Today, Avenida Menendez runs parallel to St. Augustine’s seawall and the Matanzas River – from the Castillo de San Marcos National Monument to St. Francis Street. But did you know that Avenida Mendendez was once known as Bay Street? And before it became Bay Street, it was a coastal marsh?
European settlement in this area began with the founding of St. Augustine in 1565. On Matanzas Bay, the city’s border falls on low-lying land edged by saltwater marshes, tidal flats, and oyster beds. The nature of the landscape, in addition to hurricanes and storms, led to and continues to cause periodic flooding and coastal erosion.
The first known attempt to protect this length of the city came after Sir Francis Drake’s raid in 1586. The rebuilding process included palisaded wall along the waterfront. Spanish engineers followed up with a coquina seawall in 1696, which extended from the Castillo to the plaza (today’s Plaza de la Constitución). Wharves soon lined the new seawall, which were rebuilt again and again over the next 140-years.
As for Avenida Menendez, early maps show the emergence of a pathway running parallel to the shore line. It most likely consisted of crushed shell and sand like other city streets of the time. During the First Spanish Period (1565-1763), streets were known by their location or the place to which they led. The British began applying more formal street names during their period of control (1763-1783). We see that a 1764 map ascribes “Front Street” and “Water Street” to the roadway nearest the bay while another map from 1777 identifies the same area as “Bay Street.” The latter name stuck (except for a 1884 map calling it “Marine Street”) until the 1960s.
Back to the wall. By the time of Florida’s cession to the United States in 1821, the seawall showed signs of deterioration and in places threatened to collapse. While battered by time and elements, the wall’s poor condition also came from the U.S. military. They took coquina from the existing seawall to add two boat basins. One in front of the plaza and the other by St. Francis Barracks. Both filled in 1895, the basin fronting the plaza eventually became today’s Bridge of Lions.
With a breached wall, the property owners along the bay front began petitioning the new government to repair or replace the seawall in 1832. The United States War Department built another seawall between 1837-1846. The American-era seawall consisted of coquina laid in ashlar courses and topped with a layer of granite coping stones. The new wall, aligned straight, allowed for the widening of Bay Street.
By the early 1900s, strolling pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists, and streetcar passengers enjoyed the waterfront views. They liked it so much that it became a part of a larger state road network stretching Florida’s Atlantic coastline in in the 1920s. At the time known as State Road 140 in St. Augustine, it became State Road A1A in 1945.
And what happened to the Spanish sea wall? In the 1850s, remains of wall still existed along the center of Bay Street. According to George Fairbanks, “it occasionally appears above the level of the street.” The widening of the street between 1957-1959 resulted in the removal of its top layers. What remains of the wall is buried beneath the avenue’s median. This renovation also inspired the official renaming of Bay Street in honor of the city’s founder, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, in 1962. Yet, this did not shake the use of Bay Street as an identifier for the waterfront roadway.
Yet, the story does not end here.
In 2014, the city once more constructed a new seawall. This time south of the plaza. The replacement stands twelve feet out into the water from the existing American-era seawall. New paved walkways helped fill the gap between the two, under which a new drainage system combats the flooding conditions.