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How lush and verdant Arlington looks across the St. Johns River. Here's an airbrushed postcard of the "New Arlington Bridge." Of course, this is the Mathews Bridge, running between Arlington and East Jacksonville, in the foreground. The span opened in 1953. What's the titanic-sized, yellow & purplish building to the left of the bridge? Jax used to be a mini-Detroit: That's the Ford Motor Company Assembly Plant, dating from 1924. The car factory building sits on an 800 foot long wharf supported by 8,000 piles. In its salad days, the plant churned out over 200 cars per day and employed 800 people. Ford occupied this site until the late Sixties, but the old complex now sits idle, waiting for something to do.
Aerial view looking over intersection of Atlantic Boulevard with Arlington Expressway. Source of photo: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.
A postcard view of the Mathews Bridge, probably from the 1960s.
A home beside the Arlington River, circa 1895. Source of photo: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.

Arlington

GREEN ACRES — Until about sixty years ago, the neighborhood of Arlington looked a lot more country than city. Forests covered much of the area with giant oaks, magnolias, bays, pines, and palms. There was also a dense, semi-tropical growth as well.

Cows grazed along the roads, which carried only a sprinkling of traffic. Today’s busy, multilane University Boulevard was called Chaseville Road, a narrow, jolting, crooked line of pavement. Many Arlington homes featured gardens, and some also contained chicken pens in their back yards. Few residents resided in the section. Prior to the 1950s, for example, the Fort Caroline area boasted a few backwoods homesteads and a slew of moonshine stills, according to the Florida Times-Union of January 4, 1963.

It seemed as if everyone in Arlington knew each other. The area offered only two schools: one facility for whites (grades one through eight), and one for African Americans. Entertainment often consisted of club dinners, school plays, and church fish fries. Downtown Jacksonville offered shopping & entertainment, but these amenities did not lie a few minutes away for Arlingtonians. A ferry service used to cruise from downtown Jax to Arlington, but the vessel ceased operations during the 1930s. Entertainment-wise, some relief came in 1935, when the San Marco Theater showed its first film. Located about eight miles from the village of Arlington, the movie house sat within a more reasonable motoring distance.

PEOPLING — After World War II ended in 1945, two things set the stage for Arlington’s modern growth: the baby boom and the building boom. Many returning servicemen started families, and developers built new dwellings to house them. At the same time, white Americans migrated in mass to the suburbs.

Initially, Arlington would flourish as a bedroom community for downtown Jax. But for this to happen, however, Arlingtonians would need a fast way to go back & forth downtown. The solution came in 1953, when the Mathews Bridge opened. Arlington became fastest growing community in Duval County for the next 20 years. Strip malls popped up, churches organized, and families settled into new concrete blockhouses with carports, TVs in rec rooms, & charcoal grills on back patios. Kids attended the new Terry Parker High School (the alma mater of UNF President & former Jax mayor John Delaney). Nowadays, almost 80,000 vehicles cross the Mathews Bridge each workday.

The namesake of the key span was John E. Mathews, who served as a member of the Florida House of Representatives and later as a chief justice of the State Supreme Court. For 20 years, the zealous, red-headed lawyer led a spirited campaign for an Arlington bridge, although critics accused him of trying to build “a bridge to nowhere.” Fortunately, the Jax leader was able to witness the fruit of his labor. Mathews passed away in 1955, two years after the span’s opening. His son was the popular John E. (Jack) Mathews, Jr., who followed in his father’s footsteps and represented Jax in the Florida Legislature.

In addition to the Mathews Bridge, other roadway construction contributed to the growth of Arlington, which is racially mixed in many parts. During the Sixties, Beach Boulevard and the Arlington Expressway were built, and improvements were made to Atlantic Boulevard. The new roads had a lot to do with the development of the Regency Square Mall, which opened in 1967. According to an early Regency postcard, it ranked as “the largest air-conditioned shopping mall in the Southeast, featuring over 50 stores.”

~written by Glenn Emery

 

 

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