Heckscher Drive Neighborhood

History of Heckscher Drive

May 19, 2000

History of Heckscher Drive, Times-Union, Bill Foley, July 99

August Heckscher saw the future and built a toll road to it. No, it was not a road to nowhere.

Not exactly. It went to Pilot Town. Sixteen miles from the Old Fernandina Road ran the narrow drive, then spanking new, on the north bank of the St. Johns River to the Batten Island hamlet near the river mouth.

Never in a hundred years would the County Commission have built this road. Certainly not for $1.5 million.

That's what August Heckscher did. Heckscher was a man who did not live here. Seeing what others could not, or possibly hallucinating, Heckscher bankrolled the road in 1926.

In July 1929 it burst through to Pilot Town, throwing Fort George Island open to the world.

The Jacksonville Journal announced the news, on an inside page, July 23, 1929. The Florida Times-Union did not.

''For the first time in Jacksonville's history, beautiful Fort George Island at the mouth of the St. Johns River will become accessible to motorists Sunday when the Bay Shore Co.'s boulevard, Heckscher Drive, is opened as far as Pilot Town, connecting there with the existing county road from Pilot Town to the island.''

Pilot Town had been there since the 1840s, home to the river pilots who navigated vessels over the shifting sandbar at the mouth of the river. Beyond Pilot Town was the beguiling Fort George Island, site of the longest and most continuous record of civilization in Duval County.

The whole wild and rustic land thrust through by Heckscher's drive was replete with legend and lore, history wafting from marsh and fairly dripping from the Spanish moss.

Heckscher's agent, L.H. Atkinson, saw a big hotel and casino there. The road in time would be extended the other couple of miles to the ocean. A ferry would cross to Mayport, when the elected officials of Duval County saw fit to provide decent connecting roads.

Seventeen thousand acres of Bay Shore Corp. land, now accessible, would be ripe for development.

Heckscher was an Austrian immigrant who had made a fortune in zinc and iron, coal and steel and real estate. His investment north of the St. Johns came on the back nine of the Florida Boom. His road was thrown open at tee time for the Great Depression.

Toll gates were located at the road's entrance and at the county road at New Berlin. The Journal, apparently for some reason, skirted the amount of the toll, saying only it compared well with other toll roads in Florida.

''The new St. Johns County bridge at Matanzas Inlet, the total length of which is about the size of Heckscher Drive's Clapboard Creek bridge, charges a round-trip toll of 50 cents,'' Atkinson noted.

Atkinson said the Bay Shore road was 16 miles long, had seven bridges, three of them modern steel bascules. He noted the road took 14 miles off the commute to New Berlin.(Perhaps like New Berlin, the Bay Shore Co. had not yet become a household name in Jacksonville; it was spelled interchangeably Bay Shore and Bayshore.)

''The next influx of winter visitors to Florida will find Jacksonville practically in possession of a public park of 17,000 acres between the city and the ocean along the St. Johns River,'' Atkinson said.

''While ultimately designed for sale to private builders, the properties of the Bay Shore Co. are at present free and unrestricted to the public for fishing, boating, picnicking and all of the wonderful diversions possible on this wonderland of river, forest, islands and sea.''

From the absent Heckscher came a telegram of congratulations:
''We are of those who can wait,'' said the internationally known capitalist. ''We know that Jacksonville, bound to grow by leaps and bounds, will in time appreciate what we have accomplished. Let us face the future with confidence.''

The state acquired the road in 1944.

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