Marcia Francis

"The Secret of Black Hammock Island"

Neighborhoods Magazine - November 07, 2001

One of a dozen articles written for Neighborhoods Magazine from 2001 - 2003. The story is about a pristine portion of the county that was experiencing unprecedented development as urban sprawl found its way to the most northern reaches of Duval County. The full article is available upon request. This is an excerpt:

The Secret of Black Hammock Island

It sounds like the setting of a Hardy Boys novel as in "The Mystery of Black Hammock Island." But Black Hammock Island is not the dark, foreboding location of a mystery with a crime to be solved by book's end. It is a bit of land that juts out from the northeastern reaches of Duval County along the Intracoastal Waterway and into Nassau Sound. Named for the hammocks, or clumps of mossy Live Oaks, that form towering canopies over portions of the island, it is a place far removed from the hustle and bustle of Jacksonville life. For decades, only the most determined lovers of seclusion found this bit of paradise.

Situated only about 22 miles from downtown, Black Hammock Island was more remote than miles suggest. Prior to completion of the Dames Point Bridge, the only outposts on the islands were fish camp shanties and trailers. Those who made the trip came to harvest the waters of Nassau River and to take in the beauty of the tranquil, untainted wilderness.

But today, the trailers and mobile homes are slowly being replaced by the modern multi-level homes of Black Hammock's newcomers. And what was once a refuge for those less concerned about the aesthetics of their living quarters than catching fish is now fast becoming a haven for professionals who are less concerned about the lack of conveniences in this still remote outpost than living the good life along this previously undeveloped waterfront.

Eighty-year-old William Johns, affectionately known as the mayor of Black Hammock Island, first came to the island as a boy... Although he has made many friends here - and is quick to invite a neighbor down for a bowl of homemade chili - Johns worries about the change he has seen in the last 30 years.

"I'm one of them that's (sic) concerned, but I can't object to people doing the same thing I did. If I did, I'd be selfish."

The remote location was a perfect fit for some island pioneers who chose to live there in the '70s. "There was one, two, three... five families living out here when we moved out, and they were scattered. No one was real close together, said Mary Thompson, who has lived on the island since 1971.

Life wasn't easy. Black Hammock Island had no paved roads until the early '80s. Without pavement, the roads often became impassable.

"If it was a dry spell, it was very sandy. The wind would blow the sand into piles so you couldn't even drive down the roads," she said. "My husband would get the tractor and go pull them out. Then came a monsoon, a rainy spell, and because it was not paved, it was under water. My yard looked like a used car lot because people would park their cars and then walk the rest of the way home."

Looking back now, paved roads, home garbage service and mail delivery were the beginning of a population boom for Black Hammock Island. The number of residents has grown substantially since those first five families pioneered the way.

As this unspoiled slice of wilderness makes way for new construction and the potential problems it may bring, one resident looks back with remorse.

"It was a secret. That's what it was. It's not a secret anymore."

Others are more optimistic. Johns, the "mayor" of Black Hammock Island, observes the island and its residents - animal and human - alike. As a self-proclaimed student of nature, he has taken time to study the wildlife living in the woods and along the banks of his island home. He knows how the white pelicans trap their dinner by herding fish toward the shore. He also has noticed something about his neighbors, both old and new, who always have time to invite him in for a cup of coffee and a chat.

"They seem to fit in. It seems to transform people when they move out here. They seem to become nature lovers."