Words and images by Mark Judson
Over 450 years of history has left its mark on a Jacksonville fishing village that sits on a busy, watery corner where the St. Johns River meets the ocean.
Mayport Village, despite empty lots and run-down homes, has stood the test of time. Popular restaurants, endless fishing holes and one Florida’s few remaining passenger ferries have helped the area maintain the feel of a time long gone. With neighboring Atlantic Beach constructing million-dollar beach homes and hip storefronts, Mayport stands as a remembrance of old Florida.
The town’s history began centuries ago when Frenchman Jean Ribault first landed near the site of the modern-day village on May 1, 1562, with a group of Huguenots — French Protestants. The explorers made contact with the Timucua tribe and claimed the land for France.
Ribault named the river he saw emptying into the sea the Rivere de Mai, or May River, to commemorate his May 1 landing. This river, after rule of the area changed hands several times during the colonial area, became known as the St. Johns River.
Like the river, the town had many names over the years until 1849 when a sawmill was opened and named Mayport Mills, after the May River. The town soon adopted this name.
The area remained a fishing and manufacturing town until the late 19th century when several Florida railways began service to Mayport — as it was now being called. This attracted tourism to the area until a fire destroyed most of the town in 1917.
In 1939, construction began on the Mayport Naval Base, which would turn the area into a military hub. After the construction, most of Mayport Village’s legacy has been built around the strong naval presence in the area. The base is the Navy’s third largest in the U.S.
The naval base took control of more and more land over the decades. Projects were abandoned leaving empty private lots, and many of its homes have fallen into disrepair.
The St. Johns River Ferry, which takes vehicles and pedestrians across the river, was constructed in 1950. Today, the ferry links Mayport Village with Fort George Island.
The ferry is key to visitors, locals and sailors from the naval base. According to Bill Austin, the public affairs officer of the base, many sailors use the ferry on a daily basis as a part of their commute.
Although daily operations are the norm, a routine service and inspection by the U.S. Coast Guard closed the ferry’s operations for nearly two months at the beginning of the year.
“The ferry’s vital to people here. It’s the only direct route connecting the islands,” said Troy Atman, a clerk at the nearby convenience store.
“Plus, it’s a great experience for people, especially kids,” Atman continued. “There’s not many places left that have a ferry as a transportation option. It’s a different experience.”
Despite these larger projects, the fishing culture and history of Mayport Village have remained ingrained in its community and are still visible today.
“I’ve been coming here since I was a boy. Dad used to bring me back then,” said Pete Hoffman of Atlantic Beach, who was waiting for the tide to come in to launch his small boat.
“Hoping to catch dinner out there — only thing the wife will let me cook,” he said with a laugh.
Fishermen and women like Hoffman can be found in every corner of the town. Drivable river beaches, boat ramps, piers and marshy trails create an angler’s haven.
However, you don’t have to be casting a line to catch fish in Mayport Village.
The area attracts attention for the seafood restaurants Safe Harbor and Singleton’s.
Safe Harbor features a seafood market, in addition to its restaurant, and prides itself on fresh quality.
Singleton’s Seafood Shack is just that, a shack. Filled with model boats and news clippings, the restaurant allows diners to enjoy nautical history as much as they will the food in the laid-back atmosphere.
Beyond seafood and fishing culture, Mayport Village features a home known for its haunted past, the King House.
The original home was built on a Spanish graveyard, though its date is unknown. It was later burned down and rebuilt in 1881, still standing to this day at 4627 Ocean St.
John King, the occupant of the home for most of the 20th century told stories to local children and visitors of the ghosts that called the house their home. Currently, the home holds a historical designation from the city and is privately owned by King House, LLC.
Mayport Village offers its visitors a glimpse of a lost time with historic buildings, people living off the sea and over 400 years of heritage. However, many of the historical traces of early village life have been lost.
But many visitors find that they keep coming back.
“We used to come here every weekend before the kids were born,” said Marie Kressin, as she waited for a table outside Safe Harbor with her family. “Now they’re a bit older and here we are each week again.”