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.
“New Orleans is like a perfect city,” Smith says. “It’s got a year-round visitor base. It’s hot all the time.”
St. Augustine only allows a limited number of trolley tours to operate within the city. When one of the companies went up for sale, Old Town Trolley Tours was quick to snap it up.
“We’ve always been looking at St. Augustine,” Smith says.
The marketing VP has heard of Pensacola’s “oldest city” claim. She’s never seen it for herself and says it wasn’t really on the trolley company’s radar.
“I have to tell you something,” she says. “I have lived in Florida since 1973 and I’ve been east of Tallahassee one time—I’ve never been to the Panhandle.”
Two girls sit on a porch cutting candle wicks. They offer a window into the past, with only a pair of modern stainless steel scissors shinning in the sunlight, giving away the scene.
“It’s been really busy lately,” says Kimberly McGraw. “Usually our busy season is summer, but, since January, we’ve been slammed.”
Dressed in 19th-century attire, McGraw sits with Katya Nossa Sarasty. The pair works in the Pensacola Historic Village. They live out lives of yesteryear as part of the village’s historic tour.
“These are for the fourth-graders,” says Nossa Sarasty, a Fine Arts student at UWF, explaining that a local school group will visit later in the day for some candle dipping.
McGraw is a getting her masters in anthropology at UWF. She feels right at home in the historic village.
“It was pretty much the perfect job for me,” she says, hiding the scissors out of view.
McGraw doesn’t want to see Pensacola turn into St. Augustine—pimping its history alongside roadside schlock, like the Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum—but would like to see the city claim its rightful place on the heritage tourism map.
“We don’t want to over-commercialize the history or heritage of the city, but at the same time you want to show people that there’s more than just the beach,” she says.
A couple of blocks away, in the upstairs hideaway of the historical society, Wilson also stresses a distinction between Florida’s two “oldest” cities.
“They’ve gone this kitsch way,” she says. “Whereas we’re more purists.”
“I’m not saying we’re better than them,” says Messerschmidt, “We’re just different.”
Half a century ago—during the city’s 400th anniversary celebrations—some effort was placed on emphasizing the area’s long history. Wilson pulled out some old black-and-whites and began to reminisce with Messerschmidt.
In 1959, 400 years after de Luna stepped foot on Pensacola Beach, a replica settlement village was constructed on the beach. Locals and visitors alike visited the site.
“When I was 10-years-old,” recalls Messerschmidt. “It was a big deal. We got all these artifacts from Spain.”
The replica settlement survived for a while, but like the ill-fated original was destined to fade away. The wax-museum figures and 1950s-campyness probably wouldn’t have played too well these days anyway.
“Looking back on it, it was just so hokey,” says Messerschmidt.
Seeing Pensacola In A More Intimate Way
Halfway through Emerald Coast Tours’ first historical bicycle ride in Pensacola, the group dismounts and steps into the Crowne Plaza. They admire the ornate interior as Schuck leads his riders toward a hallway gallery of old photographs.
“This is now Vinyl Music Hall,” he says, pointing to a photo of the old Masonic Temple at the intersection of Garden and Palafox.
After this, the group pedals past St. Michaels Cemetery and on to Plaza de Luna for a walk around the waterfront. It all seems completely normal. Except that it’s not.
Several times on the bike tour, people stop Schuck to inquire what he is doing. They haven’t seen such a tour winding its way through town.
“Bicycle tours?” a man calls out from his porch as the fleet passes leisurely by.
“Yeah, Emerald Coast Tours,” Schuck yells. “Down on Palafox, check us out.”
People seem somewhat amused at the concept. They also seem interested. It makes sense to Schuck.
“Every vacation we go on, that’s the first thing we do—we rent bikes,” he says.
Schuck and his wife feel that riding bikes through a new town affords them the opportunity to learn the area in a much more intimate fashion. He had wondered before why Pensacola didn’t have such a service available.
When he and his wife learned of the Pensacola Business Challenge—in which contestants compete for a business start-up package—they decided to give it a shot. Although they didn’t win the Challenge, the business plan that resulted from the attempt looked too good to throw out.
“We decided to just go for it,” Schuck says.
It’s this type of spirit from the younger generation that gives folks over at the historical society’s archives some hope that the past will not be lost in the future.
“I take my hat off to the young adults, because they have really brought back downtown,” says Messerschmidt. “It feels like we’re just on the cusp of maybe something really good happening.”
Wilson agreed. She’s hoping the revitalized downtown—which is also the city’s historic district—will foster an increased interest in heritage tourism.
“The sidewalks don’t roll up at five o’clock anymore,” she laughs.
The heritage tourism crowd, it seems, prefers a vibrant city. They want places to eat, places to shop.
This target crowd—demographic, in marketing vernacular—is the aging Baby Boomers. They travel and they spend money and they seem to enjoy history.
“They’re retiring,” says Messerschmidt. “People have a tendency to start thinking ‘Why am I here? How do I fit into the big picture?’ People are connecting more with their past.”
One of those people that enjoy a good trip through time is Pensacola City Administrator Bill Reynolds. He describes himself as a “history nerd” and St. Augustine as a “kind of posers.”
“I was amazed about the Pensacola story,” Reynolds says.
When first arriving in town last year, the city administrator immediately took his sons to see Fort Pickens. Reynolds particularly enjoys Civil War history, having read about 300 books on the subject.
“Coming in from the outside, I was amazed at the history here and nobody knows about it,” he says. “It’s never been market. It’s amazing to me, It’s something we’ve got to capitalize on.”
Down at the Old Town Trolley Tours headquarters in Key West, Smith isn’t quite sure why her company has never eyed Pensacola. Admittedly, the area seems ripe for the picking.
“Sometimes it just takes a phone call from someone in city government,” she says. “It’s sometimes as easy as a phone call to one of our principals.”
For now, Pensacola visitors can enjoy a relaxing bike ride through time. Schuck’s inaugural tour went well, with the riders seemingly amazed they had never before heard the historical trivia being thrown their way.
“This is where Florida became part of the United States, right here,” Schuck tells the bikers at one of the tours’ final stops—Plaza Ferdinand. “You’ll see they’re opening a World of Beer up here when we pass it—that’s where Andrew Jackson’s residence was.”
EMERALD COAST TOURS
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