating Lackawanna Elementary or that Jacksonville’s first woman architect, Henrietta Dozier designed at least six houses on the 4500 block of French Street? In order to plan for the future and better understand the present, one should first attempt to uncover the past.
The story of what would become Murray Hill dates back to 1815, when Robert Hutchinson was granted 150 acres along the St. Johns River to establish a plantation. By 1836, William McKay owned what had grown to become a 500 acre property called Magnolia Plantation. At Magnolia, 50 enslaved cultivated the land, producing sea island cotton.
In 1850, the plantation was acquired by Elias Jaudon. Producing cotton, sugar cane, sweet potatoes, corn, sheep and cattle, Jaudon expanded the plantation into an operation covering more than 1,000 acres of land. In 1838, Jaudon and Peggy (enslaved by Jaudon) became charter members of Baptist denomination in Jacksonville. That congregation would later become The Bethel Church and the First Baptist Church in Downtown Jacksonville. Jaudon’s Magnolia Plantation was sold in 1871, becoming several truck farms during the late 19th century.
Of interesting note, the property lines of these 19th century tracts would shape the street grid of the community that survives today. Post, Plymouth, Nelson Street, and McDuff Avenue are all examples of streets that run on property lines that predate the City of Jacksonville and the State of Florida.
In March 1884, the Jacksonville, Tampa and Key West Railway was completed between Jacksonville and Palatka. In 1899, it became a part of Henry B. Plant’s Plant System. Plant, who started Jacksonville’s first streetcar line in 1880, was the railroad tycoon responsible for connecting Jacksonville to the north by railroad, enabling the city to become a Gilded Era tourist resort destination. This railroad would bring an end to the steamboat era along the St. Johns River. However, it would spur new development along its path.
In 1884, a group of northern investors led by James Randall Challen of Cincinnati, OH, William Harksheimer and Union veteran Colonel John Talbott, acquired a portion of the old Jaudon Plantation. A year later, this strip of land, stretching from the river to Black Creek Road (Lenox Avenue) and divided by the new railroad line, was platted as the Edgewood Subdivision. Despite being marketed to northern visitors seeking to take advantage of Florida’s mild winters, growth did not take off immediately. By 1896, all unsold lots had been acquired by the Jacksonville Suburban Land Company, led by former Edgewood Association Trustee William B. Owen, A.B. Campbell, B.F. Manier Jr.
Edgewood’s fortunes changed as a result of the Great Fire of 1901. The resulting rebuilding effort, led to massive population growth north and west of the city. In December 1906, the Jacksonville Suburban Land Company conveyed the northern portion of Edgewood to the Murray Hill Land Company led by Walter C. Brobston. A few months later, Brobston replatted this former section of Edgewood as Murray Hill Heights. By the end of 1907, more than half of the development’s lots had been sold for $1,500 each. Located adjacent to the industrialized suburb of Lackawanna, developers marketed Murray Hill as the perfect place to reside for the 1,000 workers employed at the Seaboard Air Line Railway’s locomotive shops near McDuff Avenue.
In 1913, the Florida Military Academy was constructed in Murray Hill. In 1914, a streetcar line was extended to the neighborhood to connect the academy with Downtown Jacksonville. In 1916, Murray Hill was incorporated as its own town with Hugh Lauder serving as its first mayor. At the time, the Town of Murray Hill was bounded by Fishweir Creek, Lenox Avenue, Gilmore, Nelson and Kingsbury streets. Edgewood Village, also known as the First Block, rapidly developed over the next decade along the streetcar route, eventually serving as a commercial district for both Murray Hill and Telfair Stockton’s deed restricted Avondale subdivision which abutted the district to the south.