by Max Marbut
There are several distinctive features that make Downtown stand out in Duval County’s landscape. You can’t miss the tall buildings, the river or the five bridges that span the St. Johns River Downtown.
Each bridge has an officially dedicated formal name that’s a link with local and state history, so who were those people?
Even on road signs and maps, the John T. Alsop Jr. Bridge is most often called the “Main Street Bridge,” and people commonly refer it as “The Blue Bridge.”
Alsop arrived in Florida as a member of former President Teddy Roosevelt’s “Rough Riders.” In 1923, Alsop was elected mayor of Jacksonville and served for 14 consecutive years, plus an additional term from 1941-45.
Actually, there is some justification for calling the 1,900-foot-bridge with its 365-foot continuous truss vertical lift span the same name as the roadway that passes over it.
It was originally dedicated as the “Main Street Bridge” the day it opened to traffic in 1941 and remained so until it was rededicated to honor Alsop in 1957.
The first bridge that linked one side of the river to the other is the St. Elmo W. Acosta Bridge. It opened in 1921 and was named after the former City Council member in recognition of his advocacy of the $950,000 bond issue that financed construction of the original span, also a drawbridge.
He was elected to City Council in 1910, later served in the Florida House of Representatives for two years and concluded his political career as a City commissioner from 1919-35.
Painted a bright color, the bridge soon became known as the “Yellow Monster” due to its tendency to jam in the raised position.
“I started agitation for the St. Johns Bridge on Sept. 4, 1904, and I passed House Bill No. 1 in the Legislature in 1913 granting authority for the building of that bridge. The bridge was dedicated and opened for traffic July 1, 1921. I worked 17 years for that bridge and spent about $6,000 of my own money to get it established,” wrote Acosta years later as part of the Federal Writers’ Project, “American Life Histories.”
The Acosta was also a toll bridge until 1940 and generated more than $4 million in revenue for the City. When bridge tolls were reinstated in the late 1950s, the Acosta was notable because it was the only bridge in and out of Downtown that was without toll booths, earning it the nickname, “The Free Bridge.”
The original draw span was replaced by the existing concrete bridge in 1994.
Just south of the Acosta is the Fuller Warren Bridge, which opened in 1954 and was also originally a drawbridge. The old span was replaced, but the bridge has always carried the name of the 30th governor of Florida.
Warren was born in Blountstown and attended the University of Florida. While in college, he was elected to the Florida House of Representatives in 1927 at the age of 21.
After graduation, Warren moved to Jacksonville, where he practiced law and served on the City Council from 1931-37.
He was elected governor and served a four-year term that began in 1949.
Warren is credited with setting the stage for Florida’s turnpike system, quality control programs in the citrus industry and laws that prohibit cattle from wandering uncontrolled.
The bridge that connects Downtown and Arlington is named after John E. Mathews, a state legislator from 1956-70 and chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court in 1955.
Mathews was born in Jacksonville and attended public schools, including Robert E. Lee High School, where he was valedictorian of the 1938 graduating class.
The Hart Bridge was named after Isaiah David Hart, one of the founders of Jacksonville. He moved to what was then called “Cowford” with his family at age 15 in 1812 from a plantation in southeast Georgia.
In 1822, Hart surveyed the first streets that are now Downtown’s thoroughfares. He also is known for donating to the people of Jacksonville the land which later became Hemming Plaza. Isaiah’s son, Ossian, legally transferred the property to the City for $10 after the Civil War.
The five bridges are among the seven that cross the St. Johns River in Duval County.
To learn more about Downtown’s history, visit the Jacksonville Historical Society on A. Philip Randolph Boulevard near the Arena, or visit www.jaxhistory.com.