by Tim Gilmore, 5/19/2023
You might miss the exact spot where they dynamited the train by half a mile or more if you start out from where Big Fishweir Creek trudges out from the St. Johns River.
Here, Big Fishweir opens its wide silt-sifting mouth from the St. Johns just north of the Ortega River, and forks its tongue immediately west and north. Where the northern branch narrows between mansions on Greenwood and St. Johns Avenues, suddenly Big Fishweir is Little Fishweir, purling through cypress knees.
I make my way up Fishweir Creek toward the railroad crossing where explosions blew out the windows in nearby houses more than a century ago. I have to split myself in two to do it. After Big Fishweir and Little Fishweir diverge, they amble along in rungs, part of Avondale and Florida State College and Highway-17 between them, before Big Fishweir branches again and Fishweir’s runnels and rills turn back to each other in a murky liquid necklace.
It was Friday, August 25, 1922 when the first explosion occurred just after a passenger train headed south over the trestle for Tampa. Peace talks collapsed the next day as the ninth week of the railway shopmen’s strike began. The Jacksonville dynamiting was the fifth along the Atlantic Coast Line railway in two days. New walkouts started in Missouri. Unlike the wreck in Whistler, Alabama, in which several passengers were injured when a track switch intentionally left halfway open derailed a train, the explosion at Fishweir Creek did little damage. Two other trains took the bridge directly afterward.
It was under the brick wall off where St. Johns Avenue cuts a serpentine the alligator floated that morning, where Big Fishweir cuts a ravine into Little Fishweir. The misplaced plantation mansions on Montgomery Place have barely stood a century, but the alligators hunted here eight million years ago and haven’t evolved since. Compared to the alligators, these houses aren’t conservative at all.
Stagnant milky green-scummed Little Fishweir sloughs through slow-growing bald cypress heights. Through the bamboo screens, reflections of footbridges cast up from the water. It’s right up here by Park Street that my daughter filmed otters once.
Then on September 5th, the Associated Press night wire reported “a second attempt within 10 days to dynamite the Atlantic Coast Line’s bridge over Fishweir Creek on the southern outskirts of the city.” The explosion broke windows in nearby houses but barely deterred The Palmetto Limited, traveling New York to Tampa. The engineer stopped the train, surveyed the damage, then proceeded across the bridge.
I still walk both creeks at once, selved in two, parallel timelines, wading back through time past tall condos and the Southern Rock cover bands on the deck at Harpoon Louie’s on Big Fishweir, through Boone Park and past the deli and swimming pools in back yards and the Azalea Drive footbridge on Little Fishweir, around the back parking lot of Kent Campus. It was here, in October 1970, that Vivian Payne threw her pistol into the water. The Florida Times-Union reported, “Student Shot in Florida Junior College Class,” before anyone but Vivian knew the pistol had fired accidentally from inside her bra.
How many times, my love, have we watched turtles in these waters, or spied the sleek and alchemical defiance of gravity of a garter snake or a ribbon snake? How many hands have tossed guns, thrown bottles, forsaken even a ring or earrings in the snaking ribbons of these creeks and channels? Now I’m up against the screaming murmur of the highway, the railroad just behind it, closer to the days of dynamite.
Between explosions, a group of citizens organized a meeting with Mayor John Martin on August 30th to institute the Duval Law and Order League, arguing that if they didn’t get the city’s “crime wave” under control, the federal government might send a “contingency of troops” to take over, just as they did after the Civil War. Across Florida, the Law and Order League, the Ku Klux Klan and the Florida Anti-Saloon League overlapped.
Chairman Augustus Henry King declared the Fishweir Creek dynamiting no act of striking railway laborers, but the work of moonshiners and bootleggers out to flout Prohibition laws and intimidate authorities.
“The charge was placed on a girder considerably removed from the bridge,” King argued, “and it must have been known to the perpetrators that the bridge would not sustain much damage. Such acts,” he said, “are merely for intimidation.” Telfair Stockton, developer of subdivisions Avondale and San Marco, seconded King’s arguments and called “those who flout” Prohibition “anarchists.”
I’m down now in the shadow of the highway and the elevated train tracks where Big Fishweir branches again. I duck into the woods and follow an overgrown path strewn with old clothes and blankets and toys and liquor bottles and pass through sunlight dappled through loblolly bays and lianas and oaks and briers, and the concrete arches of the railroad bridge over Fishweir Creek appear in the distance.
The Law and Order League was wrong. Back on July 1st, 1,000 railroad shopmen walked out on strike in Jacksonville as hundreds of thousands of others did nationally. President Warren G. Harding and Attorney General Harry Daugherty differed as to whether the federal government should be “honest brokers” in the strike or come down with swift and violent authority, set some heads on stakes as examples.
In mid-September when an attempt to dynamite the railroad west of town over Six Mile Creek was foiled “under gunfire from county deputies,” newswires reported the confessions of three railroad strikers in the county jail had led to arrest warrants for four other strikers, including J.P. Partee – “mastermind of a series of dastardly plots to wreck railroad bridges in Duval County” – for “unlawful use of dynamite and assault to murder.”
By the time the Great Railroad Strike of 1922 ended in early September, 400,000 workers from seven railroad labor organizations across the country had struck for two months, protesting poor working conditions and a series of cuts in wages. After Attorney General Harry Daugherty, who hated the labor movement vehemently, issued what came to be known as the Daugherty Injunction, banning striking, assembling, picketing and other constitutionally guaranteed freedoms of assembly and speech, so-called “sympathy strikes” continued nationally. By September 18th, most Jacksonville shopmen were back at work. Railroad bosses and shopmen hated each other for a generation.Now in the light that shines through tunnels beneath the concrete bridge that replaced old trestles dynamite could not destroy, the waters stagnate in old titles and borders and former city limits and boating parties and elderberry trees and palmettos and mosquito ferns and rushes and sedges.
It was only in 1804 that John McQueen received title to land he’d surveyed in 1792 reaching almost to Big Fishweir and sold it to John McIntosh, only in 1919 that Big Fishweir, from Arden Street to Herschel, formed a stretch of the southern city limits.
That same year, Leah and Lenah Cox, sisters, built a house along Fishweir Creek by Riverside Avenue. Leah took iconic photographs of the city as it turned the 20th century. Lenah moved mounds of sand from the front of the house to the back to stabilize the ground from the occasionally flooding creek. One of Leah Mary Cox’s photographs shows a boating party she launched on the creek. Nine men and women look up from beneath four large umbrellas, women in frills, everyone’s arms sleeved to the wrists.
Here, the Mocama Indians harvested shellfish and built council rooms and alliances 4,500 years ago. Here, barred owls hunted rats and frogs and smaller birds 11,000 years ago. Here, the alligator, its cold brain prehistoric, its armored body both land and water, has slumbered in the muck for millions of years.
And now it seems to me that it’s no necklace Little Fishweir and the branchings of Big Fishweir Creek carve through the urban landscape, but a loop we’ve been walking far longer than memory, an ouroboros, that ancient symbol of the serpent swallowing its tail that represents the infinite, the marriage of oppositions, eternal return, and the continual becoming each other of all things.