A blog about living in Aberdeen, New Jersey.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

History: Gilbert McDermott Goes to Florida (Christmas 1881)

Page 3 of the 21 January 1882 edition of The Matawan Journal contained a 4 Jan 1882 letter to David A Bell, editor and proprietor of the newspaper, from Gilbert McDermott, a local insurance agent, who had traveled to Florida over the Christmas holidays, supposedly for health reasons.

Mr McDermott wrote to "Friend Bell" that they departed New York on Wednesday 14 December 1881 aboard the S S City of Columbus, which was commanded by Captain Fisher of Matawan. They hit high seas and most got seasick. "Many had a sad upheaving of their inward condition." The weather cleared off Cape Hatteras and life slowly returned to normal aboard ship.  Captain Fisher regaled the McDermotts with stories of his exploits at sea and gave them a tour of the pilot house. He gave Mr McDermott his spyglass and pointed out the lightship stationed off Cape Hatteras.

Revenue Cutter Dexter (left) comes to rescue survivors of City of Columbus wreck off the coast of Massachusetts (Wikimedia)

Wikipedia reports that the City of Columbus was built in 1878 and made runs between Boston and Savannah until it ran aground off Massachusetts in 1884 with a loss of life of 100.

The McDermotts debarked at Savannah on Saturday and boarded the City of Bridgeton. They sailed the Sea Island Route down to Fernandina, Florida. He found the St Johns River a "dreary waste as far as the eye could reach."

A connection to the City of Bridgeton (Sea Island Route) is mentioned in "The Official Railway Guide: North American Freight Service Edition," by the American Association of Passenger Traffic Officers (Philadelphia: 1881, National Railway Publication Service)
After an hour they reached Jacksonville, which he seemed to find uncomfortable due to the high percentage of African Americans there. He remarked that half of Jacksonville's 12,000 residents were black, with a "much thicker sprinkling of colored people" in town because it was Christmas time.

Black workers pack grapefruit at Jacksonville.
The city was well laid out, had a business district centered on Bay Street, had major utilities, many fine 3-story buildings, and a strong media (5 daily newspapers and a number of weeklies). Most anything you might want could be purchased, but the "walks of the town are mostly boards and in a poor condition, while the middle of the streets are a bed of sand, with no effort to improve them. Hence they use two-wheel carts principally for carting, with a mule between the shafts and a negro on the foreboard -- invariably."

Mr McDermott was disappointed that it had been raining a lot during their visit to Florida, with hot days in the Sun and cold, damp nights that required them to light a fire to keep warm. He pointed out that Jacksonville was surrounded by marshland and residents suffered with malaria. Board was available for $4-6 per night, even for $1/night under certain circumstances. He didn't like Jacksonville and didn't understand why doctors would refer their patients to go there.

He abandoned Jacksonville and went 120 miles south to Enterprise, Florida, where he was writing from. He found the place less cold and damp, with less fog, less "society" and more pines. They had nice accommodations on an orange grove with many fresh fruits and vegetables available.

The 1880 Federal Census enumerated Gilbert McDermott and his wife Mary as age 34 and living in Matawan Township. His occupation was as a life and fire insurance agent. David A Bell, also in the Township, was age 39 and was enumerated with his wife Isabella age 31 and their 11 month old infant son Arthur S Bell (born May 1879). David, an editor by occupation, and his mother were born in NJ but his father was born in England. Isabella and her parents were born in Maryland. Also in their household was Isabella's sister Sallie Shepard, age 24, also from Maryland, as well as a servant named Mary J Kemp, age 23.


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