From Dell’s Bluff to A Great American Neighborhood
Confederate veteran Miles Price was doubled over in laughter. He had just sold a huge chunk of his property to a Yankee for nearly twice what he paid for it. To make the deal even sweeter, this scruffy piece of land was so far away from the city, it could never amount to much.
Two years earlier, in 1866, he had purchased 800 acres of “Dell’s Bluff,” a Spanish land grant which had been ceded to Phillip Dell by the Spanish governor in 1801. In more recent years it had been owned by James Winter who had made it into a thriving plantation until his death in 1857. Miles Price kept the choicest 300 acres of the Winter Plantation for himself and divided it up into lots to sell as desirable riverfront homesites in a new subdivision he named “Brooklyn.” He was happy to unload the uninhabitable southern 500 acres of Dell’s Bluff to this rapscallion carpetbagger for $10,000 in gold.
The Yankee chump that he had surely hoodwinked was Edward Cheney, who was one of the many opportunistic Northerners who had come to Jacksonville after the Civil War. Soon after his arrival, Cheney was elected chairman of the Florida Republican Party and was a leader of the Jacksonville Union-Republican Club, one of the most powerful political organizations in the city. In 1867, Cheney became editor, publisher and owner of the Florida Union. This weekly newspaper was the mouthpiece for Republicanism in the state and was the progenitor of the Florida Times-Union.
Little did Price know that Cheney had purchased the land on behalf of John Murray Forbes of Boston, a financial nabob of national reputation. Forbes was a towering figure in the development of American railroads and operated one of the nation’s great industrial empires. He was an advisor to President Abraham Lincoln and was chairman of the Republican National Committee during Lincoln’s term in office. His son married the daughter of philosopher and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Like many well-to-do Northerners, Forbes came to Florida in the winter for its healthy climate. He first spotted the high, dry land of Dell’s Bluff as he sailed up the St. Johns River on one of his vacation trips to Enterprise, Florida. He designated his friend Edward Cheney to buy the tract, which stretched from what is now Forest Street to just past Barrs Street. In February1869, the land was platted for residential lots, with 14 acres reserved for a public park. Forbes and Cheney had a vision of a residential community that would far surpass anything the city had ever seen. They named it Riverside.
When they subdivided the land that was to become Riverside, both Cheney and Forbes
reserved prominent riverfront lots on which they built their own residences. For the next thirty years, the two men’s homes were the only dwellings in the block bounded by Commercial Street (later Riverside Avenue), Fisk and Gilmore Streets, and the river. Perhaps even then they envisioned that this location would be the epicenter of culture in Riverside. Among the first to join Forbes and Cheney in moving into the neighborhood were U.S. Senator Wilkinson Call and General Milton Littlefield (whose skills at graft and corruption gave him the nickname “Prince of the Carpetbaggers,” but that is another story).They were among the earliest residents of what would become known as “The Row.”
Forbes sold his Riverside Avenue home in 1889 but retained his financial interest in the Riverside development until 1892, when the remainder of unsold lots and the 14-acre park were sold to Benjamin S. Brigg and Swire Smith of Keighley, England, for $95,000. The two Englishmen marketed their new subdivision heavily as “a suburb of beautiful modern houses and exclusively respectable citizens … enjoying a prosperity not equaled by any other portion of the city.” Three years later, most of Riverside Avenue had been paved with vitrified bricks, and the neighborhood’s population had grown to 2,500. It had indeed become Jacksonville’s most desirable residential area, as reported in Brown’s Book of Jacksonville: “Jacksonville has a number of attractive and growing suburbs, but the choicest one for residential purposes perhaps is Riverside.”
By Wayne W. Wood