1916 Pensacola: A City in Transition

by Dr. Brian R. Rucker, Pensacola State College

In the late 1800s the northwest Florida city of Pensacola had grown to become one of the world’s largest exporters of longleaf yellow pine timber. With its deep- water port and its rail connections it was poised to grow even more. The Louisville and Nashville Railroad linked Pensacola to the rest of Florida by the 1880s, and by the turn of the century lumbering was being supplemented by the turpentine industry and the red snapper industry.

By the early 1900s Pensacola leaders were joining the Progressive Era bandwagon, trying to bring their city into the 20th century. However, Pensacola experienced several setbacks in these early years. The shortsighted lumbermen had depleted the vast stands of pine with no thought of reforestation. The great lumber boom was coming to a close with the “Passing of the Pine,” and the turpentine industry and the red snapper industry also began to wane. There was also the devastating hurricanes of 1906 and 1916 (two in 1916) which badly damaged Pensacola’s waterfront. A 1905 fire destroyed several blocks of downtown Pensacola. And then the First National Bank crashed in 1914.

Still, Pensacola promoters saw a promising future. City comptroller George Morgan wrote that Pensacola has at last awakened to the voice of progress They were no longer a “fishing village of old… but a city of the New South, a city of large business, of growing population, a city of public and private improvements and progress, a modern city up-to-date and moving.” The Pensacola Journal declared: “Pensacola’s Watchwords, Boost, Boom and Build!”

One of the events which excited Pensacolians was the construction of the Panama Canal, which they believed would bring more trade and commerce to the port city of Pensacola when completed. And a spate of new building did indeed take place. Pensacola City Hall, with its Spanish Renaissance style, was constructed in 1908. The ten-story tall American National Bank Building was constructed in 1910; and the luxurious 7-story San Carlos Hotel was also built in 1910. Adding to the mixture was the rebirth of the old Pensacola Navy Yard, which had been refurbished in 1914 as the Pensacola Naval Air Station, and this facility would have a huge impact on the areas’ economy for a century to come.

However, the advent of World War One brought some problems to the Gulf Coast city – the war caused foreign markets for lumber and turpentine to fall precipitously, which hurt a lot of local firms. But it also meant that many American tourists, used to traveling to Europe, were now discovering Florida as an alternate destination. The beginning of the Florida land boom can be found in the teens. And Pensacola boosters were quick to jump on this new bandwagon; they claimed Pensacola and its environs as the “American Riviera.” Others were attempting different ways of making money. With the passing of the pine, horticulture was attempted on the cut-over pinelands of West Florida, and thousands of acres of satsuma oranges were planted, along with pecan trees, blueberry orchards, and grape vineyards, all across the panhandle.

The impact of the automobile was one thing fueling the new images of tourism to the American Riviera. Henry Fords’ Model T revolutionized the industry by making cars affordable to average Americans. Still, cars were relatively uncommon in Pensacola in the teens; for a city with over 23,000 people, there were only about 500 automobiles. In fact, the Pensacola police department did not own a police car until 1914. The City’s first motorized fire truck would not arrive until 1915.

Better road connections to the rest of the country were essential for Pensacola to develop its full potential as a tourist destination. As historian Jim McGovern noted:

“Roads leading to Pensacola were deplorable, a result of the area’s numerous rivers and bays running north and south as well as its reliance on railroads. Motorists from Pensacola to Mobile were forced, for example, to travel nearly fifty miles north to Flomaton, [Alabama] before proceeding to Mobile, which was located less than sixty miles west of Pensacola.”

Some enterprising Pensacolians decided to blaze new paths — literally — to promote better transportation links to their city. Frank Mayes was the progressive-minded editor of the Pensacola Journal, and according to his biographer Barbara Thompson Yeaton, Mayes “talked about the probability of highways from Pensacola to New York, Chicago, New Orleans and Jacksonville. He became personally interested in scouting out a route from Pensacola to Chicago with winter tourists in mind. In the fall of 1911 Mayes and his close friend Dr. [Stephen R. Mallory] Kennedy, A.M. Avery, and F. C. Brent, Jr. set out in Kennedy’s Speedwell “50” for Chicago. Undertaken under the auspices of the Auto Blue Book, it put Pensacola on an official auto route book. They made the 1,149 miles [with a] running time [of] 74 hours, 34 minutes. This promotional trip was sponsored by the Pensacola Commercial Association which paid expenses in in an attempt to establish a link between the Great Lakes and the Gulf. It was the first mapped route between these two regions. This trip brought a great deal of publicity to Pensacola as a tourist attraction, not only in Chicago, but also on several stops along the way.”

McGovern describes how Pensacola promoters tried to modernize their connections to other areas: “Clay roads connected Pensacola with Alabama and Florida communities to the north. The [Pensacola] Journal called upon officials to bond a million dollars to finance two roads running north and south in Escambia County, and recommended the construction of bridges to span adjacent waterways, the Perdido and Escambia Rivers. Businessmen in Pensacola viewed the rich farming area of Baldwin County, Alabama, to the west of Pensacola, as part of the city’s future trade orbit once bridges replaced ferries which then carried all traffic across the Perdido. Similarly, advocates of trade expansion called for joint action with Santa Rosa County to build bridges across the Escambia River to the east of Pensacola because it proved impossible for Pensacolians to travel east by road into Florida without journeying inconveniently through Alabama to the north. All groups supporting the theory of economic growth through road building endorsed plans for an “Old Spanish Trail” to link Mobile with Marianna, Florida through Pensacola.”

The 1916 Old Spanish trail meeting in Pensacola was the first step to seeing these connections, though they would be some years in coming: the Brick Highway east of Milton, Florida (FL Number One) was opened to fanfare in 1921; Gulf Beach Highway was built in the 1920s; Highway 29 linked Pensacola northward to Flomaton, Alabama in 1926; the Escambia River Bridge and delta fill (now Highway 90) was completed in 1926; Scenic Highway along the Escambia Bay bluffs was built between 1927-1929; the Lillian Bridge between Florida and Baldwin County, Alabama was completed in 1931; and finally the Pensacola Bay Bridge and Santa Rosa Island Bridge were completed in 1931, allowing for the first time Pensacola citizens to travel by car to the white sand beaches of Pensacola Beach. Pensacola was finally entering the 20th century.