story & photography by Phil King
In 1799 a Spanish land grant of 200 acres was given to Joseph Arnau at North Beach, now known as Vilano Beach. The same 160 acres of that parcel was again given as a Spanish land grant to Arnau’s relative, Aldolphus N. Pacetti, in 1878. At that time North Beach was uninhabitable, because there was no fresh water except that which could be retained from the rainy season. The Timucuan Indians were there from about 1050 to 1500 A.D. Other Indians, possibly from Georgia, lived there sporadically after that, however there is no evidence of permanent settlements. The United States Army, between 1830 and 1880, used North Beach to bury Native Americans who died when imprisoned at Fort Marion, now Castillo de San Marcos.
In 1883, the Florida Coastline Canal connected the North River, now the Tolomoto River, to the Saint Johns River by Mayport. This was to become part of the Intracoastal Waterway.
Between 1880 and 1890, a narrow gage railroad crossed the North River (now the Tolomato River) to North Beach on a palm piling bridge. In 1888, Georgia investors created the Saint Augustine and North Beach Railway that began running a standard gauge train (56 ½ inches between rails) across in 1890. These trains were boarded at what is now Davenport Park, where the Carousel is located and then, it crossed the North River near Fort Mose. It continued across the North Beach Island to the vicinity of the present day Reef Restaurant. Eventually it boarded at Union Depot on Riberia Street and subsequently on Malaga Street. Flagler offered to buy the North Beach Railway, but they could not come to terms.
At the end of the railway, The North Beach Resort was very popular with Henry Flagler’s hotel guests. There was a pavilion for dancing with a tropical garden and fountain. It had a restaurant, bowling alley, an innovative toboggan chute, a 56-room bathhouse at the beach, and a livery stable for the best beach ride near Saint Augustine.
In February of 1895, the pavilion, bathhouses and cottages lit up the sky of Saint Augustine in a tragic blaze that ended the grand North Beach Resort. The railway did not have enough insurance to rebuild, and again North Beach slipped into obscurity. Adolphus Pacetti lost half of his land that he had traded to the railroad for their assurances to bring buyers to his development, but that never panned out.
In 1900, Frank and Kate Usina moved to North Beach, perhaps at the suggestion of Henry Flagler whom Frank had worked for in Miami. They made their home in one of the abandoned railroad houses. When Flagler and his guests docked near the Usina home, Henry asked if they could prepare an oyster roast for them. The Flagler party so enjoyed the feast, they collected and gave him a large some of money.
From then on, Frank and Kate Usina (for whom Aunt Kate’s Restaurant is named), provided oyster roasts for Flagler’s guests. With palmetto shelters, they hosted guests who arrived in their own or hired boats. Eventually Frank salvaged and repaired a sunken boat and ran excursions as captain of the Victory (predecessor of the Usina’s Victory III that tours the harbor today). His son, Francis, piloted the Victory at age 12 and became a captain at 17. Of course, the 1995 Vilano Bridge was named after him and his wife, Mary.
Life on the island was very difficult in the early 1900s. The Usinas basically had to live off the land. They raised their own vegetables and caught their own fish and meat, trapping wild hogs in pens baited with corn. Mostly Minorcan friends and relatives built a basic pavilion in one day and named it “Unsina’s Original North Beach.”
Dinners of fire roasted oysters, fish, pilau, clams and chowder preceded dances with the St. Augustine Band. The Usinas had a horse pull a car filled with guests on the abandoned North Beach Railway to the beach where they had built bathhouses. Family members did all the work. Glass jar 32-volt batteries even stored home-generated electricity, providing lights in the pavilion, sheds and trees. It was the 1940s before North Beach had commercial electricity.
When Adolphus Pacetti died in 1913, the Reyes family got some of his property, part of which became Perpall’s Fish Camp and eventually Cap’s Restaurant.
Paul and Helen Capo moved to what is now Surfside in 1904 to start a pavilion and hotel by their boat landing on the North River. They built their own railroad to the beach to match Usina’s adopted track. Paul Capo used the Pauline II to bring passengers from St. Augustine to his retreat.
The rivalry of Capo and Usinas intensified until 1915 when Capo’s Pauline II crashed into the Victory, trying to force it aground. Although found guilty in a Jacksonville court, the Pauline II again attacked the Usina’s new boat, Victory II, in 1922. Usina was barely able to save it from sinking by running it aground on a sand bar. For more in depth information about the Usina’s and North Beach, read Beth Rogero Bowen’s account in the Historical Society’s “El Escribano, The Saint Augustine Journal of History, Volumn Forty-Seven, 2010.”
The 1920s were boom times in Saint Augustine and on North Beach. Highway A1A came into being and so did the Vilano Beach Casino. This was built by August Heckscher from Germany, a wealthy man in mining and real estate, and then a philanthropist in New York before he settled in Jacksonville.
The name Vilano seems to have arisen in the 1920s meaning “thistle burr” (in Spanish). In 1926 August Heckscher built the “Vilano Beach Casino.” (Casino meant entertainment or dance hall at that time, not gambling.) It had “monumental architecture, salt water swimming pool and fine dining.” A palm log piling bridge brought crowds from Saint Augustine to see major bands from New York. It was a wonderful addition to Vilano Beach, until the Great Depression brought it down.
On August 28, 1937, 50 mile per hour winds with high tides began the destruction of the Grande Casino. Although Hecksher tried to save it, storms of 1938 and 1939 began to wash it away. Before Heckscher ordered it destroyed, he donated the ornate columns to Florida Memorial College and some doors to the Usina family. It has been said that locals have pieces of it in their yards.
Since the depression and World War II, Vilano Beach grew gently, but steadily. The forties left their marks with Art Deco motels on Vilano Road, the main street. An eight-foot tall metallic bird was erected to sell orange juice, but it was turned blue in a move to lead the town forward. In 1951, the ornate Vilano Beach Motel was built. Its name was changed to Magic Beach Motel when it became the flamboyant backdrop for the Warner Brothers TV series, “Safe Harbor”, starring Rue McClanahan of “Golden Girls” fame. It ran September 20 to November 28, 1999.
Vilano continued to be a quaint small town just over the bridge from Saint Augustine. Plenty of traffic came across the Vilano Bridge to head North on A1A, with a fair share stopping at local businesses. Houses were sold, and life was good.
The beach was known as Porpoise Point because Marineland used it for training after it came into being in 1938 as Marine Studios. It remains a favorite beach to many. The naturally coarse coral, sand beach is a great place for shelling, as the tide goes out. Its solitude draws those seeking quiet reflection while enjoying nature’s gifts.
In 1995, the 65 foot high Francis and Mary Usina Bridge spanned the Intracoastal Waterway, replacing the old Vilano Bridge, which had been rebuilt between 1938 and 1948. A portion was left at the river end of Vilano Road for a fishing pier. Although traffic diminished on Vilano Road, loyal customers still came for a good while.
As business slowly waned, North Shore Improvement Association took up the task of creating a sustainable town center. The group has shown great tenacity in the uphill struggle to revitalize but not redesign the town. Former Chairwoman, Vivian Browning, was quoted in 1999 as saying, “Sometimes you have to put your personal goals aside for the greater good of the community.”
Piece by piece a plan was created and executed. Water infrastructure was overhauled, architectural guidelines established, zoning for a town center created, and the Beach Pavilion was built. Vilano Pier was upgraded, and a Nature Walk built through the wetlands. Finally in mid January 2012, the Vilano Beach Town Center with a Publix Super Market was opened.
All the pieces seem to be in place. The stage has been set. They have built the basics, and the rest will follow. Many restaurants and business have been turned around. Hotels, including Magic Beach are being rebuilt. The Town Center is beginning to provide space for the essentials of a revitalized community. Vilano Beach – Its Time Has Come!