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Neptune Beach, Florida Before 1931

Donald J. Mabry  

Contemporary Neptune Beach, Florida, part of greater Jacksonville (See Map), Florida, was once an unnamed barren wilderness composed of large sand dunes (some as high as thirty feet), palmetto thickets, cabbage palms, swamps, an ocean, and a river. A few miles to the west was marsh and San Pablo Creek. If one continued west, one crossed creeks, swamps, marsh, and scrub land until one reached South Jacksonville. Going north meant crossing similar terrain until one reached the St. Johns River. A few miles south was the tiny settlement known as Pablo Beach where the Jacksonville and Atlantic Railroad terminated its tracks from South Jacksonville. How it changed is an interesting story.

    The change began when a New Yorker,  Henry Flagler, discovered Florida at age 48 and made a second career as a real estate, hotel, and railroad developer. Yankees and other "foreigners" began messing with the pristine area, sometimes to the good, sometimes to the bad. Flagler, the Standard Oil tycoon and developer of east Florida, visited the Jacksonville area in the late 19th century and came back to build an empire based on the Florida East Coast Railroad, a chain of hotels, and land.

    In 1900, Henry Flagler bought the Jacksonville and Atlantic Railroad which had been built in the mid-1880s; made it part of his Florida East Coast Railway; converted the road to standard gauge; and ran it north to Mayport on the St. Johns River where it picked up coal and freight. This railroad which ran from South Jacksonville to Pablo Beach and the northward on a road bed that ran on what is now Second Street in Pablo (Jacksonville Beach) and Neptune Beach, then down what became East Coast Drive in Atlantic Beach and on to Mayport. Since there few people lived at the beach, there were few stations. 

    One of its stations was at his oceanfront Continental Hotel in Atlantic Beach which Flagler opened on June 1,1901. This massive yellow hotel was 47 feet by 447 feet with a six story rotunda and five story wings. The dining room could seat 350. There were 186 sleeping apartments (later 200) and 56 baths. The hotel reservation contained other buildings such as servants’ quarters (white and black), a bowling alley, a power plant, water works, and a depot. The grounds were beautifully landscaped; patrons could walk onto the long ocean pier to sightsee or fish. This luxury hotel was for the wealthy. 

      Flagler’s real estate development arm began populating the  Atlantic Beach coast with cottages/bungalows, mostly summer homes for the well-to-do. Only they could afford a summer home or the cost of getting to and from the beach and Jacksonville in terms of time and money. The homes hugged the shore on sandy roads but near the Continental Hotel train station.

         S. J. Meyers, a New York City jeweler, bought land south of the Hotel from Flagler in 1902, so he could develop Atlantic Beach South. Flagler had bought the land for taxes; ownership had been in litigation for years. Flagler soon decided to jettison the property. Meyers thought he could turn the ”big sand bluff” called Neptune into a settlement of streets, squares, a park, and a hotel. His idea was that Neptune would be less grand than Atlantic Beach but a step above Pablo Beach to the south.

         Nothing came of it because Flagler, who owned the little railroad that was the only convenient means to reach Neptune, had no incentive to help competition. Thomas V. Cashen had built a house half a mile south in the late 19th century. Cashen had earned his wealth in the lumber business and wanted a summer cottage away from Pablo Beach (which was settled in the 1880s). He had the FEC put a little railroad stop near his house, as this 1918 map shows. It also shows the railroad tracks, the sparse settlement of the region, the Continental/Atlantic Beach Hotel, and Neptune (shown where Atlantic Boulevard is). 

Figure 1.      Cashen-Bedell House        102 Pine Street, Neptune Beach

Figure 2.      United States Geological Survey Map, 1918. The railroad is cross-hatched.

         For either Atlantic Beach or Neptune to develop, more people had to be able to get there. The railroad fare favored the more prosperous; what was needed was a road. E. F. Gilbert, from Connecticut and a U.S. Army veteran, had moved to Jacksonville. He became a jeweler but he was also a land speculator. He bought six parcels of land at Neptune, land which had little value unless people could get there. Although the FEC train went through the area, it was the private property of the Flagler interests who, thus, controlled access to the area. A public road was an obvious solution. He lobbied the county commission to use convict labor to hack out a wagon road from South Jacksonville to the beaches, arriving at Atlantic Beach. For several years, workers cut a road, filled lowlands, and bridged water, getting closer to the beach. A change in the county  government brought people to power who decided the money would be better spent elsewhere so the work was stopped. Still, about two-thirds had been built. His son, Fred Gilbert, an automobile dealer who wanted to promote auto races on the beach and use the ensuing excitement to sell cars, managed to persuade the commission to fund the building of the road in 1908. Atlantic Boulevard opened in 1910. The railroad monopoly had been broken. The Boulevard helped the area. In the 1920s, when autos became something other than a rich man's toy, the road became even more important.    The area known as Neptune benefited. It, the northernmost section of Pablo Beach, was replatted in 1911 because of the road. It extended into present-day Atlantic Beach, but the completion of the Boulevard forever divided Neptune. When the Town of Atlantic Beach was created in 1925, Atlantic Boulevard became the southern boundary.      Men of vision did not give up. In 1913, the Atlantic Seashore Company, organized by Captain Charles E. Garners of the Florida National Bank, Thomas Clarke, and George E. Carroll decided to develop Neptune as a new beach property just south of Atlantic Beach.

The area got publicity when Lieutenant James Doolittle, later famous for bombing Tokyo in World War II, left the Neptune Beach portion of Pablo Beach on a transcontinental flight to San Diego in 1921, arriving in 21 hours and 18 minutes. The takeoff point was chosen because there was very little population and the beach was very wide. Perhaps it helped.

    It is not clear when the area became known as Neptune. George Simons, in a report to the Beaches Area Chamber of Commerce said: “A Plat titled, ‘Plan of Town of Neptune Beach’ was recorded as early as July 2, 1902, five years before the incorporation at the Town of Pablo Beach.” This original plat however was revised in 1911. The US Geological map for 1918 shows Neptune. In 1922, Dan G. Wheeler, Sr. had a cottage on the ocean front near the current Sea Turtle Inn. He was manager of Richardson & Conroy in Jacksonville and he and his family spent summers at the beach. To get to work in Jacksonville, he had to walk almost to Mayport to catch the train. Told that the train would only stop at a station, he built one and called it Neptune. That is the conventional wisdom. However, an undated Atlantic Beach Corporation map refers to Neptune and includes land south of Atlantic Boulevard. This map may have been drawn as early as 1917 when the Corporation went into bankruptcy and was reorganized.

    Regardless, what became Neptune Beach was only the area a few blocks of Atlantic Beach and sparsely populated at that. This piece of a 1924 Sanford Fire Insurance Company map shows the beach as Ocean Boulevard with the Mysterious House well beyond the current line between the beach and the settled area. Apparently, the sea reclaimed a road. First Street was called Continental Avenue; the FEC railroad right-of-way, is to the left (to the west) of Continental). Many of the houses still exist, for example, the two small houses on Cedar Street and the ocean.  

Figure 3.     Neptune, 1924, Sanford Fire Insurance Co.
The railroad is to the left of the street names.

Figure 4.      Mysterious House, 1924.


The big gap between Neptune and the main Jacksonville Beach settlement a few miles distant was closed some by the mid-1920s when the Jacksonville Beach Real Estate Company began building homes west of Third Street North near the present Neptune Beach-Jacksonville Beach border. Pablo Beach had changed its name to Jacksonville Beach in early 1925 and absorbed what would become Neptune Beach. Neptune residents residing near Atlantic Boulevard were not terribly enthusiastic about this but, at least, there were plenty of buffers between them and the settled parts of Jacksonville Beach.

    That changed some with the grandiose development plan of Gabe Lippman in 1925. Lippman purchased half a mile of ocean front between Jacksonville Beach and Atlantic Beach, that is, in what would become Neptune Beach. His land also extended westward towards Pablo Creek. In total, he owned 2,500 acres, including four frontage acres on the Intracoastal Waterway. Lippman planned to build a town of 25,000 people named Florida Beach, a town or city which would have a golf course, hotel, pier, and yacht basin. He planned to build Florida Boulevard which went from the ocean west and then northwest finally intersecting with Atlantic Boulevard at Mayport Road. Constructing the road would necessitate a lot of fill dirt so Lippman constructed a miniature railroad to haul it. Although he organized a celebration on July 2, 1925 at the ocean front, little had actually been done. He cut his losses. In October, he sold the development to Majestic Homes Corporation of St. Louis. When Majestic Homes defaulted in June, 1926, only a few homes had been built.

         Times got hard when the Florida land boom collapsed in the mid-1920s and stayed hard until the New Deal began pumping money into the beaches after 1933. Tax revenue dropped and the Jacksonville Beach city government had to make tough choices. Most of those living in the northern section of the city, that is, Neptune, decided that they were paying taxes but not getting commensurate benefits. When their complaints went unheeded, they decided to create their own town. By a margin of 113-31, they voted to leave, creating Neptune Beach on August 11, 1931. 

The leaders all lived near Atlantic Boulevard. The Polk City Directory for 1945 shows Thurston Roberts at 616 Ocean Front; T. W. Jenks at 115 Orange; W. W. Delcher, who owned a storage company, at 120 Cherry at 1st Street; and Joseph M. Glickstein, Sr. at 1005 Ocean Front. Glickstein drew up the town charter and became the first town attorney. The first councilmen were Thomas B. Adams, Chalmers D. Horne, William M. Hall, T. W. Jenks, and T. T. Phillips. Horne had been prominent in Atlantic Beach politics and developed the Mandalay subdivision. George Bloom, another founder, was a grocer. Jensen was the first town marshal and tax collector, later the acting clerk. O. O. McCollum, the first mayor until July, 1941, held the organizational meeting at his home on August 15, 1931.

    Neptune founders availed themselves of the largess emanating from the liberal government of the New Deal. In May, 1933, the town council authorized Marshall J. L Burke to build a town hall at the edge of Lemon at Northwest corner of 1st Street for $200 or less. Works Progress Administration workers laid foundation for the building. Burke, the city engineer, lived in it. Late that same year, the Civil Works Administration sent 150 men to do street maintenance, erecting bulkheads on the ocean front, water works, and sewers.

         The little town grew in the second half of the 1930s, going from 350 persons to 1,363 in 1940. When the FEC abandoned its railroad at the seashore, the right of way became second street and home sites. In the first nine months of 1936, 46 new dwellings were built; in the first weeks of 1937, another six houses. Jensen built his building (see image) in 1938. He paid $600 for the property in 1914. It contained the Beach Plumbing and Electric Company, a fish market, a five and dime store, and “a package house and grill.” The last became famous as Pete’s Bar, the oldest bar in the county. By November,1939, the town had 340 dwellings, a tiny city hall, a little business district on the south side of Atlantic Boulevard, paved roads, a bulkhead, fire and police stations, and a water and sewer system. In 1936-1937, fifty-two houses were built in the little town. Neptune renamed many of its streets in 1937 to conform to the numerical system adopted by Jacksonville Beach that same year. Streets in northern Neptune Beach had long been named but those south of Florida Boulevard were platted by Georgaye Floyd, who named three streets for his daughters—Myra, Margaret, and Lora.


Figure 5.      Jensen Building in 2001

           More and more homes were built in the 1930s. The prevailing lot dimensions in Neptune Beach are fifty feet by one hundred and five feet, but a number are sixty feet by one hundred and twenty feet. Arthur Penman built a house on Florida Boulevard in his Neptune Forest subdivision in 1936, expanding the development of Neptune Beach. The Clements family owned the house below from 1934 until 1987 when the widow Clements sold it. As their son, Roland W. Clements remarked “As you can see there were no paved streets in Neptune Beach in those days. They paved Midway and Cherry Street sometime in the early 1950's. The house to the left is the Cobb house and they still own it.”


Figure 6.      Cherry Street. 1934. Photo courtesy of Roland W. Clements.

Another glimpse of the Cherry Street area comes from a 1951 photo supplied by Roland W. Clements. Looking toward the ocean on Cherry Street, the house on the left is the old Howell House, owned by the mother of Billy Howell who became mayor of Atlantic Beach for 1956-61. Clements says “both houses were summer homes well into the late 1950s.”


Figure 7.      1951. Photo courtesy of Roland W. Clements


         The little town, or village by some reckonings, grew during World War II. Whereas the 1940 US census showed it contained 1,363 persons, that number dropped to 1298 in the 1945 census, no doubt the result of men entering the military. In 1950, however, the town had grown to 1767 persons. It was a pleasant little village stretching a mile north-side along the ocean and only a few blocks east to west except of limited area. There was almost no commercial development except along Atlantic Boulevard. Besides the Jensen building, there was the Sea Horse Motel on the ocean. In 1956, between the ocean and 1st Street on Atlantic Boulevard, were the Surf Lodge and Walt's Neptune Tavern. On the southwest corner of 1st Street and Atlantic Boulevard was Silver's/Langston's Pharmacy. The Dallas Shop was popular. Glover Weiss operated a radio and television business at #207.  Smith's Gulf station was at #327 Atlantic Boulevard in 1956. There was a Pure Oil station in the next block. Carleton Motel & Cottages were at #502. Roy Young's Bar & Grill at #602. Mary Ayoub made dresses at #624. At the corner of Atlantic Boulevard and Mayport Rd. was Uncle John's beer business. Going south on 1st Street. was Howard's Garage in the 200 block.   Ed Smith Lumber Company was prominent on First Street. The photo below, taken about 150, shows much of “downtown” Neptune Beach and, in the upper half of the photo, "downtown" Atlantic Beach.

Figure 8.      Looking North into Atlantic Beach. The street running left to right is
                    Atlantic Boulevard. Town Hall is lower left.

         How sparsely populated Neptune Beach was at mid-20th century is shown in the following photo looking south from Atlantic Boulevard. The road running in the middle of the photo is 3rd Street. Note that there is almost no development to the west, to the right of 3rd Street. The location of today’s Jarboe Park can be seen at the top of the photo. This 1949 section of a US Geological Survey map tells the story. The black squares are buildings, mostly houses.


Figure 9.      Neptune Beach. 1949. US Geological Survey


Figure 10.     Looking south from Atlantic Boulevard

          Neptune Beach was determined to keep its identity. In 1947, a consolidation vote was held and had a 1,252-699 result in favor of becoming one, but each beach had to agree. In Jacksonville Beach, it was 745-90 in favor but the Neptune Beach vote was 322 against, 309 for; in Atlantic Beach the vote was 287 votes against and 198 votes for. Ethnocentricity was alive and well. Neptune Beach had "escaped" from Jacksonville Beach only sixteen years before. Atlantic Beach saw itself as "different" from its southern brothers.

         The Town of Neptune Beach enjoyed stable political leadership. For almost its first ten years, O. O. McCollum served as mayor (August 15, 1931-May 16,1941). Thomas W. Jenks filled the unexpired term, then was elected in 1943 but died in 1946. Joseph M Glickstein, Sr., a founder of the Town finished the term and was succeeded by H. E. Lighty who served from August 12, 1947 until 1963, presiding over the conversion of the Town into the City of Neptune Beach.

        Continuity was provide by James R. Jarboe. He moved to Neptune Beach in 1933 and reigned until his death in 1974. His wife, Olive, was town clerk. The family lived at 116 1st Street, that is, in a three-bedroom apartment between the city jail and City Hall. The Fire Department was there as well. The Jarboes encouraged wholesome activities among young people by using a large room above the Town Hall building to show free movies on Friday nights and making it available to such organizations as Hi-Y.
He patrolled the little town constantly and intervened, as quietly as possible, to head off trouble, possible in a village of so few people.


Figure 11.     Jim Jarboe

         The sleepy little town was destined to grow substantially after 1960 for the United States government began pumping millions into the Duval County economy. As the Vietnam War grew larger and larger, the various naval bases in the county, especially Mayport, expanded as well, bringing more personnel, military and civilian. Businesses to service the military complex grew and were created. The Port of Jacksonville benefited by improvements. The War on Poverty injected millions of dollars into the local economy; Duval County had many poor people. Improved or new highways, often financed with some US government funds, made it easier to traverse the county and stimulated the economy. 

As Jacksonville grew in population, complexity, and geographical size, Neptune Beach grew as well. By 1960, the City of Neptune Beach had grown considerably as this aerial photograph shows but most of it was south of Florida Boulevard.

Figure 12.     1960 Aerial Map

         When Duval County and Jacksonville became synonymous in 1968, Jacksonville swallowed Neptune Beach but could not completely digest it. The stubborn little town and its neighbors, Atlantic Beach and Jacksonville Beach, managed to keep their own governments and, thus, some of their own identity, but not much. Were it not for city limits signs, one would be hard-pressed to know when one entered Neptune Beach.

Nevertheless, it managed to control much of its daily life. Zoning, planning, regulation of business, police and fire protection, and transportation corridors were the province of the local government. First Street, once a main thoroughfare which the bus to and from Jacksonville used, became a residential street with many stop signs, forcing north-south traffic onto the Third Street corridor. This was one of many efforts made to try to preserve a homey atmosphere.

    As they celebrated the first seventy-five years of Neptune Beach as a self-governing community, the citizens could do so with the satisfaction that they had not become a high rise haven or just the eastern part of Jacksonville. Instead, their little city was one of businesses on or near Atlantic Boulevard and home and apartments elsewhere.

Figure 13.     First and Davis Streets.   

SOURCES Thanks to Roland W. Clements, Reggie Watterson, Barbara Crawford Williams, and the Beaches Area Historical Society for their help.

Davis, T. Frederick. History of Jacksonville Florida and Vicinity 1513 to 1924 . Jacksonville, 1925.

“Fifty Ago Today Years,” Florida Times-Union. January 19,1963.

Florida, State of. Department of Agriculture. The sixth census of the state of Florida, 1935: taken in accordance with the provisions of chapter 17269 Laws of Florida. Winter Park, Orange Press, 1936.

Foley, Bill, “Neptune was born as a buffer For Atlantic,” Florida Times-Union, June 21, 1997.

Foley, Bill, “A ‘Typical Yankee’s to Thank for Road,” Florida Times-Union, August 20, 1997.

Foley, Bill, “Millennium Moment: February 9, 1925,” Florida Times-Union, February 9, 1999.

Foley, Bill, "Millennium Moment: July 8, 1947, Two strikes knocked out Beaches consolidation," Florida Times-Union, July 8, 1999.

Johnston, Sidney. The Historic Architectural Resources of the Beaches Area: A Study of Atlantic Beach, Jacksonville Beach, and Neptune Beach, Florida. Jacksonville, FL: Environmental Services, Inc., July, 2003.

King, John P., Letter of February 1, 1996. Jean McCormick Archives, Beaches Area Historical Society.

Mabry, Donald J., "A Man and Three Hotels." HTA Press, 2006.

Mabry, Donald J.  World's Finest Beach. HTA Press, 2006.

Miller, Phillip Warren, Greater Jacksonville's Response to the Land Boom of the 1920s, MA thesis, University of North Florida, 1989.

“Neptune Beach has maintained residential image for 50 years.” Sun-Times, Wednesday, August 5, 1981. New York Commercial, June 23, 1902, as cited in Bill Foley, “Neptune was born as a buffer For Atlantic,” Florida Times-Union, June 21, 1997.

Simons, George W., Jr., Report for Jacksonville Beaches Chamber of Commerce, 1944;

Smith, Ed Interview of 1977. Jean McCormick Archives, Beaches Area Historical Society.

U.S. Bureau of the Census, Florida census for 1940, reprinted by Agriculture Department, State of Florida. 1941.

Wheeler, Dan G. Jr., July 17, 1972. Jean McCormick Archives, Beaches Area Historical Society.

Woodhouse, Johnny, “‘Doolittle Took Up Challenge After Coney Died,” Times to Remember: A Calendar for 2005. The Beaches Leader, 2004.