Dames Point

by Tim Gilmore, 9/25/2016

The 1978 Readers Digest Almanac listed the Dames Point Bridge as the third-longest cable-stayed bridge in the world. The problem was that Dorothy and John Matthews, Ed and Virginia Stacks, Mabel Emory, and several members of Josephine Wells’s family hadn’t yet been displaced from the old Dames Point fishing village for the bridge to be built.

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Mabel Emory was 77 years old in 1984 when the Jacksonville Transportation Authority told her to get out of the way. The 10,646 foot long bridge, held taut with 21 miles of cable, would begin to span the St. Johns River at Dames Point the following year and finish in 1989. “I’m really scared of it,” she told Florida Times-Union reporter Bob Phelps. “I don’t like it at all.” She’d lived on riverfront property at Dames Point for 60 years.

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courtesy Florida Times-Union

Josephine Wells had lived on Dames Point for 69 years. The Transportation Authority had informed her it would bulldoze her rental houses at 4250 McDowell Street and 8688 Dames Point Road, her son’s home at the corner of Dames Point and McDowell, and her sister Maude’s home at 4249 McDowell.

Ed and Virginia Sacks had lived in the oldest home at Dames Point, the two-story house built in the 1880s, wrought-iron porches on both stories, at 8904 Dames Point Road, for 35 years.

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To drive Dames Point today is to wheel through a wasteland. The Jacksonville Port Authority has swallowed Dames Point whole, as it has nearby Goat Island, now Blount Island, leaving only the tiny fishing village of New Berlin afloat within the bloated body of the Port Authority like some vestigial organ.

Dames Point Road on a Saturday morning runs empty. A paint-flaking, rusting white water tower leans sadly over broken asphalt sprung with sickly reeds and weeds.

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Surprisingly, some long-time Dames Point residents were initially spared the colonial conquest of eminent domain and told the bridge would rise massive and concrete over their roofs. The bridge would even take the name of Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, the bar pilot, fisherman, and gunrunner to Cuba during the Spanish American War, who built a grand house with a widow’s walk nearby on Fort George Island. But the Napoleon whose spirit the Dames Point villagers felt most in this new bridge was the French imperialist after whom Broward was named.

“They want us to play Billy Goat Gruff and live like trolls under the bridge,” Dorothy Matthews told Bob Phelps in 1984.

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Dames Point villagers had been kept in the thrall of rumor and outside sources for most of a decade. The Jacksonville Transportation Authority had told them that city Housing and Urban Development officials would help plan their relocation efforts, but residents had heard nothing from HUD.

Wandering Dames Point today, there’s no sign of the many old cracker-style houses, no sign even of Balsam, McDowell, Webster, O’Neil, and Edwards Streets, each of which crossed Dames Point Road.

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Since a late-1700s British plantation tract included the Dames Points peninsula, little white and black boys had found small artifacts—mostly curiously curated and carved pieces of shell and bone, that dated back thousands of years to prior native populations.

During the Civil War, Dr. Henry Von Balsan, who soon founded the nearby fishing village of New Berlin, operated a hospital on Dames Point. Though he treated Confederate injuries, Von Balsan was a Union supporter. In the decades following the Civil War, he ran the hospital as a quarantine site for Jacksonville’s Yellow Fever epidemics. New Berlin briefly incorporated itself as a town to quarantine its own residents from Yellow Fever.

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When Von Balsan’s grandson David was a boy, an old Spanish well built of coquina still remained at Dames Point. The well must have been a century old when David was a child, running up and down the oak-ceilinged hills. New Berlin resident Thomas Grey, who operated the Grey Hotel, remembered the well as “quite ancient” and “square—about 3 ½ feet across—stoned up with coquina blocks.” He then says, “The place where it was located is now out a hundred feet in the water.”

In 1937, David remembered “a stranger” coming ashore and camping beside the well. He never spoke much and David couldn’t recall his name, if the stranger ever shared it. The stranger brought lumber across the river to build himself a small house, but he never built it. The lumber remained stacked on the earth. The stranger couldn’t attend to building his house, because the old Spanish well had captured him.

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David remembered how the stranger “started digging—in the old well. He dug and dug. The lumber for the house was delivered, but was never used, and the new settler continued his digging. One day we missed him. He had departed without communication with the residents as to when, or why he was going, or where. He never returned, and the lumber for the new house rotted on the ground where it was stacked.”

cont’d New Berlin Crab Shack