From Amelia Island down to Heckscher Drive is a favorite drive for Bucko and me. I often called this road “my favorite drive on Earth” back when the road was uncrowded and there was time to go slowly and savor the sights of the wooded state parks, beaches and salt marshes along the way. Most often we end up on a parallel dead-end road, Heritage River Road, where we can linger at the Carlucci Boat Ramp and watch boats being rehabbed in the shipyard across the way, the regular dolphins feeding in the shifting currents and the boats of all sorts, from kayaks to giant container ships that pass by on the St. Johns River. Often we spend time watching the resident birds: the spoonbills, wood storks, herons and egrets that often can be seen feeding in the marsh; the resident kingfisher that always flies away clacking its alarm call and the resident bald eagles that roost on the utility poles. There’s always something.
But where did the name Heckscher come from, I’ve wondered. Well now I know and you will know soon too. August Heckscher immigrated to New York in 1867 when he was 19 years old and eventually became a self-made multi-millionaire with his coal, zinc, copper and real estate ventures. He lived most of the time on Long Island where he became a well-known philanthropist but he also developed a fascination for the Jacksonville area where he and his family vacationed. His interests in real estate focused on the north side of the St. Johns River where he envisioned building a large hotel/casino complex. To accomplish this goal, he needed a way to get more people there, so he bankrolled the $1.5 million construction of Heckscher Drive including the creation of small man-made islands connected by a series of seven bridges, completed in 1926. Originally Heckscher Drive was a toll road, but in 1944, three years after his death, the road was acquired by the state of Florida. Although Heckscher’s dream of a large hotel and casino never materialized, the creation of this road connecting Amelia Island and Jacksonville gave access to many square miles of new real estate to be developed by others. Happily today much of this area is protected within the 46,000 acre Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve.
Bucko’s family comes from Long Island and on a recent visit there I was eager to find traces of August Heckscher up that way. It turns out that he left a big mark there too. The largest playground in Central Park, New York City, is named in his honor and he also created and funded Heckscher Park and the Heckscher Museum of Art in Huntington, Long Island. But the trace of August Heckscher I was most interested in, Heckscher State Park is only about 10 miles from where Bucko grew up in Suffolk County. Of course, I just had to go there.
So, one sunny September day Bucko, his sister Susan, and I drove to the park. It was off-season, thankfully, and the massive parking lots beside the shore were mostly devoid of cars. We were able to wander a bit down the shoreline of the Great South Bay separating it from Fire Island, the barrier island off in the distance. Native salt-tolerant plants carpeted much of the area, but woods and native shrubs abounded too.
I was interested in seeing the 21-hole disc golf course that occupies 50 acres of wooded land. Here most of the underbrush was removed to enable clear tosses of the discs into the baskets. The Professional Disc Golf Association (PDGA) says that this course offers “championship caliber and diversity” with its “open fairways and tight technical shots.” At home here on Amelia Island, many of us rejected the idea of putting something similar in the remnant natural woods in tiny Simmons Park, an area surrounded by neighborhoods. In a space like the 1600 acres of Heckscher State Park, this idea seems to work. But not in our backyards where the increased traffic, disturbance of nature, and the clanging of discs hitting metal baskets do not fit in happily at all.
August Heckscher can be remembered for many things but now I feel indebted to him for enabling access to the area along the St. Johns River where Bucko and I pass the time. I am also exceedingly grateful to the State and National Park system for preserving much of the area to this day for people like us to enjoy. And now, seeing Heckscher’s contributions to the people and natural areas of New York I am inspired by philanthropists like him whose contributions continue to make the world a better place.
Pat Foster-Turley, Ph.D., is a zoologist on Amelia Island. She welcomes your nature questions and observations. [email protected]