High ground along the river, and a flowing mineral spring, drew the first inhabitants to this area some 700 years ago. But historic development began back in 1816 when George I. F. Clarke erected a sawmill in the vicinity under a Spanish land grant.
The first settlement, White Sulfur Springs, was established in 1854 with a wharf, a store, and several houses clustered around a public square. During the Civil War, Federal troops frequently skirmished with Confederate forces in the vicinity and finally occupied the town in 1864.
Tourism flourished, eventually surpassing citrus culture and lumbering as the area’s primary economic base. River steamers brought visitors to Green Cove Springs (the “Saratoga of the South”) noted for the healthful qualities of its spring and for hotels and boarding houses often said to rival the finest northern resorts.
By the 1890’s, the population reached more than 1500. But an expanding railroad system carried tourists further southward, and a great freeze in 1895 destroyed the surrounding citrus groves. Soon thereafter, the city’s tourist industry declined sharply.
The advent of the automobile age and the creation of the state highway system provided the basis for economic recovery in the 1920’s. The city shared in the general prosperity of the Great Florida Land Boom.
The eventual collapse of the land boom and the depression of the 1930’s marked the end of the early 20th century development of the city.
Between 1940 and 1945, the city again experienced renewed development. The population increased from 1752 to 3026 as a result of the wartime construction of Lee Field, a 1400-acre Air Auxiliary complex, by the US Navy. At the end of World War II, eleven piers which were constructed by the Navy, and the base, became the home port to a “mothball fleet” of some 600 ships.
With its share of returning war veterans, the community’s population grew through the 1950’s to a total of 4233 in 1960.
In 1961, the Navy decommissioned its base and the reserve fleet was transferred to another facility. The Navy property was purchased by the city in 1963 and later sold to the Reynolds Corporation for development as an industrial park.
In 1984, the city annexed the former naval base into its corporate limits, thereby tying this part of its heritage to its future growth and development.
Today’s Green Cove Springs continues in the tradition of its colorful past. The days of the river steamers, early railroads, and the Liberty ships are gone, but the waterfront district around River Park Inn has retained the quiet small-town charm of the city’s past. Come visit for a few days. You’ll be glad you did!
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