by Tim Gilmore, 9/12/2016
New Berlin remains, but it’s not New Burr-l’n. That’s how people who grew up here say its name. The shrimpers are gone. The Christopher family’s fish market is gone. Even the Grey Hotel, built in 1878 or 1880, long boarded up, was recently demolished.
The fishing village began with Dr. Henry Von Balsan in 1860, but the oldest grave in New Berlin Cemetery dates to the short-lived community of Yellow Bluff, 1854. Having lived only six weeks at the end of 1883, Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, son of Florida Governor Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, is buried in New Berlin.
Von Balsan operated an impromptu Civil War hospital nearby at Dames Point and shortly thereafter administered the site as a quarantine hospital during Jacksonville’s Yellow Fever epidemics. Today’s Dames Point Bridge soars over Quarantine Island.
The doctor bought 50 acres of the arrowhead of pineland pointing across the St. Johns River toward Gilmore and Mill Cove. By the 1880s, lumber millers, beaver and otter trappers, and fishermen lived in and operated from New Berlin. Today, the Jacksonville Port Authority has almost completely devoured New Berlin and Dames Point, and what’s left floats in the body of JaxPort like a vestigial organ left behind by evolution.
The restaurant called Christopher’s Pier is gone. Old Joe Christopher sold beer and wine and fish, certainly some moonshine, out of Christopher’s Pier back in the 1930s. Even the white boys in New Berlin called Joe Christopher “Uncle Joe.” When Joe’s son George took over the joint around 1949 or ’50, he made upgrades.
Junior Hodge, who lived a year nearby on Goat Island when he was young, became good friends with George and calls him a sharp businessman. Christopher’s Pier was built from Apollo Street out over the river and George got beer companies to sponsor boat races just off the tavern.
“It’s hard to believe now how many people came out to New Berlin for the races. There’d be thousands of people. They’d park a mile and a half, two miles back, all the way to Heckscher Drive. George had all kinda things goin’ on at Christopher’s. They’d have beauty contests even.”
Just behind New Berlin, Fred Nichols lived on a little island called Fred’s Island in Nichols Creek. The island was and still is accessible only by boat. Fred was a fisherman, same as everybody else, and made a decent living, but only because he’d dealt creatively with adversity.
“When Fred was a boy,” says Catherine Woods, who grew up in New Burr-l’n, “a train ran over his legs and he lost them. So what he did was he fashioned hisself new legs out of car tires, fitted his stubs down in the tires, and that’s how he got about.”
New Berlin’s still here, but New Burr-l’n is gone.
City directories listed Christopher’s Pier at 4310 Apollo Avenue, one block from the river, and a swimmer’s length from Goat Island.
The closest address on Apollo south from New Berlin Road is 4302 where, beside a two-story house built in 1930, I descend a one-lane sand and riprap road that declines into the river. I imagine driving the road as it goes underwater, crossing the riverbed beneath, and sticking to the road as it ascends the other shore.
For as the rat-skeleton palm fronds click-clack in the wind just over my head and crooked cedars blur the shade blue-green, the concrete berms and blue metal cranes of Blount Island spread just across the water.
“There it is right there,” Joseph Leonard Johnson II tells me when I mention Goat Island, though it’s Blount Island today.
I’d seen Joe climb down scaffolding on the side of a red-hulled 80-foot shrimp boat called Overstreet Pride at dock behind the two-story house at 4302. I waved to him and he waved tentatively back. He craned across the grassy sand and rock between us the way only a tall man who’s light on his feet can move.
“How old is that shrimp boat?” I ask.
“I don’t know,” he says irritably. “Old.” When a short silence makes him impatient, he says, “I got it from a cousin who got it from a cousin and that cousin’s dead.”
This tall man who says he spent 45 years at sea bears a striking resemblance to Rollie Christopher. His skin’s the color of coffee, his facial features are fine-boned, and his hair is long and black and pulled into a wire-brush pony tail.
Rollians Christopher, or Rollie, lived on Goat Island for decades. In the 1950s, his refusal to leave the island, on which he claimed squatter’s rights, made him central to the Duval County Commission’s fight with the Florida Ship Canal Authority, which sought to dig a canal across the state, an ambition compared at the time to building the Panama Canal. Both entities sought to develop Goat Island for the shipping industry. When the Board of Commissioners acquired Goat Island, they renamed it for County Attorney J. Henry Blount.
Anita Johnson, Joe’s sister, says the shipping industry killed the fishing industry at New Berlin, and when that happened, JaxPort and Blount Island together killed the community.
Rollians Christopher’s decision to stand his ground, with all the island’s rattlesnakes and his 1100 goats, led to a protracted battle against multiple government entities that made statewide and national headlines.
Joe says Rollie kept to himself, that “they threw him in jail, but it was all just a scheme to take his land.” Junior Hodge grew up in New Burr-l’n and says Rollie shot a man in the face with #8 birdshot. The men were fighting over a woman. The man Rollie shot “looked like he had Morse Code on his face.”
Joe remembers Rollie transporting a horse from New Berlin to Goat Island. “He had two rowboats. He put the horse’s front feet in the first boat and his back feet in the second boat, and he took the horse across.”
Joe speaks rapidly, hammers his words irritably. “I used to swim across to Goat Island,” he says, “with my gun in the air, hunt rattlesnakes, wrap ’em around my legs, and swim back.”
Since by accident I found this shrimping boat and Joseph Leonard Johnson II while looking for the spot where the tavern and seafood shack called Christopher’s Pier served finfish and beer from the 1930s to the early 1970s, I ask Joe if he remembers where it was.
“Of course I do,” Joe says, as the water laps against the rocks beneath the palms. “It was right here where we’re standing.”