by Tim Gilmore, 2/17/2023
On the Fourth of July, 1887, lightning struck Hunter’s Mill. Dexter Hunter was a lucky man for prospering on such accursed land. Down in dark structures hulking in the swamp, the blades sliced, never stopped, and bosses hired sawyers and planers for violent skills, violent pasts, cutting, cutting, mastery of wood in the upgrowth, slicing, board feet of pine, the occasional murder, attempted suicide.
The sweet citrus blossoms were coming soon, after last year’s fruit, when H.D. Holland, sheriff of Duval County, descended to Orlando where, The Weekly Floridian of February 11, 1886 said, he “caught up with a murderer, Charles Clark, who killed a negro at Hunter’s Mill, near Jacksonville, about two years ago.”
Jacksonville, frontier metropolis, provincial capital in that sandspit spurned off the southern United States, teemed like a flea circus. Half of what was legal was lethal and rigid honor codes overrode law.
Indeed did Dexter Hunter’s entry in Volume II of the Florida Edition of Makers of America: An Historical and Biographical Work by an Able Corps of Writers, published in 1909, say not only that Hunter was “the first President of the Seminole Club of Jacksonville” and “a man of marked literary tastes and enjoy [sic] the classics and standard literature,” but also that “[h]e believes that Florida stands in need of a more rigid enforcement of the criminal law, and especially the enforcement of the penalty for the crime of murder.”
Hunter’s sawmill buzzed and hummed and bolted and thundered where Jacksonville ended and East Jacksonville began, corner of Bay Street and Brough – Brough the principal street in the town of East Jacksonville, running from the east end of Bay northerly to Oakland. The mill offered work to black men previously enslaved and white men used to sharecropping for their own feudal masters in Georgia. Here, where the ships lined up to receive timber and the chimneys poured over the waters, Jacksonville fell off its own southeastern corner into Hogans Creek at the Slough of Despond at the St. Johns River.
East Jacksonville and Fairfield were white towns mostly, while Oakland and Campbell’s Addition were mostly black, and all of them together, 150 years later, just make up the Eastside, tucked under Downtown Jax where the river crooks north.
Newspapers across Southern Georgia and Northern Florida reported “two colored men, Joe Wright and William Jackson,” quarreled at Hunter’s Mill, January 5, 1888. Wright cut Jackson wide open, twice, then fled. Carnivorous pitcher plants glowed in the sulfurous marsh gas, alligator eyes rode the muck, the level of the street ever sunk, with tides, with the moon.
Tensions smoldered in the fevered unrest at the mills. This land could never be still, could know no peace. “Incendiary Seen in the Act of Firing Hunter’s Mill,” the papers reported. On the night of June 16, 1888, “a firebug attempted to burn Hunter’s Mill, and would have succeeded, as he put kerosene oil around the building, and was just about to fire the mill when he was discovered.” Guards gave chase, lighting torches and firing pistols, though the would-be arsonist seemed to flit through the wetlands like a dragonfly and leave no trace.City directories located Hunter’s Mill alongside other East Jacksonville sawmills like that of John O’Neill (or O’Neil), Henry Clark, Eppinger and Russell, T.V. Cashen, and down at the upturn of the river at Commodore Point, Alexander and Hardie. Directories listed Dexter Hunter as “lumber mfr, saw and planing mills, E. Bay, corner of Brough, home ditto.” The Hunter family’s large wooden house stood amidst palm trees and outbuildings and workers’ housing.
Hunter owned majority shares in the Western Railway Company of Florida, operating the Green Cove Springs and Melrose Railroad, along which locomotives hauled logs to the St. Johns River, where one crew dumped timber and another rafted the timber to Hunter’s Mill.
The City of Jacksonville operated its crematorium at Hunter’s Mill too. On the second of December, The Morning News out of Savannah, Georgia reported a William Marzyck and assistant in charge of the “cremating furnace.” No longer did a livery have any excuse to dump a dead horse in The Pond up the main road in town.
Just a few days later, mercury dropped to freezing and the frost killed out the last of the Yellow Fever from Jacksonville’s worst plague year. Quarantine lifted. Around the South, the papers reported, “Disinfection began at Jacksonville and will take at least 20 days. Hunter’s immense mill furnace will be used for burning infected bedding and Smith’s laundry for the disinfection of clothes, etc.”
Farmers around town and in outlying areas, like Elder Eugene Lindsley up north of town at Springfield Advent Christian Church, spread cremains from the “city crematory” across their fields for compost, “not,” explained The Florida Agriculturist on January 15, 1896, “from the main furnace where melon rinds and tin cans are burned, but from the special furnace where bones and dead animals are consumed.”
And as the dead came carted in, the living tried taking their lives. “Both Weary of Life,” exclaimed the headline in The Morning News of Savannah on August 30, 1889, “Two Colored People of Jacksonville Attempt Suicide.”
First, a “negro woman” named Dora McKinley “attempted suicide last night by taking laudanum. She was resuscitated.” Then Charley Crews, a “saw filer” at O’Neill’s East Jacksonville sawmill, Charley’s address two blocks away at St. Johns and Brough, tried to drown himself twice where Hogan’s Creek channeled into a canal between mills.The Morning News said, “Loving not wisely but too well was the cause” of Charley Crews’s suicide attempt. “Crews has lately taken to drink. He is a brother of the boy who was killed at Hunter’s Saw Mill about three weeks ago.” The newspapers missed more than they caught and surely Charley’s grief held no room for the papers’ implied judgment.
Then into the line of fires and accidental deaths, murders and attempted suicides, sunk the steamship Louise. It took less than three minutes, 1:30 a.m., Saturday night, February 15, 1890, when the Louise struck the remains of a sunken lightboat and went down in 50 feet of water just off Hunter’s Mill.
“When the boat struck, we rushed to the cabins,” Captain Charles Floyd told newspapermen. “We called for the passengers to make for the lifeboat. The water rushed in so fast that the boat could not be reached and we finally got in a life raft and cut it loose. This was on the hurricane deck, to which we had retreated. There were 10 persons on the raft, and myself and Eph Hood in the water. I threw my arm over a stick of wood, which aided me in keeping above the surface. Wesley Evans, a young colored passenger, went down with the boat and was drowned. We were not in the water very long, for the schooner Jesse W. Starr came to us and took us all in.”
Newspapers from Richmond, Virginia to New Orleans reported the Louise carried a crew of 60 men and seven passengers. “The Louise lies in 50 feet of water, nothing being visible but about five feet of her smokestack.”
(More than one steamboat named Louise plied the St. Johns over the years. This sunken steamer probably wasn’t the Louise who started her life up north on the Hudson as the James A. Stevens, where the marine artist James Bard captured her in an 1857 oil painting, since that Louise lacked a third level, the hurricane deck. It’s doubtful this Louise’s steam whistle was the one that passed on to other steamships, first to the Express and later the St. Johns.)
If George Boatright had known the long list of disasters attendant on this cursèd corner, would he have taken more caution? It was the last place he was ever seen. It was Wednesday, August 19, 1891, when he left his home in Bostwick, Florida for Jacksonville “to see about the towing of a raft.” He called on “Mr. Reynolds of Hunter’s Mill,” but “that gentleman was out,” the papers said. Since he was carrying about $800, “fears of foul play” followed his disappearance. “He was last seen about two o’clock p.m. and then disappeared as completely as if the earth had swallowed him up.”
Dexter Hunter of Jacksonville, his 1909 Makers of America bio said, had “made his home in the metropolis for over 30 years and prospered in the lumber business.” Son of a lumber manufacturer, Hunter first went into business in Albany, New York, and came to Florida in 1876. He died at his mother’s house in Albany in 1912, 68 years old, cause of death: “sarcoma of neck.”
Today, only concrete slabs and berms from the St. Johns River Shipbuilding Company remain. Here, between April 1942 and August 1945, more than 22,000 workers, many of them women, built 82 ships and launched them toward Europe and the Pacific in World War II. A cargo ship called the Richard Montgomery, built right here, sunk in the Thames River in Southeast England in 1944. Its masts still protrude from the water. Its 1,500 tons of explosives remain on board.
Valentine’s Day, 2023. Someone’s peeled back the chain link fencing at the waterfront. I step through the threshold. A tall palm wears a green crown over an evening dress of dead fronds. Rats clatter in palmettos. A black cat scurries over slapdash graffiti.
Oil shimmers slick and iridescent on the river. Anhingas dart their heads underwater. I wonder if the Louise is still down there, or George Boatright. It’s eerily quiet out here.
The owner of the football team says he’ll build a Four Seasons Hotel on the lot adjacent. His record of delivering on his promises, even as city leaders genuflect before him, is poor. All those who believed this land cursed are long dead. Forgetting is what the world does best.