Today, Lake Maria Sanchez is a lake located at the southern end of Lincolnville and St. Augustine’s peninsula. We know a lake may not sound too exciting in a state full of waterways, but did you know this lake wasn’t always a lake? Also, who was Maria Sanchez? (The answer is not the professional tennis player.) Let us take a dip in the murky waters of Lake Maria Sanchez’s evolution from rural creek to urban lake — and maybe we just might uncover the mystery behind its name.
Maria Sanchez Creek
Originally, Maria Sanchez Creek ran deep into the current downtown section of St. Augustine. Early maps depict the creek meandering just west of today’s Cordova Street and reaching as far northward as Flagler College. The creek’s location just west of the presidio’s walls provided an extra level of defense for the young city. Over the following centuries, the creek neighbored Native American communities, Spanish missions, agricultural fields, and early citrus plantations. A bridge crossed the tidal waters during the British Period (1763-1784) – giving Bridge Street it’s name. By 1866, the banks of became the eastern border for a post-war community settled by African Americans. They called the area “Africa,” which became today’s Lincolnville Neighborhood.
So how and when did this tidal creek become “Maria Sanchez?” The earliest known record of the creek’s name appears on Antonio Arredondo’s 1737 map of St. Augustine, but who was “Maria Sanchez?” Many women by the same name lived in St. Augustine throughout the centuries (just take a look at baptismal records if you don’t believe us). One famous candidate includes Juan Josef Elixio de la Puente‘s wife – a St. Augustine criolla by the name of María Sanchez. Other popular theories include an “ancient Castilian poem” translated by Constance Fenimore Woolson for the 1874 Harper’s New Monthly Magazine:
“Maria Sanchez“The Legend of Maria Sanchez Creek” by Constance Fenimore Woolson in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, December 1874, Vol. L
Her dug-out launches,
And down the stream to catch some crabs she takes her way,
A Spanish maiden,
With crabs well laden;
When evening falls she lifts her trawls to cross the bay.
“Grim terror blanches
Who, not to put too fine a point, is rather brown;
A norther coming,
Doth bear away that Spanish maiden far from town.
Caught in the branches
That sweetly droop across a creek far down the coast,
That calm spectator,
Doth spy, then wait to call his mate, who rules the roast.
“She comes and craunches
While boat and crabs the gentle husband meekly chews.
How could they eat her,
Whose story still doth make quite ill the Spanish Muse?”
Lake Maria Sanchez
In the 1880’s, Standard Oil tycoon Henry Flagler came to town with big ideas of building state-of-the art hotels. To do so, Flagler needed to create more dry-land, which meant the Maria Sanchez Creek and its marshes needed to go. With the city’s approval, Flagler hired the only trained civil engineer in town, Captain Frederick W. Bruce, and Villa Zorayda owner Franklin W. Smith to tackle the task. They dredged and filled in the tidal creek with sand from a tract of land north of town known as the Bradford property (today’s Fort Mose Historic State Park). The Chicago Daily National Hotel Reporter in 1885 captured hotel proprietor Edward E. Vaill’s reaction, “. . . He was prolific in his adverse adjectives regarding one — Flagler who was starting to build a hotel in the swamp!” Indeed, Flagler did build his magnificent Ponce de Leon Hotel (Flagler College today) and Alcazar Hotel (St. Augustine City Hall and the Lightner Museum today) on a “swamp.”
Eventually, the City of St. Augustine placed a dam at South Street as a flood control measure which created the present-day Lake Maria Sanchez. What’s left of the creek still flows southward and eventually merges with the Matanzas River. The next time you take a stroll around the lake, see if you can imagine the rich tangle of salt marsh plants and animals that once made up the heart of the city.