Long Creek Preserve: For Palm Coast, a Chance to Restore a Vast, Lucrative History
FlaglerLive | October 26, 2015
It was a coincidence. Two days after the Palm Coast City Council haggled over whether to buy the old Palm Coast Yacht Club at the north end of Florida Park Drive, County Attorney Al Hadeed was across the canal in a shaded area off the Long Creek Preserve’s parking lot, giving a talk to 25 people about Long Creek’s value to the county and the city.
The two properties have nothing to do with each other at the moment, other than sharing a neighborhood and a water body. But they could become part of the same city-owned preserve, if the council goes forward with a $1 million acquisition of the Yacht Club: when the city bought the preserve with taxpayer dollars a few years ago, it agreed to build a nature center within a few years. It’s been seven years since the purchase, and still no nature center, though the preserve itself opened last fall as the city’s latest addition to its park system with handsome gazing areas and boating and kayaking access points.
A stand-alone nature center would cost the city about $2 million, based on its current design. But if the city were to buy the Yacht Club and turn it into a nature center, it could save money, assuming the club doesn’t require too many reparations, and assuming it doesn’t become a staffed city property–two big if’s. When the Yacht Club purchase was presented to the council on Oct. 13, City Manager Jim Landon was presenting it as a nature center and a senior center both, because a single-use building in the city’s inventory there is not attractive to council members. But a staffed senior center would be costly in the long run. The council agreed to explore the purchase further, but only to the extent of figuring out what shape the Yacht Club building is in.
None of that was too familiar to the 25 members of the Flagler County Historical Society, who gathered in the shade of palms to hear Hadeed tell them why the Long Creek Preserve is such an important asset–to the county’s history, but also to its ecological identity and its relationship with its own history going forward: Few Palm Coast residents know the role the area of the preserve played in 18th and 19th century America. Few are capitalizing on the history: Hadeed wants the historical society to seek adding the preserve to the National Register of Historic Places.
That history is as remote as the preserve itself, which sprawls a short walk from Palm Harbor Parkway. But take that brief walk under the high canopy of palms and pines, toward the Long Creek Basin, and 225 acres of serenity open up as far as the eye can see, looking north, with barely three or four rooftops marring the view from behind trees and shrubs of their own.
There are two big stories about that basin. The recent one is 2003, when it was donated to the city, not long after the county had foolishly turned down a chance to buy 40 acres for less than $90,000 and a real estate company called Raccoon Realty had bought two dozen parcels from ITT along the basin, with building in mind. Then Mayor Jim Canfield proposed acquiring the basin for a passive city park, saving it from construction, and that donation was arranged in 2003. That still left certain properties in private hands. Those hands wanted to build condominiums. The public howled.
Fortunately for Palm Coast, residents had passed the Environmentally Sensitive Lands referendum, approving a property tax surcharge to set aside money and buy conservation property on just such occasions. The city secured $2.25 million from that fund, the state matched it with money from the Florida Community Trust Fund, and the preserve could finally truly live up to its name.
Hadeed summed up that recent history for his audience. But it’s the more distant history that gives the preserve its heft in the the annals of Flagler County and, as Hadeed sees it, in the annals of state and national history.
Because the basin was not just an estuary for future pleasure boaters. It had been what amounted to a small port that serviced immense plantations in the region–plantations that first gave this area of Florida its place in the production and trade of sugar, rum, molasses and oranges, starting with Spanish land grants (before the United States acquired much of the state). And because of its proximity to the King’s Road. “This is the longest still-existing segment of the original King’s Road that was built in 1764. We have the longest stretch of it,” Hadeed said.
The man who gave Flagler its place in state and national history–before Henry Flagler–was General Joseph M. Hernandez, the sugar planter, the state’s first delegate to Congress, appointed by a legislative council in 1823, and the first Hispanic to serve in Congress from Florida. He lived at what’s now Bings Landing and owned much of the county. “This was the major economic center south of St. Augustine in the state of Florida, because it shipped out all that was produced in these plantations,” Hadeed said. And it did it from the Landing.
The whole enterprise was disrupted by Andrew Jackson, one of the nation’s great murderers of Indians who had little patience for law and great skill as a warlord. As Indians were starting to impact the local plantation economy, Jackson descended and “he and his ilk,” Hadeed said, doing little to hide his contempt for the man who became the seventh president of the United States, “ruined Florida from the 1830s to the time when Henry Flagler came in the 1880s and the Gilded Age, and rejuvenated Florida. Florida was an impoverished land because of the Seminole Indian wars.”
Those wars gave the Landing a place in military history, too: when Hernandez’s lands were ravaged, he petitioned Congress for compensation. There was no precedent for such compensation in time of war. Hernandez pressed his case, charging that Indians demolished the plantation chiefly because they’d been used as military posts, Hadeed explained, so he was owed compensation. He was seeking $100,000 in damages (a figure one estimate places at the equivalent of $2.7 million today). The issue “rivaled what they’re doing with Benghazi,” Hadeed said, in terms of hearings, reports and debates in Congress. Hernandez got $30,000. “He created a very important precedent. That’s another reason why this property is so significant.”
Then there’s the ecology, what has been preserved and what’s beginning to return, such as the black mangrove. The “Preserve” in Long Creek Preserve.
“You saw the people here right before we talked,” Hadeed told his congregation during a lunch hour, “they’re bringing school kids down here, other groups come out here to appreciate the natural beauty of the ecosystem, tours. That’s a dimension of this property for the future. Historical information: it’s going to be in a later phase, they haven’t done it yet, but they’re going to have interpretive material here that explains some of the history I’m talking about, particularly about the wharf. They’re also going to have a staffed nature center, in the future, we don’t know when that’s going to be.”
He called that stuff “easy.” The challenge, he told the group, was to connect the preserve to its larger significance, but in meaningful ways: “They need to try to use the historical place names. I really believe that they need to name a trail,” he said, addressing his suggestion to the city. “I have an idea where they need to name it but I don’t think they’ll do it, the St. Joe’s Plantation Trail, and I’m talking about trails like these. So people ask: why do they call it that? Then you get to a board that explains it, you’re learning a little history, and you make the connection: Oh, St. Joe’s Plaza, OK, I get that. I think where it needs to be is in Palm Coast Linear Park, the walk that goes right down Palm Coast Linear Park, because that was part of the plantation system.”
It was then that he assigned the Historical Society with that task–to get Long’s Landing registered as a historical place, though society president Mary Ann Clark reminded him: “Some of us in the historical society would like them to name this Hernandez Landing, rather than Long.” (John Long owned a plantation called Long’s Creek. He was shot and killed during the Seminole wars and buried in an isolated plot somewhere in the outer reaches of the Conservatory at Eatman Cemetery in Flagler.)
After the talk the group made its way down the path across the walkways the city built last fall, and toward the silence of the basin, the heavy silence of a history that found its protector, but not yet its voice.