Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Steamboat Man Mastered St. Johns

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Steamboat Man Mastered St. Johns

Article excerpt

Luckily for the early Clay County settlers along the St. Johns River, Capt. Jacob Brock and frontier Florida took to each other right off.

In the early 1850s, Brock and his steam-powered side-wheeler, Darlington, began scheduled service on the river from Jacksonville to Enterprise, south of Palatka. The settlers now had dependable weekly transportation of goods to market and reliable transportation of supplies.

Brock was first and foremost a river man and a steamboat man, and both were critical to his mastery of the constantly shifting sands of the mighty St. Johns and the tricky socking maneuvers required to land at early rudimentary piers. The Darlington was a huge ship, over 133 feet long and 30 feet wide. Brock routinely steamed her up Black Creek to effortlessly dock at the wharf. But the man brought more than just marine skills to the table.

He lived big, he risked big and he reveled in hard work, enjoying life and the people along the river. By today's standards the population was sparse along the St. Johns River. The population of Duval County, which still included Clay County in 1850, counted just a little over 1,000 souls. Brock and the Darlington represented stability, something frontier settlers could count on in their unpredictable fight to carve livelihoods from an unforgiving environment.

On arriving, Brock designated Middleburg as his base of operations but truly the river and his ships were his home. His four young children, Jacob Jr., Charles, Hattie and Jennie, joined him, but his wife never set foot in Florida. Pioneers don't necessarily lead conventional lives.

Middleburg was a logical choice because the area was teeming with activity and provided a continual supply of cargo. The most successful community in Clay County and hub of the surrounding area boasted two hotels, two drugstores, several general stores, sawmills, blacksmiths, taverns, churches, doctors, lawyers and a school. This deep-woods metropolis shipped cotton, lumber and naval stores to Jacksonville and points north.

The shrewd Brock noticed increasing numbers of Northern and European tourists eager for a sportsman's experience and constructed the Brock House in Enterprise. Men hunted and fished all day, then gathered with good brandy and strong cigars to laugh, spit and tell tales. Brock was truly in his element. The atmosphere of camaraderie and adventure he created on a small scale on his riverboats was simply magnified at his hotel.

In 1860, Brock added the newly constructed Hattie Brock to his expanding fleet. The Hattie was truly a gem. Equipped with powerful engines and posh accommodations, she carried 75 to 100 passengers. But the storm clouds of secession were already gathering, foretelling a brutal war and a time of enormous changes for Clay County and Florida. …

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