Before Surfer The Bar and Hoptinger. Before Sneakers and even Freebird. Yes, even before the opening of Adventure Landing’s historically important Shipwreck Island, Jacksonville Beach was a bustling district where tourists and locals gambled, rode roller coasters, and raced cars on the beach.
On Friday, June 8, The Beaches Museum opened a new historical exhibit, “Jacksonville Beach or Bust!: A Look Back at the Boardwalk,” for which Archives and Collections Manager, Sarah Jackson has been carefully choosing historical photos and artifacts for the exhibit, showing both the rise and fall of the Jax Beach Boardwalk.
“Since I’ve been here [Beaches Museum], we always have been tossing the idea around because it’s such a popular subject. Everyone remembers it. It was a really fun era of the beaches history,” Jackson says.
It started in the early 1900’s when business owner, Martin Williams Sr. opened a consortium of entertainment options along the boardwalk. From gambling and boxing, to dance pavilions, to even shooting galleries, the Jacksonville Beach Boardwalk was the place to be for top notch entertainment, nicknaming the area “Little Coney Island.”
Though as great as the boardwalk was for some residents, segregation was still an issue in the south. A law passed in 1924 prohibited blacks and whites to bathe together in the ocean in Jacksonville Beach, or what was then known as Pablo Beach.
“On certain days, the black members of the population could use the dance hall as well,” Jackson explains.
African Americans were only permitted to use the dance pavilion on certain nights of the week. For this and many other reasons they found refuge at the north end of the region at Manhattan Beach (now known as Hannah Park).
Back at the boardwalk, bath houses popped where swimsuits were available to rent (yes, rent) and auto racing was treated as a preferred ocean adjacent pastime and spectator sport. Gambling was a common form of entertainment at the time and ocean-side theme parks were constructed for even more thrills along the sea.
“We used to have a big roller coaster out here, which a lot of people don’t really know if they haven’t been a part of the community that long,” Jackson says.
As great as everything seemed to be going for the boardwalk, all good things come to an end. After the state outlawed gambling in the late 1950’s, attendance and popularity of the boardwalk declined.
In 1964 Hurricane Dora swept through the region around midnight on September 10th and brought enormous storm surges and damage to the city. At the time, there were no wooden walkovers or dunes to protect Jacksonville Beach, where more than 40 homes were destroyed or washed away.
According to an article on Jacksonville.com, The American Red Cross Life Saving Corps building was severely damaged after the tidal surge blew the back wall of the building and the Jax Beach ferris wheel was entirely bent in half.
The boardwalk, which was newly reconstructed at the time, was destroyed.
The Florida National Guard sent soldiers to the beaches after surveying the damage, according to the same article, for fear of looting.
Interestingly enough, the very next day, The Beatles flew to Jacksonville to perform. Although the Civil Rights Act had been passed just a few months prior, the city initially planned to have a segregated show. In response, The Beatles refused to perform unless everyone was welcome, both black and white.
“We never play to segregated audiences and we aren’t going to start now. I’d sooner lose out appearance money,” John Lennon said at the time.
Though the boardwalk was never rebuilt, new attractions replaced the old ones and, of course, people continue to flock to Jacksonville Beach for sunny days and weekends, to this day. 2018 has been Jacksonville’s top year in regards to growth and tourism, despite the annual threat of hurricanes, and recent scares like hurricanes Matthew and Irma.
“Jacksonville Beach or Bust: A Look Back at the Boardwalk” opened at the Beaches Museum on June 8th and will be on exhibit until October 7th of this year.
Local historian, Scott Grant will be hosting a Boardwalk Talk in correlation with this exhibit on June 21st at 6 p.m. in the chapel at the Beaches Museum.
*Featured image courtesy of Beaches Museum & History Park