National Geographic : 1966 Feb
Agony of a town aflame: Spanish Governor Joseph de Ziffiiga y Zerda, right, watches cannoneers fire from the Castillo de San Marcos, trying to stop St. Augustine's spread ing blaze by concussion. The night: Decem ber 29-30, 1702. But the town burns on, as the forces of England's Carolina colony give up a futile seven-week siege of the fort. further resistance. Though most of the Semi noles were eventually resettled in the West, they have never signed a peace. More than a thousand still live in southern Florida.* St. Augustine remained remote and rela tively quiet until a hurricane struck it in the 1880's. Unlike 1965's Hurricane Betsy, this was a human hurricane named Henry M. Flagler. He was a multimillionaire, a partner of John D. Rockefeller, and he had decided to turn Florida's east coast into an "American Riviera." Before he left St. Augustine, it had acquired two enormous new hotels and a rail road-the Florida East Coast line. The grandest of the hotels, the Ponce de Leon, is still open in the winter, and no visitor should leave town without at least seeing it. It's built in the style of a Spanish Renaissance castle. When it opened in 1888, the Ponce was described as the world's finest hotel, and I can believe it. The ceiling in the main dining room arches 68 feet high; balconied guest rooms overlook a walled Spanish patio full of flowers and palm trees, with a fountain splashing in the middle. New Viewpoint for a New England Family St. Augustine now gets half a million visi tors in a good year. I talked to a lot of them, asking them why they had come and what they thought of the place. "The golf course is great," some of them said. Or, "We're on our way home from Mi ami, and we got tired of driving." But many knew exactly why they had come, and what the city symbolized. My fa vorite tourists were a family from Connecti cut-Mr. and Mrs. Max L. Kopko and their daughters, Gail, 11, and Cynthia, 9. Gail told me, quite seriously, that she had come to write a history of Florida. I thought she seemed a bit young for such an enterprise, but her father explained. "We're from New England," he said. "When I went to school, I was taught that the Pil grims settled this country in 1620. It wasn't until I came to St. Augustine a few years ago *See "Florida's 'Wild' Indians, the Seminole," by Louis Capron, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC, December, 1956. 224 on business that I learned the Spaniards got here first. This time I brought my family along to see it for themselves. Gail has to write a report about it for her history class." The Kopkos had visited the historic sites, including the Oldest House and the castillo. When I last saw them, they were preparing to relax by seeing Ripley's Believe It or Not Museum, which has nothing much to do with St. Augustine except that it's there, but con tains a charming collection of shrunken heads, an Egyptian mummy case, and, quite natural ly, a model railroad bridge made of more than 31,000 toothpicks.