Pensacola, Florida
Sunday August 19th 2018

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Time-Traveling Tourist

Capitalizing on Pensacola’s past
By Jeremy Morrison

As the fog lifts in Pensacola, the early morning light unveils another day in the area’s long, rich history. It’s the day Nick Schuck starts cashing in on all the days that came before.

“I think Pensacola has just a fascinating history,” he says. “There’s just so much history, I think it’s overlooked when people come to visit.”

Schuck has already finished lining the bikes up out front. He decides to grab some breakfast across the street at the farmer’s market while he waits.

The sweet, comfy cruisers with the fat seats and tires relax on the sidewalk. The fleet flanks the Palafox storefront of the new Emerald Coast Tours, which offers historical bicycle tours around the downtown Pensacola area. The bikes represent one of the few local attempts to court tourists with an interest in history.

A young couple from Navarre arrives shortly, with the girl’s parents in tow from North Carolina. Her mother’s a history buff and she figured they’d all enjoy a bike around town. A few minutes later, two more people show up for the tour.

Sporting a Blue Wahoos cap and a Saturday smile, Schuck saddles up and heads out with the group on Emerald Coast Tours’ first-ever historical bicycle trek. It’s a pretty simple plan: buy some bikes and peddle into the past, showing off the area’s rich history.

“We are the first settlement, 1559,” Schuck tells his riders. “Six years before St. Augustine.”

The history buff from Charlotte seems surprised.

“Oh, I didn’t know that,” she says.

Indeed, few people are aware that the Europeans—the Spanish, specifically—first settled in Pensacola. Many are completely oblivious of the area’s role in the country’s history throughout each of its eras.

Perhaps this is because Pensacola has yet to fully capitalize on a resource that it has cultivated since its earliest days. While other, younger locales bill themselves as heritage tourism destinations, Pensacola seems to hold its history like a secret.

History, You Dig?
Existing just below Pensacola’s surface is a vibrant community of treasure hunters. They regularly gather to discuss digs.

“We were all over the place last summer,” reported Dr. John Bratten, the chair of the archeology and anthropology departments at the University of West Florida, at a recent meeting of the Pensacola Archeological Society (PAS).

With such a long history, the PAS always has plenty to talk about during its meetings. In March—officially Florida’s archeology month—the group heard reports on UWF’s field schools.

Locally, students and volunteers are afforded a wealth of opportunities to dig into history. One of the archeological ventures Bratten discussed during the PAS meeting was the Emmanuel II shipwreck.

Discovered in Pensacola Bay in 1992, the Emanuel II is reportedly the second-oldest shipwreck in the United States. Archeologists believe the vessel was part of Don Tristan de Luna y Arellano’s 1559 attempt to colonize Pensacola.

While that early ill-fated attempt to gain a foothold in the New World faded, Pensacola would continue to play host to America’s history as the years unfolded. The region was a notable venue throughout the country’s settlement and first couple of centuries.

It was in Pensacola that Florida became a state. Andrew Jackson lived here. Geronimo was held captive on Pensacola Beach at Fort Pickens.

“We’ve got all kinds of history here that other areas don’t have and never will have,” says Jacki Wilson, archivist with the Pensacola Historical Society.

In an upstairs room surrounded by bound volumes of aged and weathered documents and photos, Wilson sits at a long table in the middle of the historical society’s collection. She knows her passion isn’t widespread.

“People really don’t even understand why we exist,” Wilson says.

For a lover of history living in America’s oldest city, this can be frustrating. She’s amazed at how little people actually know about the area’s past.

Pensacola’s Best-Kept Secret
“We have people come to our museums and say, ‘I lived here my whole life and never knew this existed,”’ says Gale Messerschmidt, curator of exhibits with the West Florida Historic Preservation, Inc. “It’s one of Pensacola’s best-kept secrets.”

Messerschmidt is opening this month “Are We There Yet? Pensacola as a Tourist Destination 1790-1949” at the T.T. Wentworth, Jr. Florida State Museum. The exhibit focuses on the history of tourism in Pensacola.

The T.T. Wentworth was originally built in the early 1900s as Pensacola’s City Hall. Opening up a backdoor, Messerschmidt leads the way through its shallow basement hallways and up a couple of floors to her new exhibit.

“Geronimo was our first tourist attraction,” she says, pointing to a photo of the Apache war chief.

Captured in Arizona, the U.S. transported Geronimo and other Apache captives to Fort Pickens on Pensacola Beach. Nineteenth-century tourists flocked to the fort gander at the storied prisoner, who apparently took to selling the visitors buttons from his coat.

Geronimo’s visitors were not heritage tourists gazing upon a relic, but rather people taking a look at a living, breathing character of the day. Heritage tourism was, at the time, a thing of the future.

“Really and truly, heritage tourism is a mid-20th century kind of thing,” explains Wilson. “And Pensacola is slow to change its ways.”

Pensacola’s big draw has always been the sugar white beach and emerald blue waters. From bountiful fishing to leisure relaxation, the beach has always attracted visitors. The area’s first tourist, de Luna, was drawn by the beach and millions have followed his lead.

“Even as early as the 1700s, we were touting ourselves as a health resort,” says Wilson, explaining how 16th-century visitors traveled to the area to enjoy the purported health benefits of its natural springs and sea water. “The water was what the main attraction was, has always been the main attraction throughout history.”

In the more modern times of destination marketing, Pensacola has chosen to stay focused on its most obvious attribute: the beach. If the outside world knows anything about Pensacola, it knows that it has beautiful beaches.

“The only way that tourists find us is when it rains out at the beach,” says Messerschmidt.

Heritage Tourism Boom
When someone travels to Boston, chances are they immerse themselves in the American Revolution. Most visitors to Philadelphia want to see the Liberty Bell or Independence Hall.

While Pensacola has somehow allowed its own expansive history to slip beneath its gorgeous surf, other locales have purposefully cultivated their respective histories. These places have identified themselves as destination spots on the heritage tourism map.

One such spot on that map is St. Augustine. Pensacola has somewhat of a rivalry with the city, although few people outside of Pensacola are aware of that rivalry. Wilson recalls a speech made by a visiting Pensacola politician to a St. Augustine crowd in which he referred to the east Florida locale as the “second oldest city.”

“He says he was met with absolute silence,” she laughs. “They did not appreciate that whatsoever.”

St. Augustine was settled in 1565. Although the settlement took root years after de Luna’s Pensacola landing, St. Augustine’s settlement was fortunate enough to persevere, thus allowing the city’s tourism wizards to long ago claim the title as the country’s oldest, continually occupied settlement.

“We’ve been a heritage and cultural tourist destination for over 100 years,” says Dana Ste. Claire, St. Augustine’s director of heritage tourism and historic preservation.

Nestled on Florida’s northern Atlantic Coast, St. Augustine is a quaint little spot with a fort built by the Spanish and huge, ornate buildings built by Henry Flagler. Tourists can take a horse-drawn carriage ride through the city, or visit the Fountain of Youth. An estimated five to seven million people visit the city annually to enjoy its heritage-based offerings.

“Just in direct economic impact, we’re probably in the $700-million range,” says Ste. Claire.

Of course, the throngs of tourists gawking along the streets do entail some drawbacks. For example, Ste. Claire has to endure snarled traffic sometimes.

“I’m on my way to a five o’clock meeting and it took me 20 minutes go get out of the city,” he complains from his car, rationalizing that the inconvenience was probably worth it. “Tourism supports the economy and we get to enjoy it, and every once in a while we get stuck in traffic.”

Ste. Claire doesn’t have the slightest idea why Pensacola hasn’t plowed into the heritage tourism waters.

“Pensacola, historically, has never been a principal heritage tourism destination,” he says. “Certainly, the potential is there.”

One of the businesses prospering off of St. Augustine’s thriving heritage tourism market is Old Town Trolley Tours. The company operates in a number of historically important cities, like Boston and Washington D.C.

“We started in Key West,” says Piper Smith, the company’s vice president of marketing.

When eyeing potential locations for the trolley business, history is a must. New Orleans, for example, would be fertile ground for the company.

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