by Tim Gilmore, 7/23/2020
All now beneath the streets — Here, right here, where you drive, where you walk, where you eat, where you worship, they dumped carcasses. Here, right here, they shot birds and alligators. Here, they buried all trash, bottles and cages and rags and bones. The trash ever sunk in the swamp. The levels rose in the rain. And then the streets. And everything sank underneath. Rose again and sank again and rose again. Depending on the seasons and the tides and the rains. It’s down there still. Though everything buried will rise.
In the chapter “Known Bottle Dumps” of his 1980 book Antique Bottles Found in Northeast Florida, Wesley B. Plott writes, “The oldest known dump is reported to be in a sinkhole located at the foot of Newnan and Union Streets. There’s a vacant lot and a land area. Dr. Baldwin, who founded the Medical Society, had this dump covered with three feet of white sand in the year 1877. I found the white sand but the digging is too hard for me.”
Surely Plott meant “The Pond,” the city’s original dumping ground, notorious throughout the 19th century, center of refuse and breeder of pestilence, now buried underground at Duval and Main Streets at the center of town. Or at least that’s one location.
Plott may have read Dr. Webster Merritt’s 1949 book A Century of Medicine in Jacksonville and Duval County, which declares, “Without waiting for the bonds to be issued, work was begun promptly on draining ‘The Pond,’ covering the immense garbage pile at the head of Newnan Street, and clearing Hogan’s Creek.”
On January 24, 1877, when “city limits” meant today’s downtown, Dr. A.W. Knight, a Jacksonville Board of Health officer, reported, “Sufficient care has not been taken to have all dead animals carried far enough outside the city limits. Too much garbage has been deposited within the city limits.” He warned against imbibing the town’s drinking water and advised avoiding that “hot bed of disease” called Hogan’s Creek. Someone calling himself “O. Mire” wrote to a local paper, complaining of the “foul smelling” city, the “garbage festering in the sun—breeding foul miasma” and the hogs and cows roaming the city’s streets at will.
Amidst the escalating Yellow Fever epidemic, Dr. A.S. Baldwin, one of the founders of the Jacksonville Board of Health, issued a sanitation report. Among other complaints, he brought attention to “The Pond.” As Merritt writes, “Actually ‘The Pond’ was a swamp bounded by Forsyth, Church, Clay and Jefferson Streets, in a small area of which water stood at a depth of several feet.” Of course much of the city, today’s downtown, was swamp and muck just decades or years before.
Merritt’s mapping of “The Pond” gives a different location than does Wesley Plott, and both writers plot a different intersection than an 1847 map, which shows “The Pasture, formerly The Pond” at “the top of the ditch that is Pine Street,” later Main Street, between Laura and Ocean Streets.
In my imagining “The Pond,” invoking William Blake and H.P. Lovecraft in my 2017 book The Book of Isaiah: A Vision of the Founder of a City, I pictured forth how “the ground bubbled up from the surface of Main Street and popped sulfurous into dank wet summer at the place they called The Pond.
“Men stood at the edge of the street that ran from the river to The Pond, guns cocked, and popped ducks dead in the blue filth, occasionally an alligator too.
“Thus brought they home the town’s best meals, ’til settlers’ garbage filled The Pond sufficiently to make it The Pasture, though the new name surely presumed of the site too much.
“This sump stood no pasture and no street. It kept leveling with trash against the ground that surrounded it, only again and again slowly to sink.
“The Pond had become a Slough of Despond, the city’s trash pit, until its fillings of bones and bottles and infected flesh and buckled wood and medicinal sulphurs and maybe a murder, over many desperations, finally flattened it sufficiently with impacted garbage to form the intersection of Main and Duval Streets.”
Since in different years, different intersections of streets were given as the center of “The Pond,” perhaps several “Ponds” were “the” one, seeping trash and sewage across the swamp of northern streets of today’s downtown, filling with bottles and kitchen refuse and carcasses.
Baldwin, in his 1877 report, called “The Pond” an “unsightly and stagnant morass,” said Yellow Fever had begun there in 1857 too, and recommended draining it. He spoke of “the Pine Street Sewer,” which later became Main Street, and Hogan’s Creek, later a barrier between Downtown and Springfield, an artery already polluted, says Merritt, with “sewage from dwellings, yards, slaughterhouses and the jail.”
He spoke of strange “geological formations underlying the city,” which he believed contained, “below the rocks which form the bed of the river,” flowing “streams which do not have any connection with the river” but should provide clean drinking water. He was right. He proposed steep tax increases to make the city livable. Regarding “The Pond” and similar waters, he said, waxing unintentionally Blakean and Lovecraftian, “Active measures should be taken to effect a removal of these pestiferous sloughs before another summer’s sun shall set them into fermentation to brew an installment of telluric and atmospheric contamination.”
Dr. Baldwin had battled “The Pond” nearly his whole time in Jacksonville. In 1842, Baldwin’s “cottage,” in which he held his medical office, was one of only three residences on Bay Street along the riverfront, just west of Pine, now Main. As Merritt writes, the “river marsh extended up Pine as far as Forsyth, where a bridge or causeway was built across its border.” Pine Street north of the footbridge was considered “impassable,” a “quagmire,” though Pine Street at Duval had coalesced somehow “a bridge consisting of ‘dune sands’ blown there at some remote period” and foreclosing the natural outlet of “The Pond.”
Baldwin persuaded the new City Council to dig a ditch “from the pond through the dune sand along Pine Street to the river marsh.” Thus, The Pond became The Pasture. The leeching of Pine Street drained The Pond down to the St. Johns River, springing up lush growths of grasses for the town’s cattle.
But The Pond shifted. Just as the waters seeped, the serpents slithered, the beasts devoured the beasts, the lands became waters and waters lands. Merritt’s chapter “The Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1857” recalled an “early summer, which was hot, rainy, and murky,” though I know of no other kind of Jacksonville summer, whence “The Pond between Jacksonville and LaVilla,” city limits separating white from black residents in handfuls of circumference, “about where Broad Street now is located,” newly “divested” of “forest and undergrowth,” the sun now “allowed to shine upon the morass,” railroad excavations having been built up against the former border of the weakly drained marshland. Thus in August, “Yellow Fever broke out on the border of The Pond,” spreading along McCoys Creek, “a dirty, stagnant little stream of water flowing through a low, marshy area.”
Doctors said the disease originated in the sodden earth turned up to build new railroads. Disease was the release of evil vapors from deep in the planet. The Pond was the center. The Pond was Hell, even though every few years, The Pond meant a different slough, swamp, sump, morass, shifting slowly from street to street. Or the same morass migrated to a different crossroads. Doctors warned residents not to stir the soil in the summer. To do so would be to release the devils from deep earthen wombs. Only 500 residents remained that summer. Those who fled not, they sickened and died.
Then did Colonel Lucius A. Hardee, whom Merritt describes as “a citizen of Jacksonville who was apparently without scientific training,” present his (in)famous “theory” to the Board of Health, which granted him permission to test his ideas, “and that same evening the city was concussed.” Southern newspapers had first printed “Hardee’s Theory of Concussion” in 1869. His method, which “concussion combined” with “sulfuric acid, gas and ozone,” would make the night air “humid and rarified” and thus kill “parasitic life.” He also promised the firing of cannons would kill insects that ate crops.Hardee gave several lines of proof, dating from evil spirits expelled by “concussion” from China 3,000 years ago to Mrs. H.K. Ingram’s study of “Negroes in Nashville” who, in 1873, killed insects and sicknesses by “exploding a little gunpowder on a shovel” in a room, destroying pestilence by “the rushing together of columns of air, into the vacuum thus formed, the rebound against the wall and the repetition of bruising blows. They were killed by the mechanical force of concussion.”
According to the Report of the Trustees of the Sanitary Improvement Bonds of the City of Jacksonville, Florida, about 7 p.m. on November 16, 1877, Colonel Hardee made “four explosions, each of 50 pounds of powder, which had been placed in the mud near ‘The Pond.’” Afterwards, the colonel exploded mounds of gunpowder on Jacksonville streets continuously until sunrise. “The smoke created was very dense, and the Colonel feels happy over the result of his experiment, and believes that there will be no more Yellow Fever cases here.”
No one yet understood the disease was transported by mosquito. By Thanksgiving Day, November 29th, a cold front enveloped the city, deepening overnight until by morning the citrus trees and late peas and beans froze. The following morning, newspapers reported “an infection of joy all over the city” now jubilant and festive, that “even the horses and wagons, omnibuses and mule carts dashed along the hardened ground with exhilarating impetus,” and how “the great glass windows of the fashionable shops fairly glistened this morning like mirrors, as we strided down Bay Street, at an early hour, with fingers tingling in the sharp air.”
Meanwhile, “Cocktails, that insidious appetizer, were in eager demand from the very break of day, and some of our citizens, conscientious ones, who regard a liquor shop to be worse than a Yellow Fever epidemic, were observed slyly emerging from Togni’s and Fahrenbach’s—at the two extremes of Bay Street—out of the way of the busy center.” So “Pipesmokers may now fill up with a general relish, and Tom McMurray may drive his double best the whole length of Bay Street on a dead run and he shan’t be molested with a fine.”
Better than all other celebrations, “the Duval County Medical Society are in a condition of endemic ecstatics. They are rejoiced that their conscientious scruples will trouble them no more.” Also rejoiced was Colonel Hardee. Indeed, 11 years later, the city’s worst Yellow Fever epidemic, that of 1888, which likewise ended with a freeze that killed the mosquitoes carrying the illness, featured yet another “concussion experiment.” T. Frederick Davis, in his 1925 History of Jacksonville, explains Hardee’s idea as “that the concussion caused by the firing of heavy cannon charges would kill the Yellow Fever microbes,” but laments, “The only result attained, however, was the breakage of windows in several churches and numerous other buildings.”
Meanwhile, Wesley B. Plott dug into the Jacksonville earth at the height of potential findings of treasure. In the 1970s and ’80s, Jacksonville had abandoned its city center to the paranoid demands of “white flight” to new suburbs, made easier by insurance redlining policies, new national interstate construction and federal government benefits to suburban development. In essence, Jacksonville fled its original spaces and left them to its darker poorer citizens, desperate “urban renewal” projects that decimated whole quadrants of town with “corporate welfare” to fund new highrise office space for suburban workers, and diggers for old bottles and other treasure.
In the ’70s, “The Pond” took on mythic proportions. Anyone who spent time in Jax in the summer knew how inhuman and primordial and brutal its climate. The earth was not made for people at all, the opening of the Book of Genesis be damned. Yet somehow people had lived here and thriven, as human beings do in every imaginable earth environment.
So “The Pond” became the place of primeval Jax, the source of “Adam and Eve” and their subsequent darker tribes in the Americas, even a sunken center you might dig through, as Southerners often claimed was possible, to China. Florida made its way through the center of the earth. China assumed the role of ultimate opposite. “The Pond” accrued at so many crossroads downtown before Downtown that it spread, it seemed, underneath and throughout and across the central landscape. All Jax had built itself off a sinking of earth and dropped its detritus and lives down thus.
So all the life lived in the world when lived in this city has a hard time making its way out. Artists have always said so. From the beginning of the blues in Jax. To the city’s rejection of the film industry that moved thereafter to Los Angeles. To all the writers who channeled universal greatness in a place that damned them forthwith and stillborn.
Yet digging down, you’ll resurrect representatives of all the glass seen through or reflective, out of which you’ll build a new swamp forest cathedral to refract all the stories of the rest of the world.