by Tim Gilmore, 7/16/2022
“We want to develop more of a sense of pride in Jacksonville with having these tributaries, not just these clogged-up creeks that overflow and cause drainage problems.” City Council Member Elaine Brown was talking about McCoys and Hogans Creeks, what the Jacksonville Downtown Master Plan was calling the “two beads” of the Emerald Necklace in 1999. The plan itself was a bead in a long string of hopes and despairs for the ancient waterway.
Hogans Creek, which runs through Springfield, through Klutho and Springfield Parks, between Downtown and the Eastside, and empties into the St. Johns River just south of the Maxwell House Coffee plant, has served Jacksonville as garbage dump and pseudo-Venetian canal. It’s taken lives and provided the city’s most famous alligator a getaway route. For anyone who cares to notice, it acts as a barometer of the health of the city. It also serves as a fossil record showing how the city has cared, or not cared, for itself through time.
On July 7, 1979, the Associated Press reported that University of Florida architecture students had created a plan to beautify the creek and resolve flooding. The Jacksonville Department of Housing and Urban Development committed what HUD chief Ernie Whitaker said was “the best $1,300 investment the city has made in a long time.” Kind of a backhanded compliment, since $1,300 would be a pittance even for a Podunk to commit itself.
In 2014, the nonprofit Groundwork Jacksonville began working on a plan connecting both urban tributaries in an Emerald Trail encompassing 30 miles, encircling the urban core and linking at least 14 historic neighborhoods at a projected cost of $88,200.
The earliest record of the name “Hogans Creek” dates to 255 acres of what’s now the Eastside settled in 1817 by Daniel Hogans. (Thus also begins the battle of the apostrophe. Officially lacking one, the name is an honorific, not a possessive.)
In the 1870s, the Board of Health condemned a particularly pernicious garbage mound burgeoning on Hogans Creek at Newnan Street, which received waste from individuals and local businesses, the city jail, slaughterhouses and stables. Hogans Creek formed Jacksonville’s eastern, northern and part of its western boundaries, even as raw sewage and coat tar from a gas power plant bled into it.
When the Sub-Tropical Exposition brought palatial buildings, speakers like President Grover Cleveland and Frederick Douglass, new inventions and agricultural wonders from 1888 through 1897, it also brought Old Joe, sometimes confused with Big Joe. Whichever Joe was the other alligator resided amidst tourist hotels at St. James (later Hemming and now James Weldon Johnson) Park.
When city managers demolished the Exposition Hall, Old Joe stayed on, making his home in the reservoir beside the new waterworks building at Hogans Creek at the heart of the city’s expanded sewage system. Sometimes Old Joe ate a neighborhood dog, which one newspaper article referred to as “a hearty meal.”
Then authorities began filling in marshland around the creek to create Springfield Park, from 1899 until after the Great Fire of 1901, for which Hogans Creek served as northern boundary. They did the same for the Dignan Park in 1907. (Dignan Park became Confederate Park, then Springfield Park became Klutho Park and Confederate Park became Springfield Park.)
In May 1903, Old Joe, whom The Florida Times-Union called Big Joe, took Hogans Creek to Union Street, where four men baited him with a live dog and roped him to a wagon. Said the T-U, “Joe was hungry, and could not withstand the temptation of such a good morsel as a dog.”
If the droll phrasing were in poor taste, it worsened dramatically when the newspaper made its amusement racial. Joe “made a great many vicious lunges with his great and powerful tail,” then “bellow[ed]” and “show[ed] his teeth as though he would not mind having a morsel of one of the negroes who were engaged in getting him fastened by degrees.” The depiction could have captioned any of the racist series of comedic Florida postcards from these same years that showed black men and boys barely escaping the jaws of alligators.
The summer floods of 1904 washed Old Joe through Hogans Creek to the marshlands down on Liberty Street. There, so The Florida Metropolis reported, “With the assistance of a cable chain, a pair of horses and six men [Joe] was carried back to the waterworks and again consigned to his old quarters.” Joe soon died on a log near the reservoir’s shore, taxidermists stuffed him, and the municipal waterworks put him back on display.
When a brief plague of bicycle theft washed through the city in the summer of 1905, the T-U issued the admonition, “If this stealing of bicycles is not soon checked, Jacksonville will have to equip her policemen with diving suits, so they can fish the frames out of Hogans Creek.”
Clearly the creek offered opportunities the city hadn’t seen. What did it say for a city’s imagination, for its vision, if all it could make of its waterways were garbage dumps? In the late 1920s, architect Henry John Klutho and engineer Charles Imeson designed the Hogans Creek Improvement Project, including more than 6,000 feet of bulkheads, six vehicular and three footbridges, balustrades and lighted walkways, to create one central elegant promenade for the whole city. Tide locks, a pump house and overflow ponds would control flooding. Reporters thought it reminiscent of Rome or Venice and with hyperbole, Hogans Creek became “Jacksonville’s Grand Canal.”
Not for long. Councilman Red Cannon arranged to dredge the creek by the 1960s, so municipal buildings like the Duval County Armory didn’t keep flooding. Typically, caretakers forgot that improvement plans had to be maintained, and so it was with Hogans. On Valentine’s Day, 1961, newspapers reported that two 10 year old black children, Ernest Crowd and Bobby Merritt, drowned when their “makeshift raft swamped in Hogans Creek.” Nothing came of the UF architecture students’ beautification plan.
In June 1987, homeless men found the body of a man with a heart-and-arrow tattoo and an appointment card for a Pembroke Pines gynecologist in his pocket. He’d been in the creek since he’d drowned five days earlier. Authorities thought he might have been a missing Mississippi alcoholic ex-rodeo champ, but that connection fizzled and the body was never identified.
Police dragged Hogans Creek on Christmas Day 1990, looking for 100 year old Frank Henry Thomas, who’d wandered away from senior citizens’ housing at Hogan’s [sic] Creek Tower on Broad Street. Somebody found him lying in front of a nearby Victorian house, still “frail but hale,” 17 hours later.
As Hogans Creek awaits reconnection to a restored Emerald Trail, landscape photographer Doug Eng’s statement for his recent exhibit “Creeks Rising: A City Reflected in Hogans and McCoys Creeks,” puts the tributary’s history in perspective. What we see, Eng says, “follows the growth and decline of Downtown Jacksonville and the attitudes and priorities of its leaders. What we see today is the outcome of many decades of public policy, commercial interests, and the resiliency of nature to return to an un-altered state.”
Through the hard fact of the city, the waterway winds, not knowing our plans. The bitterns that wade in the iridescence that slowly swirls atop the black waters know no more of history than the future. Six centuries ago, a black bear watched her cubs play in the waters where, in 1877, a stolen costermonger’s cart of bad cabbages broke apart and rotted in the summer rains. For 200 years now, what this town’s thought of itself has strained and seeped into Hogans Creek, picked up debris as it trudged through the land and bled slowly into the St. Johns River on its ancient and inexorable way north into the ocean.