By Susan Hardee Steger, Granddaughter of Nannie Baker Hardee
October 24, 2022
Early in the morning on October 2, 1898, the H.J. Baker family was awakened by soldiers from the Spanish American War Encampment banging on their beach cottage door yelling, “Get off the beach, a tidal wave is coming!” The Hurricane of 1898 brought to Amelia Island strong winds reaching 90 to 100 mph* and a tidal surge between 12 and 15 feet. Nannie Baker, daughter of Hinton James Baker and Celeste Eve Baker, was 12 years old when the hurricane caused massive destruction in Fernandina and surrounding areas. Nannie was staying with her family at their beach cottage on Amelia Beach, now known as Main Beach. The Baker family, desperate to escape the storm and return to their home on North 6th Street, loaded up their possessions in Nannie’s pony cart, but the rising waters prevented crossing the causeway over Egans Creek. The Bakers hunkered down in the dunes to ride out the storm with Jimmy Guiseway Drummond, known as a recluse who lived in a palmetto-thatched house in the vicinity of the current Fort Clinch ranger station. T. Howard Kelly, a young Fernandinian who became a noted author and journalist, described Drummond as “Amelia’s last Indian-Negro” who charmed snakes and alligators.
Back in town, the strong winds and the tidal surge caused immense destruction. According to the Florida Mirror, the Centre Street docks with a half dozen houses serving as restaurants and fish markets were torn to shreds. The surge lifted the tugboat Gladiator over the dock pilings and placed it on the riverbank’s edge. Kelly’s warehouse, situated on the dock, was full of goods to supply multiple ships entering the harbor. The tidal surge left Kelly’s hay, grain, flour, and large quantities of canned goods on “Centre and other streets.”
The Florida Central & Peninsular Railroad ticket office and its other facilities suffered significant damage. “The water invaded every building as high as Third Street. A two-mast schooner now lies at the corner of Beech and Second streets. It was simply appalling to see large live oaks twisted into small fragments, while the air was thick with flying debris . . .” At the Reid Mill site located on the island’s north end, a building occupied by a family was destroyed. As the family fled, “two of the children were drowned within sight of the parents.” Years later, on April 6, 1923, a visitor from Portland, Maine published a letter in the Nassau County Leader describing a visit to Fernandina. After a conversation with the caretaker at Bosque Bello, the visitors were told, “The Old Part of the cemetery is little else than a waste of sand hillocks. That part, so the old caretaker assures us, once contained the remains of early Spanish settlers buried as long ago as the 16th century. But a great tidal wave, 12 to 15 feet deep, swept over it . . . and washed away and buried deep in the sands almost all evidence of the graves once there.” Upon the Bakers’ arrival back to town, they found the North 6th Street home still standing despite the force of the winds. To this day, portions of the home show a slight tilt to the north. Nannie’s pony fled during the high winds and rough seas. As calm winds prevailed, Nannie journeyed back to the beach, found her horse, and happily rode back to town.
By the end of the storm at Amelia Beach, 19 “pristine cottages” including the Baker family cottage, were washed away and the nearby Strathmore Hotel suffered major damage. The hotel was never opened as a hotel again, but one section became the “Casino,” a gathering place for public events. Years later, Nannie married Ira William Hardee Sr. To escape the heat of the Florida summers, Ira longed for a beach house for his family to enjoy. A still traumatized, reluctant Nannie let Ira have his wish with one condition; the house will not be on the beach.
The Hardee beach house stood across the street from the present-day Circle K on Atlantic Avenue until the late ’60s or ’70s. The house survived many a storm, the last being Hurricane Dora. Now there only remains an empty lot, ripe for development.
* Today, the Hurricane of 1898 is considered a Category 4 with wind speeds reaching 130 mph. Read more about the Hurricane of 1898.
Author’s Note: The pictures used from the Hurricane of 1898 are compliments of a collector, Jim Hutzler of Alexandria, Virginia. Jim was kind enough to scan and share his photos by using a high-resolution scanner. His collection contained higher-quality photos of the impact of the Hurricane of 1898 than those available at the Amelia Island Museum of History. Thank you Jim for enhancing our museum’s collection!