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History of the Port


Amelia Island and the City of Fernandina have a colorful past. Known as the Isle of Eight Flags, Amelia Island has seen the ebb and flow of history through its harbor.


At the outbreak of the American Revolution, Florida remained loyal to Britain and Fort Tonyn was erected by the English in the Port of Fernandina. During the Revolution, many English from northern states fled to Florida and, by the end of the Revolution, nearly 16,000 refugees were in Florida.


In 1783, England returned Florida to Spain. This brought about one of the largest exoduses ever to take place in the New World. Amelia Island, having the finest natural harbor on the east coast of Florida, was the debarkation point.

Aerial phot of port of Fernandina

Above photograph courtesy of

Westerly aerial photo of the port of Fernandina

Above photograph courtesy of

In 1807, American ports were closed to foreign shipping as a provision of the Jefferson Embargo Act. Still controlled by Spain, Fernandina was the closest “east coast free port” to the United States. As a result of this proximity and its natural harbor, Fernandina became a haven for smugglers, pirates, slave traders, etc. 


In December of 1817, the United States assumed control of Amelia Island and the rest of Florida in 1821. In 1824, Nassau County was formed with Fernandina as the county seat, and in 1845 Florida became a state.


During the 1850s, the cross-state railroad, which was promoted by Senator David Yulee, opened up the central portions of the state and connected the Port of Fernandina on the Atlantic Coast, with Cedar Key on the Gulf Coast. The opening of the railroad provided a steady flow of goods to the Port of Fernandina for further shipment to northern cities. The Port was the second busiest port in the US during this sailing ship era.

In time, extensive wharves, railroad maintenance facilities and warehouses were built on the waterfront.


The closing of the 19th century brought with it a great deal of activity in connection with the Spanish - American War. The Port of Fernandina was a base for shipping military supplies to Cuba and this greatly stimulated the economy of the area with increased shipments of lumber, cotton, naval stores and phosphate. During this time, the harbor and wharves were filled with sailing ships for transporting Fernandina’s products. This new prosperity lasted approximately 20 years and then began a steady decline. The reason for its decline can be attributed to changes in freight rates and the opening of the Florida East Coast Railroad by Henry Flagler.


The Florida East Coast Railroad crossed the St. Johns River at its narrowest point, Jacksonville, and this city became the new break point between rail and ship for major growth.


December 5, 1985 was a new beginning for the Port of Fernandina. To capitalize on a new deeper entrance channel constructed by the U.S. Navy, the Ocean Highway and Port Authority issued bonds to finance construction of a modern seaport terminal. Old, rotten wood pilings were replaced with a new, concrete pile dock, a concrete paved marshaling yard, cranes, and new warehouses. These improvements allowed the Port Authority to bring the Port back to life as a major contributor to Nassau County’s economic development.

Photo of cargo ship at sunrise
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