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Although the French Huguenots led by Capt. Jean Ribault in 1562 laid claim to the First Coast area, it was the Spanish who first settled the area around Jacksonville Beach, establishing missions from Mayport to St. Augustine. The Spanish ceded East Florida to the English by treaty in 1763 only to regain control twenty years later. In 1821 the Spanish ceded Florida to the United States of America.
The area was settled by river pilots and fishermen as early as 1831 when Mayport, then known as Hazard, was established as a port. The Mayport lighthouse was erected in 1859 and still stands at the Naval Station Mayport. By 1885 Mayport had 600 inhabitants, a post office and a school. The town was also visited daily by steamships which brought beach-goers from Jacksonville down the St. Johns River.
Meanwhile, a group of enterprising Jacksonville businessmen conceived the idea of a railway to the beaches east of Jacksonville. It was their plan to develop a summer resort to attract tourists to the Jacksonville area.
The Jacksonville and Atlantic Railway Company was chartered in 1883 to build sixteen and a half miles of narrow gauge railway from South Jacksonville to the Ruby Beach settlement. The company acquired many acres of choice oceanfront property which was divided into lots. By November 12, 1884, Ruby was ready for the first buyers of the subdivided lots. About fifty prospective buyers arrived by excursion boats. In all, thirty-four lots were sold that day for a grand total of $7,514.
In 1884 William E. Scull, surveyor for the railroad, and his wife Eleanor, moved to the area now known as Jacksonville Beach. There were already several tent houses in the vicinity. The Sculls lived in one tent and ran the first general store from another. Later the Sculls applied for a post office under the name of Ruby, a name chosen in honor of their oldest daughter, and ran the post office from their store. Mail was delivered by boat once a week from Jacksonville.
In 1886, Ruby was renamed Pablo Beach after the San Pablo River to the west that divides the island from the mainland. Upon completion of the railway to Pablo Beach in mid 1886, the first resort hotel was built and opened to the public.
The splendid multistory wooden structure, the Murray Hall hotel, had 192 rooms and could accommodate 350 guests. The hotel advertised an elevator, electric bells, hot, cold and sulfur baths, bar, bowling and billiards. It also claimed it was located on "The Finest Beach in the World!" with "Surf Bathing the Year Round!"
The construction cost was $150,000. Unfortunately a fire in the boiler room around midnight on August 7, 1890 destroyed the hotel, the railway depot and surrounding buildings. However, the guests and their belongings were saved. The Murray Hall was followed by other resort hotels: the Adams House, the Perkins House, the Continental, the Ocean View and the Palmetto Lodge. All were later destroyed by fire.
The railway company soon met with financial difficulties and was taken over by the millionaire Henry M. Flagler as part of the Florida East Railway System.
Late in 1900 the railway was changed to standard gauge and extended to Mayport. Further transportation was added in 1910 when a winding oyster shell road was constructed near the present Atlantic Boulevard, dividing Neptune Beach and Atlantic Beach.
Pablo Beach was incorporated on May 22, 1907. In 1925 the name was changed to Jacksonville Beach.
The boardwalk era began in 1915 and 1916 when businessman Martin Williams, Sr. established dance pavilions, shooting galleries, boxing, wrestling, restaurants and other forms of entertainment on the new boardwalk.
Auto racing on the hard-packed sand of the beaches made the area popular for this spectator sport. The boardwalk's popularity declined in the late 1950's with the state's crackdown on gambling and games of chance. Driving on the beach was prohibited in 1979.
On September 4, 1922, Pablo Beach came into the international limelight when First Lieutenant James H. Doolittle, after a previous attempt, broke the transcontinental speed record. With only one stop at Kelly Field in Texas, he flew from Pablo Beach to San Diego in less than 24 hours. For this feat he was awarded his first Distinguished Flying Cross.
James returned on September 4, 1980, to unveil a marker in Jacksonville Beach's Pablo Historical Park. James had a distinguished career, leaving service as a Lt. General.