Old Panama Road

by Tim Gilmore, 4/12/2020

1. Footsteps of the Killer

Testimony in the 1897 murder trial of Marie Louise Gato told of mysterious men on Old Panama Road, of which directions the gun may have fired, of stalkers on streetcars.

Mann House / Gato House, 1909, courtesy Jacksonville Historical Preservation Commission

This morning, a sunny day of April quarantine in the Year of Covid-19, I’m standing alone where the Gatos’ house stood for more than a century. All that’s left are the steps that rose from Silver Street to the front yard, bricks embedded in the earth that held the house, the sand and rubble of a driveway. Recycling bins stand in a line on back patios of the brick apartments next door. In the block just north, Andrew Robinson Elementary School sits childless.

site of the demolished Mann / Gato House today

I’m going to walk Old Panama Road this morning, though it disappeared beneath the Northside of the city 120 years ago. I’ll step through old fire insurance maps and lost postcards. I’ll walk with a white lieutenant of black soldiers fighting the Confederacy and reading Lord Byron. I’ll make my way through Spanish American War camps teeming with Typhoid Fever to a sawmill blazing into the night sky two centuries ago.

El Modelo Cigar Factory, 1890s, courtesy Mellen Greeley family

Gabriel Hidalgo Gato managed and then purchased El Modelo, the largest of 15 Jacksonville cigar factories that together produced six million cigars a year. Gato’s 225 workers handrolled several brands of cigar including a namesake, Hamlet, La Tropia and one called Florida Alligator. He and his brother-in-law José Alejandro Huau brought Cuban revolutionaries like José Martí to speak at El Modelo on the eve of Cuba’s fight for independence from Spain.

detail of 1913 Sanborn Fire Insurance Company map, showing remnant of Old Panama Road and Mann / Gato House

Gato drove his carriage to his house on Old Panama Road and, hearing a commotion, entered through the back gate, alighted from his buggy, and ran inside. There he found his daughter Marie collapsed on the floor, bleeding to death from gunshot wounds.

Little John Bigger later testified he’d heard shots at 11th Street and later, from about 60 feet away, saw a large man running the Old Panama Road. His father, Lycurgis Bigger, claimed to have seen a “mysterious negro” following Marie on the streetcar, then standing with a cane on Old Panama. If the man weren’t a “negro,” he claimed, then he was wearing blackface.

Mann / Gato House, just prior to demolition in the year 2000, courtesy Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission

G.W. Wetmore said he saw Eddie Pitzer walking with Marie along the railroad tracks beside the Old Panama Road, that Pitzer took Marie’s hand and tried to kiss her, but she wouldn’t let him.

When the state tried Eddie Pitzer for Marie’s murder, nobody seemed to question whether Lycurgis Bigger might have a motive to see a phantom negro stalking Marie. Eddie’s father had worked with Lycurgis for years, running their general merchandising firm, Pitzer and Bigger, from the Everett Hotel Block down on Bay Street. Bigger’s “mysterious negro” would take the fall for Eddie.

The Everett Hotel, West Bay Street at Julia Street, 1880s, courtesy State Archives of Florida, floridamemory.com

When Alexander St.-Clair Abrams successfully defended Eddie Pitzer, he finished the trial, which packed the courthouse and brought crowds of young girls swooning and bringing the accused murderer flowers, with a six hour speech that ended with the attorney’s collapse before the judge.

Though that mammoth tome Jacksonville’s Architectural Heritage claims Senator Austin Mann built the house at 2112 Silver Street in 1907, city historian Joel McEachin believes Mann’s house was the Gatos’. He points out a “mature grape arbor” in a 1909 photo and an “Italianate architectural style” matching the vogue of the 1870s or ’80s.

Mann / Gato House, just prior to demolition in the year 2000, courtesy Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission

All accounts from the time of the murder simply place the address at “the Old Panama Road,” but as McEachin points out, a 1913 Sanborn Fire Insurance map shows a sliver of the Old Panama Road still remained a block and half north. Its angle indicates that before Springfield was platted, the road would have cut right in front of the Mann House. Earlier Sanborn maps didn’t include this portion of Springfield. The Mann House was the Gato House.

Mann / Gato House, just prior to demolition in the year 2000, courtesy Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission

“Just before it was demolished in 2000,” McEachin tells me, “I had several opportunities to go through accessible parts of the house, including the parlor where [Marie] Louise Gato died from her wounds.”

2. Steppin’ Out

I walk north through the 1913 map along Old Panama Road, past the railroad tracks where Eddie Pitzer walked with Marie and tried to kiss her. The E.L. Smith Candy Factory stood just to the right. Eddie often brought Marie candy at home. Her father once watched her reject the gift. It made Eddie furious. He threw the candy into the Gatos’ fountain and up into the trees. The railroad tracks disappear between walls of pines that block out the city to either side.

detail of 1913 Sanborn Fire Insurance Company map, showing remnant of Old Panama Road

The last remaining slice of the road on the 1913 map drives northwest into West 15th Street and disappears forever. I’m standing at the driveway beside the little white wooden cottage, with its spacious front porch at 205 West 15th. The Old Panama Road cuts right through the driveway in the Sanborn map.

house at 205 West 15th Street, noted beside Old Panama Road on 1913 Sanborn map

Zigzagging between Pearl and Silver Streets, I step before Club Steppin’ Out. Wearing a face mask, James Berry stands polishing a pickup truck and bids me good morning. A tall thin black man in his 60s, he’s the manager at First Coast Automotive next door.

“Been about a year since the evening club was in the business,” he says. The windows recess behind iron cagewire and yellow brick appears where plaster has chipped away. A sign in the window says, “40 Years and Up. NO Firearms NO Saggy Pants NO Tennis Shoes NO Tank Tops.”

From here, the Old Panama Road rose straight north for half a mile. When funeral home director turned real estate developer George W. Clark platted North Springfield, Silver Street extended north along the older road.

The once grand apartment hall that occupies half a city block at Silver and West 19th Streets escaped demolition by half a block when the expansion of U.S. 1, Martin Luther King Expressway, flattened houses just north. The apartment complex surrounds a central courtyard on three sides in the “hall” manner (indeed often called “manor”) that city directories included in “Blocks and Halls” a hundred years ago.

Now Pearl and Silver Streets head north through Brentwood until West 39th Street cuts east to the only portion of Old Panama Road still left on the map.

It runs diagonally northeast behind We’re for Jesus House of Prayer and the old motel complex painted a muddy ocher and called The Relax Inn. Past West 41st Street, Old Panama disappears beneath the city and the previous century, crossing invisibly underneath Main Street to the old railroad suburb called Panama Park above Evergreen Cemetery.

What remains of Old Panama Road is a slender street heavily shaded by ancient oaks and Spanish moss. Only a couple of houses front the road. Most houses and the larger structures on Main Street turn their backs. In dark green gloom, shadows and sunlight dapple mounds of trash and stolen goods.

I count nine toilet seats lying on their sides among stacks of car tires and boxes of toilet levers, ballcocks and valves. A giant flatscreen television lies face down on the asphalt. Swarms of houseflies cover piles of ripped open garbage bags and wary streetcats slip into the shadows and watch for me to leave. At a house on West 40th a tiny girl with giant curls, wearing only a diaper, runs across green grass and sand. Where Old Panama Road tracked from here becomes harder to discern.

3. “Going To Be a Glorious Night”

Just past East 44th Street, I can’t be certain Sebald Lane approximates Old Panama, but it’s the misspelled namesake of Charles F. Sibbald who ran a steam sawmill and brick kiln at the northern tip of this peninsula in the 1820s. He called it Panama Mills and that’s where I’m headed. I’m walking a vanished road through the urban landscape back through time.

Just as nobody’s sure of the etymology of Panama, the Latin American nation that bridges the Americas, no one knows why Sibbald, a Philadelphia merchant, chose “Panama” as the name for his land just under the Trout River. In 1816, José María Coppinger, governor of Spanish East Florida, had granted Sibbald 16,000 acres between Trout River and Six Mile Creek.

The mill burned in 1828 while Sibbald was in New York, but his rebuilt mill, along with its outbuildings, kilns and workers’ houses, seemed its own small town. When, in the middle 1800s, Jacksonville began to grow, it was built of Sibbald’s brickwork and lumber at Panama.

Somewhere along the Panama Road, Cyrus Brown walks with me. Sebald Lane dead-ends on both sides. Then 50th Street and a thickening latticework of railroad tracks partitions the urban Northside. Suddenly these modest brick homes and industrial warehouses, these junkyards and chop shops are gone. It’s Cyrus’s time. He’s a white lieutenant, 3rd infantry regiment, United States Colored Troops.

Black troops fighting for the United States against the interests of slavery and the Confederate States of America had camped by the Panama Road before. On August 10, 1864, Cyrus writes in his journal, “Went on picket at 9 o’clock this morning […] on the Panama Road near the old camp of the 35th U.S.C.T.”

detail of Cyrus Brown’s diary, 1864, courtesy Special Collections, Jacksonville Public Libraries

Old Sibbald’s mill still stands, as Cyrus writes, “About 8 o’clock in the evening, firing commenced near the saw mill.” Guerrillas fired “fifteen or twenty shots” and “wounded the sentry in the leg.” The next morning: “All was quiet after the skirmish last night + no prowling rebels disturbed our night. I slept however with both eyes open and had my musket.”

On Thursday, the 18th, Cyrus says, “Am on the Panama Road. Passed the day in reading a sermon and Byron’s Childe Harold.” He calls the poetry “magnificent” and Lord Byron a “true poet,” though “egotistical.”

“Portrait of Byron” by Thomas Phillips, circa 1813

“It is going to be a glorious night,” Brown writes, with “the full orbed moon” glowing “in untarnished glory.” On this Panama Road, the lieutenant makes his own pilgrimage, along with Childe Harold. Then he quotes Canto IV, stanza 186, “Farewell! a word that must be, and hath been,— / A sound which makes us linger; yet—farewell!”

4. Electric Melon Rapture on Lonely Shore

Bloxham and Buffalo Avenue run parallel through the neighborhood platted in 1878 as the town of Panama Park, which had, at first, no town hall, no municipal buildings, and very little housing, though it did have the Panama Park Track, a concrete oval for bicycle racing.

When I get to Bloxham Avenue, I’m heading for the Spanish American War camp. In the early summer of 1898, a year after the Gato Murder Trial, down on the eastern edge of Springfield, 12,000 American soldiers spread Typhoid Fever in a vast tent camp that stretched seven blocks. As the fever raged, new arrivals made for new camps, one just to the east at Fairfield, the other in Panama Park at a camp named for former Governor William Dunnington Bloxham. By August, Typhoid Fever ravaged Fairfield and Panama Park as well, causing high fevers, headaches, coughing, diarrhea and intestinal bleeding. Jacksonville hospitals took in more soldiers than died in the war.

postcard circa 1913, courtesy Special Collections, Jacksonville Public Libraries

Panama Park, always a satellite suburb of Jacksonville, was never a real town. In 1910, George W. Clark, the funeral director turned real estate developer, paved streets and sold lots for housing. Town restrictions said fences had to be built of iron. No intoxicating beverages could be made, sold or stored. Residents could maintain no cattle, hogs, sheep or mules. Nor could poultry “run at large.” And of course, in the Jim Crow South, “No lot may be conveyed to a colored person or negro.”

postcard circa 1913, courtesy Special Collections, Jacksonville Public Libraries

An iron town gate with tall stone columns topped with light globes announced entrance to Panama Park on the “road through the woods.” The ninth property restriction said, “We require property owners and all others to close the gates across street ends after passing through.”

I’m almost to the end of the Old Panama Road now. I walk past shotgun houses, screen porches, tin roofs, hip roofs. I take the dead end of East 55th that rises in crumbling asphalt above a parking lot full of semi trailers and breaks abruptly off a cliff. I buy chicharrónes and boiled peanuts and a fifth of “Electric Melon” Mad Dog 20/20 at the Buffalo Food Store (“ATM BEER LOTTO”) and wander through postcards beneath ancient oak trees dripping Spanish moss. I pass through the town gates. The caption at the bottom of the 1913 postcard says, “Road Through the Woods, Panama Park.”

I watch an eagle hover gracefully overhead and see it alight atop one of two central towers on the Panama Park School, Public School No. 13. Made of terracotta, the eagles have perched on these intricately patterned brick towers since architect Henry John Klutho designed the school in 1916.

I greet old boats sinking beside old cacti rising from the side of the river. A low concrete boathouse wears signs warning boaters about collisions with manatee. One of George W. Clark’s Panama Park town regulations specifies the maximum size of a boathouse on the waterfront. It’s hot. I haven’t eaten anything today. The afternoon wanes. Cyrus Brown walks beside me, 1864, and we read Byron together, Canto Four, stanza 178.

I round a house swallowed in weeds and grasses and saplings. Yes, “there is a pleasure in the pathless woods,” and yes, “a rapture on the lonely shore.” The house drowns in vines and a camphor tree grows like a great green hand reaching up from the earth. “There is a society where none intrudes.” Yes, Cyrus and “I love not Man the less, but Nature more.” We’ve come to the end of Old Panama Road.

In Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, the wanderer finds in himself, from interviews with strange characters he meets along the road, versions of himself “from all I may be, or have been before, / To mingle with the Universe, and feel / What I can ne’er express, yet cannot all conceal.”

Mann / Gato House, just prior to demolition in the year 2000, courtesy Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission

I’ll leave a “Hansel and Gretel” trail of boiled peanut shells behind me, in case the Witch of the Woods wants to eat me. In case anyone cares to rescue me. I twist off the cap of Mad Dog 20/20. MD’s no longer 20 ounces, 20 percent alcohol, but it’s early April 2020, in the Year of our Lord, Covid-19. So all’s okay, not really, but it has to be. It’s time to start back. I down a swig of toxic treacle and hope to reemerge (hold my breath, try not to trap hauntings in my lungs) from history. If I’ve the strength, I’ll tell you this story.