Old City Gates in St. Augustine, FL

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The Old City Gates are a set of historic gates at the intersection of Orange Street and St. George Street in St. Augustine, Florida. The gates were once a part of a fortified wall that protected the city.

Due to the fact that the city is located on a narrow peninsula, enemies planning to attack the city could only approach by land from the north. To make the city safer, a fortification was built across this northern boundary.

These gates and fortification were first constructed after the governor of the English colony of Carolina, James Moore, and his forces attacked St. Augustine and began a two-month siege on Castillo de San Marcos in 1702.

They failed to take the fort but the residents of St. Augustine realized they needed a stronger defense to protect the city against future attacks.

That year, Governor José de Zúñiga ordered the construction of a fortified wall to protect St. Augustine’s landward sides. This wall was made out of earthworks and was fortified with a nine-foot-high palm log stockade wall and a moat running along the outer edge of the wall.

The northern protective border of this wall was known as the Cubo Line and was completed in 1705. The city gate was incorporated into the Cubo Line and consisted of a set of wooden gates, near the Castillo de San Marcos on what is now known as San Marco Avenue, and a drawbridge that stretched over the moat in front of the gates which was raised each night to prevent entrance into the city after dark. (Governors House Library Jan 2020.)

Old City Gates, St. Augustine, FL, circa 1886
Old City Gates, St. Augustine, Fl, circa 1886

The Hornabeque Line of the wall was constructed in 1706 and was placed about a half mile north of the Cubo Line, along the narrowest portion of the peninsula, to act as an outer barrier.

The Rosario Line of the wall was constructed in 1718 and made a right angle to Matanzas Bay at what is today San Salvador Street to completely enclose the city.

The fortification proved effective because in 1727, Colonel Palmer of South Carolina and his troops attempted to attack St. Augustine but failed because of the city’s heavily fortified gate and walls.

In 1739, the Cubo Line was reconstructed and a wooden city gate was built on the site of the current city gates at the end of St. George Street (NPS 1976.)

In 1740, the British attacked again when the Governor of the colony of Georgia, General James Oglethorpe, and his troops attempted to take the city but failed due to the city’s fortifications. Oglethorpe tried again in 1743 and managed to capture and kill 40 Spaniards but failed to take the city.

The Old City Gate, St. Augustine, Fl, photo by William Henry Jackson, circa 1894
The Old City Gate, St. Augustine, FL, photo by William Henry Jackson, circa 1894

In 1808, the wooden city gate was rebuilt by Royal engineer Manuel de Rita and replaced with the current stone gate, which consists of two square coquina pillars topped with stone pomegranates and two sentry boxes at the base of the pillars. The pillars are 20 feet tall and 12 feet apart and four feet or more thick.

A two-leaf heavy gate hung between the two pillars from a circular piece of iron hinge and a wooden drawbridge sat in front of the gate. Although the two-leaf gate no longer exists the hinge can still be seen on the inside of one of the pylons.

The Cubo Line was also reconstructed in 1808, the wall was heightened to six feet and was revetted on both sides with palm logs and the moat was widened to 41 feet.

A British visitor to St. Augustine in 1818 later published an anonymous manuscript, titled Narrative of a Voyage to the Spanish Main, in which he described visiting the city and passing through these city gates:

“Emerging from these solitudes and shades, we espied the distant yet distinct lights of the watch towers of the fortress of St. Augustine, delightful beacons to my weary pilgrimage. The clock was striking ten as I reached the foot of the draw-bridge; the sentinels were passing the alerto, as I demanded entrance; having answered the preliminary questions, the draw-bridge was slowly lowered. The officer of the guard, having received my name and wishes, sent a communication to the governor, who issued orders for my immediate admission. On opening the gate, the guard was ready to receive me, and a file of men with their officer, escorted me to his excellency, who expressed satisfaction at my revisit to Florida (Narrative of a Voyage 162-163.)”

In 1827, the St. Augustine City Council decided that the bridge and causeway that led to the City Gate needed to be upgraded.

The St. Augustine mayor at the time, Waters Smith, offered to do the job for no pay. In exchange, Smith wanted the salvage materials from the job, particularly the stone and materials composing the old bridge, pillars and beams.

The city accepted Smith’s bid and he got to work on the project, removing some of the stone from the pillars before U.S. Army Lt. Harvey Brown ordered Smith to stop the work because the gate stood on U.S. military land, not on city property, since it was a part of the Castillo de San Marcos fort.

Smith did succeed in replacing the wooden drawbridge with a stone walled causeway (NPS 1976) but the pillars remained damaged until they were finally repaired in 1879.

Postcard of the Old City Gates, St. Augustine, Florida, circa 1920 1935
Postcard of the Old City Gates, St. Augustine, Florida, circa 1920 – 1935

In 1901, the moat running along the wall was filled in and leveled and, in 1907, the National Society of Colonial Dames of America in the State of Florida installed a bronze plaque on the gates to commemorate its history, which read:

“These gates were begun as a defense against the English in 1743, during the reign of King Phillip V. of Spain. In 1804, they were rebuilt of coquina by Antonio Arredondo, Royal Engineer of Spain. This tablet was erected by the National Society of Colonial Dames of America resident in Florida, 1906.”

In 1937, the Carnegie Institute sponsored an archaeological investigation of the Cubo Line, to learn more about the line’s size, shape, location and construction methods, and partially rebuilt the causeway leading to the gates.

In 1963, the National Park Service also excavated the Cubo Line with a plan to reconstruct a part of the defense for the city’s 400th anniversary celebrations. The causeway to the bridge, the moat and about 250 feet of the log wall of the Cubo Line were reconstructed in 1966, at a cost of $36,000.

Also in 1966, Castillo de San Marcos National Monument, which includes the city gate, was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

St. Augustine City Gates in 1861 (top) and the St. Augustine City Gates today (bottom)
St. Augustine City Gates in 1861 (top) and the St. Augustine City Gates today (bottom)

In 1972, the plaque on the city gates was revised to commemorate the tricentennial of Castillo de San Marcos to read:

“This gate, opened in 1739, provided access through the defense line on the north side of Spanish St. Augustine. Royal engineer Manuel de Rita built these coquina pillars in 1808. This tablet was originally erected in 1907 by the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America in the State of Florida. It was revised to commemorate the tricentennial of Castillo de San Marcos. 1972.”

In 1990, the city conducted an archaeological project on the Cubo Line during which they uncovered 506 artifacts as well as evidence of the construction conducted on the wall during the Seminole Wars in the early 19th century and it also identified evidence of a railroad bridge built by local businessman Henry Flagler during the late 19th century.

Sources:
Reynolds, Charles Bingham. The Standard Guide, St. Augustine. E. H. Reynolds, 1890
Narrative of a Voyage to the Spanish Main In the Ship ‘Two Friends. Published by John Miller, 1819.
Parker, Susan R. “Walls surrounded St. Augustine in the 1700s.” St. Augustine Record, 13 Jan. 2019, staugustine.com/story/news/local/2019/01/13/oldest-city-wall-surrounded-st-augustine-in-1700s/6309393007/
“Castillo de San Marco.” National Register of Historic Places Inventory – Nomination Form, National Park Service, Nov. 29. 1976, npshistory.com/publications/casa/nr-castillo-de-san-marcos.pdf
“A Facelift for St. Augustine’s Famous Old Fort.” New York Times, 25 Oct. 1964, nytimes.com/1964/10/25/archives/a-facelift-for-st-augustines-famous-old-fort.html
Bryant, Fitch. “St. Augustine City Gates.” Christian Advocate, Vol. 69, 1908, pp: 22 google.com/books/edition/Christian_Advocate/QSK-R3w1lWsC?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=st+augustine+city+gates&pg=PA1302&printsec=frontcover
“Old City Gate.” Waymarking, waymarking.com/waymarks/WMR2B2_Old_City_Gate_St_Augustine_FL
“The City Gate.” The Historical Marker Database, hmdb.org/m.asp?m=127891
Parker, Susan R. “Susan R. Parker: City Gate nearly didn’t survive early years.” St. Augustine Record, 11 Nov. 2017, staugustine.com/story/news/local/2017/11/12/susan-r-parker-city-gate-nearly-didn-t-survive-early-years/16288602007/
“NPSGallery Asset Detail.” NPGallery Digital Asset Management System, npgallery.nps.gov/AssetDetail/dda05676-3f2a-4cee-89c2-bf85aebd0431?
“City Gate, Orange Street, Saint Augustine, St Johns County Fl.” Library of Congress, loc.gov/item/fl0201/
“A Long Line.” Governor’s House Library, University of Florida, 6 March. 2020, governorshouselibrary.wordpress.com/2020/03/06/a-long-line/
“City Gates.” Governor’s House Library, University of Florida, 2 Jan. 2020, governorshouselibrary.wordpress.com/2020/01/02/the-city-gates/