Founded in 1768 by Scottish doctor Andrew Turnbull, New Smyrna Beach and its surrounding area possesses a rich history. It is an area first settled with over 1500 indentured servants of Mediterranean descent – most of which were from the Minorcan Islands. That colonized plantation failed not ten years later largely due to disease. The Spanish then gained control and sold the area to the United States in 1819. Sugar mills began processing cane from plantations in 1835 and the Atlantic Railroad began in 1892, making the New Smyrna Beach area a vacation destination even in the early days. The city of New Smyrna Beach became incorporated in 1903 and local orange groves provided local relief during the stock market crash of 1929…All of the above giving way to the beachside paradise we know and love today.
A beautiful place to learn some New Smyrna Beach history is Old Fort Park, an historical site which received the prestigious honor of being added to the United States National Registry of Historic Places in 2008, and an integral part of the archeological discoveries attributed to the 18th Century settlement of Dr. Andrew Turnbull.
You’ll find Old Fort Park at 115 Julia Street in New Smyrna, nestled within several walking paths, benches, a canopy of stately oak trees and a tranquil waterfront view. You’ll also discover a bit of a mystery as no one can really confirm what the ancient coquina foundation of this intriguing site once supported. One thought is that it may be the site of Andrew Turnbull’s mansion. Another idea is that it may have been a Spanish fort predating Castillo de San Marco in St. Augustine, which is considered the oldest fort in the continental United States. It also may have been a colonial church or a site for constructing ships.
What we do know is that a large, wooden hotel was constructed above this historic foundation in the 1850s, only to be destroyed in an explosion caused by gunpowder which was stored in the basement. The hotel was reconstructed by the owners after the Civil War, but met its demise yet again in 1896 when it was torn down.
Another interesting historic site in New Smyrna Beach is Sugar Mill Ruins, a 17-acre historic site you’ll find just one mile west of the Intracoastal Waterway on Old Mission Road. The land on which Sugar Mill Ruins was built was originally gifted to Andrew Turnbull by the British Crown in 1768 for the purpose of British colonization. Its buildings, constructed of fossilized mollusk shells which were harvested nearby, survived two Seminole Wars and are preserved for viewing.
The New Smyrna Beach Historic District, also on the National Register of Historic Places, is made up of approximately 100 acres of late 19th and early 20th century architecture. The majority of these structures, developed between 1885 and 1935, are located in a two block wide and six block long stretch along the Indian River bank. If you would like to do some meandering on a personal tour of your own making, you can find a map of the historic structures there which may be helpful at cityofnsb.com/1417/New-Smyrna-Beach-NRHP-Historic-District.
If you like things lively, you may want to head over to Flagler Avenue in New Smyrna Beach, which is five blocks from ocean to river and bursting with surf shops, delightful eateries, a vibrant nightlife and plenty of old Florida appeal.
Grab a bite and a brew at the Flagler Tavern, which was established in 1928 and pays homage to its roaring twenties roots with an upper level speakeasy overlooking the avenue. Or you might prefer to book a spa treatment at Flagler Avenue’s Riverview Hotel & Spa, which began in 1885 as a two-story hunting and fishing lodge and due to the success of the Flagler Railroad, became a popular tourist destination for northerners in search of a warm winter respite.
Just up the way in New Smyrna’s neighboring community of Ponce Inlet, is the opportunity to climb the 203 steps of Ponce Inlet Lighthouse. Built in 1887, Ponce Inlet Lighthouse is the largest in Florida and, today, offers an on-site museum for a glimpse into turn-of-the-century lighthouse keeper life.
Named for its turtle-like shape is the Turtle Mound, a prehistoric archeological site just nine miles south of New Smyrna Beach on State Road A1A. The largest shell midden on mainland United States and visible several miles out to sea rests along the Canaveral Seashore. Archeologists, who have recently discovered 1,200-year-old pottery, believe that the ancient Timucua Indians used Turtle Mound as a high ground refuge during hurricanes.
Also worth a tour is the nearby historical interpretive park of Seminole Rest at 207 River Road in Oak Hill, which consists of several prehistoric shell mounds dating from 2000 BC to 1556 AD, two turn of the century buildings which are still intact, a gift shop and wildlife viewing opportunities.
If you want to learn more about the history of New Smyrna Beach in a more comprehensive manner, you can always visit the New Smyrna Beach Museum of History at 120 Sams Avenue, the site of the town’s original post office. Open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., the New Smyrna Beach Museum of History offers engaging exhibits and presentations, as well as area tours and a museum store.
Plus, not sure if you know it or not, but New Smyrna Beach is also a famous surf town and the New Smyrna Beach Museum of East Coast Surfing – located at that same Sams Avenue address – is dedicated to that specific aspect of New Smyrna history. Ranked one of the world’s best surf towns by both National Geographic and Surfer Magazine, New Smyrna Beach’s surf history is a richly woven tapestry of over 200 years of competitive surfing and local surf culture.