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Historic Fernandina: Exploring the Maritime Heritage near the Marina

Fernandina Beach is more than just a beautiful island getaway. Located on the northern tip of Amelia Island, this scenic little beach town holds a lot of history, especially at its waterfront. Take a glimpse into what makes Fernandina Beach a great vacation spot and a fun historic destination too!

A Brief Look into the Maritime History of Fernandina Beach

Before the town now known as Fernandina was established, the land on Amelia Island, Florida, where the city now stands was first settled by Native Americans of the Timucua culture. The first European settlers were the French, who arrived in 1562, then the Spanish, then the British, before Amelia Island was ceded back to Spain as a result of the 1783 Treaty of Paris.

Since early times, the waterways around Fernandina and Amelia Island saw use as important sources of freshwater, fishing, hunting, and as accessible trade routes with other Native American tribes. Throughout its history, the Fernandina waterfront at the northwest tip of Amelia Island is well-known as the deepest natural channel on the Eastern seaboard with easy access to the Atlantic Ocean. This established the Fernandina waterfront as a particularly vital seaport and trade route since the 16th century.

Fernandina became a free port in 1807, which attracted many smugglers, slave traders, and pirates, many of whom briefly seized the island for themselves,  among them notorious Scottish conman and self-styled adventurer Sir Gregor MacGregor, and then the pirate Luis Aury who claimed the island for Mexico in 1817. 

The United States eventually held Amelia Island “in trust” for Spain before officially taking possession of the island in 1821, the same year Florida became a U.S. territory, and later a U.S. state in 1845. Construction of Fort Clinch began shortly in 1847 at the northern tip of the island. Fernandina’s seaport and waterways soon became a strategic location for trade and travel as the new state developed and more American settlements were established. Around this time, the Amelia Island Lighthouse was moved from Cumberland Island and reconstructed at the northern end of Amelia Island to mark the entrance to St. Mary’s River and the Fernandina harbor.

During the Civil War, Fort Clinch was taken by Confederate troops in 1861 and the Fernandina waterway became instrumental in blockade-running until it was abandoned by the Confederate troops and taken by Union forces in 1862. After the war, Fernandina saw a revival as local industries and businesses reopened and grew the local economy.

Fernandina saw a golden age from 1869 to 1915 thanks to the booming shipping industry, which soon gave rise to the many businesses and buildings in the city’s historic district. 

Fernandina’s commercial piers continue to be some of the busiest ports on the Eastern Shore to this day, along with a thriving shrimping, pulp and paper mill, and tourist industry.

In 1951, the city of Fernandina was consolidated with the nearby town of Fernandina Beach, eventually becoming what it is today. Plus, with its strategic location at the tip of Amelia Island, Fernandina Beach also serves as the northern entry point to the Intracoastal Waterway, making it a popular starting and stopping point for recreational boaters.

Historic Sites Near Fernandina Beach

Eager to learn more about Fernandina Beach’s rich history? These historic sites and buildings are sure to give you more than just a glimpse into the unique history of this small, idyllic island. 

Fort Clinch State Park

Fort Clinch State Park encompasses the historic Fort Clinch and 1,100 acres near the northern point of Amelia Island containing plains, sand dunes, maritime hammocks, and estuarine tidal marshes. 

Construction of Fort Clinch was first begun in 1847, although it wouldn’t be finished till years later. After Union forces were withdrawn from Florida during the Civil War, Confederate troops would occupy the fort in 1861 before they would be withdrawn as well in 1862 because their forces were needed elsewhere. Union forces would then regain control of the fort, continue its construction, and use it as a base of operations in the area until the end of the war. Although no battles were ever fought in or around the fort, it continues to stand as an important landmark in Amelia Island’s history.

Aside from the 19th-century fort itself, Fort Clinch State Park is also a great place for many recreational activities, such as hiking, camping, picnicking, fishing, swimming, bicycling, beachcombing, and wildlife viewing. 

Additionally, on the first weekend of each month, military enactments of the typical life of a soldier in 1864 Fort Clinch, performed by costumed interpreters, include close-up enactments of military drills and all the menial chores that fill a soldier’s daily life, such as laundry, kitchen duties, and work in the barracks or with the quartermaster. 

Historic District

Downtown Fernandina Beach is the island’s designated Historic District. Located right on the site of what is now known as Old Town Fernandina, the Historic District contains more than 50 blocks of over 400 old buildings all registered on the National Register of Historic Places. 

Step back in time and marvel at the beautifully preserved Victorian architecture, from houses to vintage storefronts. This includes Florida’s oldest surviving hotel, the Florida House Inn, which remains standing right in the heart of Fernandina Beach’s Historic District and is still open for guests, as well as the Lesesne House, which was first built in 1860 as home to John Lesesne, a doctor during the Civil War, and which still stands as the oldest remaining post-and-beam home on Amelia Island. 

The Historic District is also an excellent place to dine and shop, with many great restaurants and pubs that have been around since the town’s founding, such as the Palace Saloon, Florida’s oldest continually operating bar or pub. Other than that, plenty of quirky antique shops and boutiques offer nothing short of a unique shopping experience. Plus, the entire district is walkable, so you can easily spend a day just walking around and taking in the sights and sounds.

Amelia Island Lighthouse

Fernandina Beach is home to Florida’s oldest lighthouse, the Amelia Island Lighthouse. The lighthouse is located at the top of a 60-foot bluff overlooking the marsh and Egans Creek. It is the only surviving lighthouse in Florida from the Territorial Period, being built from 1838 to 1839, and has the unique distinction of being the westernmost lighthouse on the United States east coast. 

Because it is currently located in a residential area, the lighthouse grounds are only available for tours on two days every month and the grounds are only open to the public for viewing on Saturdays from 11 AM to 2 PM. If you want to catch a guided tour of the lighthouse and the grounds, be sure to book in advance.

Amelia Island Museum of History

For a deeper and closer look at the history of Fernandina Beach and Amelia Island, a visit to the Amelia Island Museum of History may just be in order. Housed in the former Nassau County Jail, the museum is the first spoken history museum in Florida and continues to preserve the sacred history of Amelia Island with guided tours around town and in the museum itself. These include pub crawls, ghost tours, and walking tours of Fernandina Beach’s historical districts.

See history from the earliest settlers all the way to the present day at the Amelia Island Museum of History, open on Mondays and Saturdays from 10 AM to 4 PM, and on Sundays from 1 to 4 PM. 

Fernandina Beach is home to more than just an ideal vacation getaway — it’s a town that has a long and significant maritime history that’s sure to capture the interest and minds of anyone who visits. Book a slip with us now at Fernandina Harbor Marina to experience everything that makes this idyllic beach town well worth a visit!

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