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During the early 1900s, ferryboats used to leave the Southbank at a landing in the vicinity of today's Hilton Hotel. This photo dates from 1917 or 1918 -- and the clock was already ticking against the ferryboats. In only about three more years, Jacksonville's first automobile bridge opened, and in about 20 more years, all of the downtown ferries stopped running.
Here's a fantastic-looking float in the form of a ferryboat. The picture comes from a Jacksonville parade from the late 1920s or early 1930s. The scene is looking up Laura Street from its intersection with Church Street. The Jacksonville Journal headquarters was located behind the St. James Building (now city hall). If you stand today where the photographer took this photo, you will be looking into the First Baptist Church complex of buildings.

Ferry Boats

THE FERRIES’ FATE — As the picture to the left shows, Jacksonville residents honored the role of ferry boats in their city’s history. When the photo was snapped, ironically, ferries were already beginning to lose their jobs to bridges.

In Jacksonville, the first automobile bridge across the St. Johns River opened in 1921. It was eventually named the Acosta Bridge, and it stood at the location of the present-day span by that name. The second St. Johns bridge was the Main Street Bridge, which started its service in 1941.

Prior to the competition from bridges, ferry boats carried a heavy load, lugging people & cargo across the river. The boats chugged between between the downtown area and South Jacksonville. During the early 1900s, the ride took about 7 1/2 minutes, which some school kids used to finish their homework. Over the years, the riders knew the names of the local boats by heart. These vessels included Dixieland, Ravenswood, Mechanic (aka “the Elephant”), Armsmear (aka “the Shoofly”), and Commodore Barney.

BURIAL ON THE SOUTHBANK — A number of the boats ended up buried in South Jacksonville. A favorite dumping ground for the old vessels was in the vicinity of today’s Southbank Riverwalk. In 1905, the waterfront was bulkheaded and filled with earth & debris. Rising on the spot was Dixieland Park, which featured ostriches, alligators, & carnival rides. The remnants of the ferries served as part of its foundation. Standing in the vicinity of this location now is the Hilton Hotel.

The last ferry boat in downtown Jacksonville ended its service on a dark & foggy night. At a quarter to midnight, February 15, 1938, the gates closed for good at the Main Street ferry terminal. This structure was located at the site of today’s The Landing, the well-known marketplace that draws both tourists & locals. The last vessel? The Duncan U. Fletcher, named after a Jacksonville mayor & US senator.

~written by Glenn Emery

Copyright © 2019 by Jacksonville Historical Society