Other than Saint Augustine, no place in Florida has a deeper history than Amelia Island.
The French came ashore in 1562 and quickly displaced the native Timucuans, who had occupied the island for hundreds of years. The French didn’t last long; Spain gained control of the island in 1565, setting off a tumultuous history, with the island being governed under eight flags over the years.
The United States finally claimed the island in a deal with Spain in 1821. The Americans brought with them enslaved people from Africa and proceeded to establish cotton plantations. It wasn’t until late in the 1800s that Amelia turned to the sea in a big way. Men in small row boats, with nets they cast by hand, began harvesting the shrimp that were abundant in the waters of the Saint Mary River and Atlantic Ocean. Even in those days without refrigeration, shrimp were shipped to northern markets in places like New York and Philadelphia. For over a century, shrimp was the keystone of the island’s economy.
In the early 1900s, the island laid claim to the title of “Birthplace of The Modern Shrimping Industry.” Boatbuilders turned out shrimp trawlers with engines that allowed shrimpers to venture farther off shore. Net weavers designed more efficient nets to haul in the harvest from the sea. A number of the shrimp crews were African Americans, descendants of those who were forced to work on plantations. The island’s economy boomed. Maritime history was being made.
Beautiful And Historic Fernandina Beach
The county seat, Fernandina Beach, was developed on the north end of the island prior to the Civil War. At one point it was one of the largest cities in Florida, and during the shrimping heyday, it was prosperous.
The town was originally founded a mile from its present location. It moved to where it is today, in order to be closer to the shrimp docks. The town was laid out in a grid, with Centre Street ending at the docks. A fort was built to protect the town and harbor. Fort Clinch was occupied by Confederate troops at the start of the Civil War, but Union forces soon took control. Today the fort is a state park.
The shrimp economy began to falter in the late 1900s. Competition from foreign shrimp, mainly from China and Southeast Asia, flooded the market. Fewer shrimp boats were docking at Fernandina Beach’s docks. Once home to hundreds of boats, at the turn of the century there were only dozens. The fleet eventually abandoned Fernandina Beach altogether and moved operations to the deep waters of Mayport, near Jacksonville.
Even so, Amelia Island showcases its shrimping heritage and compelling, complicated history. Here are the most amazing historic attractions Amelia Island has to offer.
1. Isle Of Eight Flags Shrimp Festival
Every year, on the first weekend in May, thousands are drawn to Fernandina Beach for the Isle of Eight Flags Shrimp Festival. There are arts and crafts, live music, a parade, fireworks, and lots of shrimp dishes at all the restaurants downtown.
2. Fort Clinch State Park
Construction of Fort Clinch began in 1847 and continued under both Confederate and Union troops until the war ended. Years of abandonment followed until it was reactivated during the Spanish–American War in 1898. That war only lasted a year, and the fort was again abandoned. After a period of private ownership, Fort Clinch became a Florida State Park in 1935.
The park has campgrounds, hiking and biking trails, and a beach. For a small admission fee, visitors can walk through the actual fort — strolling along the ramparts, studying the cannons, and peeking into the barracks. The fort overlooks the St. Mary River, which is the border between Florida and Georgia. Across the river, you can see Cumberland Island National Seashore.
The cannons are actually fired during re-enactments the first weekend of the month.
3. Amelia Island Lighthouse
Amelia Island Lighthouse is the oldest continuously operating lighthouse in Florida. It was originally activated in 1839 and is still active today. Tours are offered by the city and the state park, and the lighthouse is open to the public on Saturdays. The tower is not open for climbing.
The lighthouse today is located in the midst of a neighborhood, and trees have grown up around it. Public access is very limited.
4. American Beach
American Beach is located mid-island on the Atlantic Coast. Six acres of beach were purchased in 1935 by an African American doctor so that Black residents on the island could have access to the beach during the time of segregation. Today anyone can use the beach, and there is a small museum that showcases its history. The community is a part of the National Park System via the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve.
You can drive on the beach if you have a four-wheel-drive vehicle. The sand is very soft and it’s easy to get stuck, even with an all-wheel drive car — trust me, I know from experience.
13 Miles Of Public Beaches
There are 13 miles of beach on Amelia Island, all with public access. There is a large beach park located at the end of Atlantic Avenue. It has plenty of parking, including electrical hookups for RVs. Down the beach, along Highway A1A, there are beach parks at Peters Point, Burney Park, and a state recreation area at the southern tip of the island.
5. St. Peters Cemetery
Located on Atlantic Avenue on the way to the beach, St. Peter’s Episcopal Church and cemetery were founded in 1858. Most of the headstones were chiseled by African Americans, although Black people were not permitted to be buried there until after the Jim Crow era ended. Today the cemetery is the scene of popular ghost tours.
6. Amelia Island Museum Of History
The Amelia Island Museum of History is located on Third Street in downtown Fernandina Beach, in the old jail. There are two daily tours of the museum, plus tours around the downtown area. The tours include an education on local architecture, the Centre Street business district, and a ghost tour.
The museum features exhibits on the Timucuan period on the island, the Civil War era, the Gilded Age period of the late 1800s, and a large section is devoted to the history of shrimping on the island. There is an admission fee, which includes the guided tours.
7. Centre Street
Centre Street is the hub of business in Fernandina Beach, lined with historic buildings that today house restaurants, gift shops, and small businesses. The Amelia Island Welcome Center is located at the end of the street where it meets the marina. There is a Main Street organization that promotes the local businesses and strives to preserve the historic charm of the downtown area. Over 400 buildings here are listed on the National Historic Register.
Outdoor Life On Amelia Island
Being in Florida, there are lots of things to do outside. Biking is popular on the island, and the streets are generally bike friendly. There are several deep sea fishing charter companies. If you like golf, check out the five championship golf courses on the island. The Amelia Island website has all the details to enable you to get outdoors and enjoy the Florida sunshine.
Places To Eat
Restaurants in the downtown district are pretty casual, and as you might expect, shrimp is usually on the menu somewhere.
Brett’s Waterway Café
Right at the docks you will find Brett’s Waterway Café. The shrimp is fresh from the nearby waters. Being right at the dock, you can expect the catch of the day to be fresh as well. I had the fried shrimp, and I gotta tell you, it was the best I’ve ever eaten. At $11 for a full order, I thought it was a bargain.
Ciao Italian Eatery
Another delight to the palate is Ciao Italian Eatery on Centre Street. There is an extensive wine list, both domestic and Italian. Order by the bottle or the glass. The menu includes everything from veal to shrimp and scallops to pizza. Only go there if you’re really hungry because the servings are very generous. Dinner for two, with a couple glasses of wine, will still come in under $100.
Beach Street Grill
For lunch, try the Beech Street Grill. It isn’t in the downtown district, but it is conveniently located along Highway 200 as you come into town. There is indoor and patio dining. They are also open for dinner. The food is locally grown on area farms or harvested from local waters. The restaurant is located in the historic Bell House, which was built in 1889.
Sliders Seaside Grill
Another lunch spot right on the beach is Sliders Seaside Grill. Fresh fish tacos and shrimp highlight the lunch menu. There is both indoor and outdoor patio seating and a full bar. There is also live music in the evening and even for lunch several days a week.
Hotels And B&Bs
Both properties are new and located a short walk to the beach, where there is abundant public access. On the beach is the newly renovated Seaside Amelia Inn. All three properties are operated by Innisfree Hotels.If your taste runs to Bed and Breakfast inns, there are seven in the town of Fernandina Beach. They are located in the historic section of town, in restored historic homes.