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Yankee Engineer in Florida

F. W. Bruce    Source: Cleve Powell

Florida has long “planted Yankees” to earn money; they moved to the peninsula for a variety of reasons--weather, low taxes, cheap land, and opportunity. Frederick William Bruce[1] was one such Yankee, a New Hampshire man, who moved for these reasons in the 19th century to the frontier state of Florida. His life is a case study of why people migrated.
      He was the son and  nephew of United State Army soldiers who helped conquer the Confederacy in the 1860s during the Civil War. He made his life in Florida. The contrast between the two locales was dramatic. Lempster, Sullivan County, New Hampshire, where he was born birth on May 10, 1856, was not only rural (only 415 people lived there in 1790 and only 667 in 1950) but also hilly (the highest point in Lempster is Bean Mountain at 2,326 feet), forested, landlocked, largely, if not entirely, Protestant, and homogenous. Small farms dotted such terrain. New Hampshire hosted many mills.

Floridayankee_files/lempstermeet.jpg (36305 bytes)
Lempster Meeting House

Lempster C1930. (269K)Floridayankee_files/LempsterC1930.jpg

      By contrast, St Augustine and Jacksonville, Florida, where he finally settled, were very different. St. Johns County (St. Augustine is the county seat) contained 4,535 people in 1880 and boomed to 8,712 in 1890. Duval County (Jacksonville is the county seat) in which he lived much of his adult life and where he died had 11,921persons in 1870 and grew to 19,431 by 1880.

      St. Augustine was the oldest continuously settled urban place in the United States having been founded in 1565 by Spaniards. Its population included English, Minorcans[2], and African Americans, some Protestant, some Roman Catholic. The Jacksonville area[3] was even more diverse in population, terrain, and economic activity as the largest city in Florida and a railroad hub. Both counties were flat; the elevation was 5 feet in St Augustine and 16 feet in Jacksonville. The most striking difference between his birthplace and his adopted home of North Florida was water, lots of water—the Atlantic Ocean, the St. Johns, Pablo, and Tomolato Rivers, creeks, bays, inlets. Most of his professional career involved water.

St. Augustine, Florida, 1861-65         Source: Wikipedia.

        How did the adult F. W. Bruce find himself over 1,200 miles from home? He attended the public schools of New Hampshire and Massachusetts but he had ties to Florida. Both F. W.'s father, Timothy (a carpenter in civilian life), and his father’s brother, Elisah, had been stationed there as United States Army soldiers in 1862 during the Civil War as part of the 7th New Hampshire Infantry. Elisah married a local girl, Raphiella Usina[4], and stayed after the war. In 1869, at age 13, F. W. was sent to live with his uncle Elisha in St. Augustine. In 1870, he ran away to sea on the brig Enterprise, an adventure that would take him to ports in Cuba, Mexico, and other parts of the Caribbean.

        After two years at sea, Bruce returned to New Hampshire in 1871. He studied in a navigation school in Boston and worked on ships. Before he was sixteen, his captain died at sea and the crew put him in command so he could then guide the ship home through a storm. He went to high school in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. He acquired his engineering knowledge by intensive home study under private tutoring and then studied civil engineering while working as a sailor during the summers. He also attended navigation school in Boston, Massachusetts, and rose to the rank of captain. He worked in book binding in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, seafaring, and then in the mill machinery shops of P. H. Paddleford in Littleton, N.H. prior to l877.

        The sojourn with Paddleford settled him down; he married the boss’ daughter, Clara Frances, on July 23, l877 in Monroe, New Hampshire. They had a daughter, Sarah Louise, on June 20, l878 in Lake Village (now Lakeport), New Hampshire.[5] New Hampshire was small and sparsely populated which necessitated him seeking a variety of jobs. He did carpentry, built railroad coaches, surveyed, and worked as a civil engineer. He also worked as a draftsman for the Boston, Concord & Montreal Railroad in the Motive Power Department and was also in charge of the removal of wrecks. F.W. was making a life for himself and his family.
Life was hard in New Hampshire. Cleve Powell, his great grandson, reports that in the pamphlet Glimpses of Old Lempster, “After the Civil war he found that the economic activity in Lempster could not generate income or entrepreneurial opportunities.” A few years after moving to Florida, F. W. would remark that opportunities for a young man seemed dim in New Hampshire [“Fort Keeper and surveyor [sic] F. Bruce: his letters,” [sic] The East-Florida Gazette, 21:1, January, 2003.] Although he was adventuresome, he stayed in Lempster close to his parents and other family members.

        That changed in 1884 when most of the Bruce clan left New England to join Elisha in St. Augustine in hopes that the much warmer climate would improve his mother’s health. Thereafter, Florida was his home.

        The timing was excellent for two reasons. In July, 1884, Congress had appropriated $5,000 in 1884 to repair and do upkeep on Fort Marion and Henry M. Flagler had arrived that winter and decided to build a winter resort for the wealthy with expensive hotels. Doing so required hiring a surveyor not only for the Ponce de Leon Hotel but also for the infrastructure for a resort including draining marshes, building streets, providing water, dealing with waste. Although Bruce was a New England Yankee whose father, Timothy Bruce, IV, and uncle Elisah had been US Army soldiers occupying rebellious Florida, his heritage was no problem. Florida welcomed immigrants. The family established businesses in this small town in a frontier state. He was better educated than most and possessed valuable technical skills and he had his surveying tools with him.

        St. Augustine agreed with him. He worked privately as a civil engineer and surveyor. He surveyed land and then became City Engineer. When Henry M. Flagler began building the 540-roomHotel Ponce de Leon Hotel in 1885, Bruce did all the engineering and surveying until February, 1886. During this time, he also rebuilt part of the St Augustine & Tocoi Railroad and did survey work for it, both of which became part of Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railroad).

Source: Cleve Powell

        The U.S. Corps of Engineers[6] hired him in 1885; he retired in 1913. His first job with the Corps was as Fort Keeper of Fort Marion (now Castillo de San Marcos), restoring and repairing it, particularly the Roman arch. The Spanish began the fort in 1672, completing it in 1695, to protect the Spanish treasure fleets. It was renamed by the British and then the United States when each took control of St. Augustine.

Source: Cleve Powell

        The fort was an important part of the little town, yielding a steady flow of federal money. It became a prison and school in 1875 for captured Native Americans from the Midwest and the Southwest, including Kiowas and Chiricahua Apaches, including some of Geronimo’s followers. Geronimo was imprisoned at Fort Pickens (Pensacola), Florida. [7]

Source: Cleve Powell

        Working for the Florida District of the Corps meant he went where ordered in a very large state in land area but with a small population. His ability to rise to and overcome the challenges presented and his devotion to duty brought success. In February, 1886, he became Inspector of dredging at the Apalachicola and Carrabelle Rivers in the Florida panhandle, over 250 miles from his St. Augustine home.

        In November, 1886, he was promoted to Assistant Engineer. He continued in St. Augustine until 1889. From February 1889 to December 1897, he was Superintendent in Charge of the sand bar and jetty work at the mouth of the St. Johns River. Bruce lived on the south side of the river in the old village of Mayport, almost at the river’s mouth, with its easier connections to Jacksonville.

Bruce’s 1890 version of the 1888 Corp map of the mouth of the St. Johns River
Source: Cleve Powell

Bruce home in Mayport                  Source: Cleve Powell

        Flowing north from central Florida, the river carried materials from the interior but did not flow so swiftly that they were carried far into the ocean. Moreover, ocean tides affected the flow. Sand bars formed making passage dangerous without the aid of experienced pilots. As bigger ships transited, the problem worsened. Florida politicians lobbied Congress to spend money to help the port of Jacksonville and the private enterprises that used it. The first appropriation came in 1879; by 1887, $633, 749 had been appropriated. The U. S. government constructed two jetties into the Atlantic Ocean to channel the river to make navigation easier for deep draft ships. The jetties were constructed of huge granite boulders barged from New York and New England. The boulders weighed between one and six tons and were placed on a “mattress” of logs and brush sunk by layers of rip rap. The North jetty of 10,930 feet was finished in 1892; the South jetty of 11,300 feet was completed by 1895.

Source: Cleve Powell

        Dredging the river to rid it of sand bars and to maintain the required depth of the shipping channel for ocean going ships was and is a necessity. Although the jetties mitigated the buildup of sand, larger and larger ships necessitated periodic dredging as well as pilot ships. The government also began a dredging program to eliminate sand bars in the river. The Corps also removed wrecks and other debris from the river. Once Bruce had the processes systematized, the work did not require all his attention.



image023 (144K)
1943 Aerial photo of mouth of the St. Johns River
Source: Florida, State of, PALMM Project, Aerial Tiles from Flight 1C over Duval in 1943

Source: Cleve Powell

        Funding was erratic because Congress vacillated over the propriety of the project so Bruce was assigned other duties in the interim. Eventually five jetty contracts involving an expenditure of about a million dollars were made. In between funding, Bruce surveyed various rivers and harbors in the Florida District, principally in Mayport, the Ocklawaha and Upper St. Johns Rivers, and elsewhere in the state. He was sent to the far south, Key West, in December, 1897 to work on Fort Zachary Taylor, a fort which played an important role in the Civil War and the Spanish American was in guarding the United States from its enemies with its 10-inch guns with a range of three miles.

Source: Cleve Powell

        Bruce supervised the construction of modern gun emplacements under tough working conditions—storms, isolation, and dengue fever. He commented on some of the problems to his supervisor, Captain C. H. McKinstry.

Key West, Fla.
August 16, 1899

Personal .

Dear Captain:

I have the honor to acknowledge receipt today of letter dated August 10th and marked “confidential”, on losing a copy of the report on barracks site signed by Captain Harlow as President. This will receive the earliest possible attention.

I would report that C. M. Brown is sick and confined to his bed with Dengue fever, and I see no way but that I will have to inspect the jetty work until his recovery, as there is no one here that has ever had any experience whatever on similar work.

Yours truly:

(signed F. W. Bruce)

Captain C. H. McKinstry
Corps of Engineers, U. S. A.
St. Augustine, Florida

        Serving over 500 miles from St Augustine was a real hardship and he did not want to maintain a third home in addition to the ones he had in St Augustine and Mayport. District Engineer Captain C. H. McKinstry, moved to the District office in St Augustine, leaving Bruce in Key West. Bruce also worked on the Sand Key Lighthouse seven miles southwest of Ft. Taylor.

Bruce is standing on the left holding a brace              Source: Cleve Powell

Bruce grew tired of living so far from home and wrote McKinstry to that effect.

Key West, Fla. August 28, 1899

Dear Captain:

I have the honor to acknowledge receipt of your personal letter dated August 25th. I am as anxious to get away from Key West as ever, and thank you for your interest in the matter, but I do not expect to be relieved so long as it is to the interest of the work for me to remain here. I readily understand that private wishes have no influence on official demands and possess myself with patience.

The last few weeks have been very warm and, unless there is soon a period of cooler weather, I fear very much there will be an epidemic of dengue fever as there was last year. There are many cases around town now, but the employees of this office have not been attacked except C. M. Brown, who is now nearly recovered though he has not been to the jetty since being sick.

Very truly,

(signed F. W. Bruce)

Captain C. H. McKinstry
Corps of Engineers, U. S. A.
St. Augustine, Fla.

The letter worked for, by September, 1899, he was back in St. Augustine in the U. S. Engineers office, having deposited a thousand dollars in a Jacksonville bank. From his home in Mayport, he only had to go about eight miles upriver to do a survey of the gun batteries complex on St. Johns Bluff.

1918 Map St. Johns mouth    Source: U. S. Corps of Engineers

        The Spanish American War of 1898 frightened some with the possibility of invasion by Spain. So the military built a gun emplacement which included the requisite support system on St Johns Bluff. No enemy war ship could have passed to attack Jacksonville, not that the Spanish had the capability or intention of doing so. The war was over in a matter of months. After the hysteria passed, the guns, never fired, were removed. The built structures remained. Disputes arose about land ownership. Bruce J. W. Sackett started a topographical survey on November 14th; the final drawing is dated December 6, 1899. It showed the dock, RR, empty gun emplacements and buildings as well as the area leased. Bruce’s survey became important. At the same time, he also had to be concerned with the Mayport jetties.

    Key West haunted him for he felt compelled to write to M. T. Reybold about his attitude towards him.

Mayport, Fla.
September 5, 1900

Mr. M. T. Reybold
U. S. Engineer Office,
Key West, Fla.


I have had to my attention frequently called to remarks and criticisms made by you concerning myself with reference to the neglect of my official duty and honesty to the Government. Also criticisms of my ability, authority &c., in fact nearly everything that would be detrimental to a desirable reputation, especially from a business view.

In justice to myself I will have to ask you to discontinue all such remarks in future or it may become necessary to call upon you to substantiate or refute your statements.

I have friendly feelings towards you and this letter may be considered as strictly personal, except that the derogatory remarks and statements continue to come to my attention.

Yours truly,

(signed F. W. Bruce)

One wonders what happened but it probably relates to engineering disagreements at Fort Taylor such as these:

Key West, Florida, August 19, 1899


Captain C. H. McKinstry,
Corps of Engineers, U. S. A.
St. Augustine, Florida.


In reply to your letter of August 10th. and marked “Confidential,” I have the honor to report as follows:

The entire water front between the North and South gun Battery is about the same elevation and forms a ridge averaging 85 feet in width, back of which it is lower and of nearly equal elevation. All of this lower portion is subject to standing water for a period after heavy rains or storm tides. The width of the ridge, however, has been widened somewhat where the office stands by filling.

As to natural advantages, I see none except it be in favor of a location further south where if buildings were built on the ridge referred to, they would certainly be further from the ponds concerning which there is apparently much alarm. If the ponds are unsanitary, the office certainly is in a bad location as it is directly in the lea of the worst pond, (that is in front of the Mortar Battery), with the prevailing S. E. winds, while to move them further south would be an improvement in that respect with no perceptible greater danger from the night soil dump which would be still one third mile away and never been a source of annoyance to any part of the reservation to my knowledge.

I think the statement in the report of the board, that the washings from the most unsanitary part of the city are deposited in the depressions on the reservation wholly an error as an inspection of the ground should show, but that the said wash is all deposited in the pond back of the office.

The statement in the report that the area in front of the Mortar Battery is unsuitable for reasons there stated, is not tenable as it is easily drained, which the pond back of the office cannot be, and if built upon in the middle would give a greater distance from Insanitary spots than any other, while if utilized is near the water front as the office is it would be the farthest possible distance from all objectionable points.

The statement that barracks at the present site of office would be most centrally located , is questioned especially if due weight is given to the importance and magnitude of the various batteries, which point would be obviously further south.

I have not been able to find any old maps bearing upon the locations of engineer buildings giving more information than that enclosed today with another letter. I have searched through the old records and find nothing bearing upon the project.

I shall supplement this letter at as early a date as possible with what information that can be obtained from old citizens.

Very respectfully,

(signed F. W. Bruce)
Assistant Engineer

        The District Office moved back to Jacksonville in 1900. From 1884 until 1888 it was in Jacksonville, the logical locale, but moved to St Augustine because of the yellow fever epidemic there. Much of the Corps’ work concerned the growing port of Jacksonville. Bruce followed in 1906, moving to the City of South Jacksonville, across the river from Jacksonville. Then, in 1912, he moved to Arlington, a community also south of the river but closer to Mayport.

        The remainder of his career working for others involved engineering dock facilities on the banks of the St. Johns River. He retired from the U.S. Corps of Engineers in 1913 at age 57 to work for the Jacksonville Port Commission, designing and constructing the Jacksonville Municipal Docks . Then, in 1917, Bruce took charge of the building of the South Side Shipyard owned by the Merrill-Stevens Company.

        The Merrill-Stevens shipyard was a large and important enterprise not only for Jacksonville but also for the United States. Its predecessor was Jacob Brock’s shipyard o founded in the 1850s. When Brock died in 1877, Alonzo Stevens bought it; ten years later it became the Merrill-Stevens Engineering Company. The great Fire of Jacksonville in 1901 destroyed it but it was rebuilt. "Merrill Stevens Shipbuilding bought an 80 acre site, which was the old Hudhall farm and, with F. W. Bruce as supervisor, built boat slips, marine rails, dry-docks, a water tower made of concrete, a huge pattern loft, and a total of nine buildings including, a generator building, pattern building, and offices". It became on sources of barges used in building the Panama Canal. By 1918 in the midst of the First World War, Merrill-Stevens employed 1,500 persons. Because of Merrill-Stevens, Jacksonville played an important role in both WWI and WWII in the construction and repair of ships for the war effort. During the latter war, 82 Liberty ships were constructed.[8]

Merrill-Stevens Shipyard                  Source: Cleve Powell

F. W. Bruce, Merrill-Stevens shipyards          Source: Cleve Powell

        Engineering was not his only endeavor. He held appointments as Justice of Peace under Governors Sidney Catts (1917-21) and Cary Hardee (1921-25). Along with H. L. Sprinkle, George Spaulding, and John Alderman, he started the Alderman Realty Company, which developed the subdivisions Arlington Heights, Arlington Heights Addition and Alderman Farms, north of the present-day Arlington Expressway (Florida 115). Arlington was unincorporated and tied to Jacksonville and South Jacksonville by a ferry started by the realty company.

        In 1912, Frederick Bruce, John Alderman, George Spaulding, and H. L. Sprinkle organized the Alderman Realty Company. Intensive settlement began in the area later known as the heart of Arlington, the blocks to the east and west of the intersection of Chaseville Road, now University Boulevard, and Arlington Road. The company purchased 1,100 acres of land that was part of the original Richard Mill grant north of Strawberry Creek. This property was subdivided into blocks and lots for further development known as Arlington Heights and Alderman Farms. The firm established a ferry service to better market the area to prospective buyers. The ferry landing was located at the west end of Saint Johns Street, now Arlington Road. The ferry ran to the foot of Beaver Street in Fairfield.[9]

Source: Found on the Arlington Business Society. which was based on the Old Arlington Neighborhood Action Plan. See

        The partners created a government in the form of the Arlington Community Club. The Club successfully lobbied for a public elementary school built by the Duval County school system, and public water works. Bruce and Sprinkle donated the land for a community ball park in 1924.

        Throughout his life, he was driven to learn more. As a young man in St. Augustine, the self-taught civil engineer purchased books to increase his technical knowledge. He invented and patented a rotary steam engine on March l0, l892, He learned about whichever community in which he lived. While supervising the construction of the Merrill-Stevens shipyards, he discovered the archeological remains of Fort St. Nicholas in South Jacksonville. He wrote a short history, Arlington, Past, Present and Future, for the Arlington Community Club in 1924.

        F. W. Bruce never became a household name in Florida but he accomplished enough to be honored in Jacksonville, a city to which he had contributed so much.

Bruce Park is referenced at

        The jetties he built have been augmented time and again. The United States Navy has swallowed almost all of the Mayport he knew. Arlington grew rapidly after the Mathews Bridge opened in 1953 and spurred suburban development; by the late 20th century, it reached almost to the ocean.

        His story is one of a man who saw possibilities and then availed himself of the existing opportunities through his intelligence, risk taking, and drive. He overcame a spotty formal education with independent study. He did not accomplish success by himself. His family played an important role. His father and uncles were artisans, enjoying advantages over the average person. His father-in-law was a mill owner. Family loyalty worked in his favor. He went to his carpetbagger uncle in St. Augustine, Florida when told to do so and, then, years later, with his wife and child, when his parents moved there. He worked for governments most of his life—the Corps of Engineers of the United States government and then the city of Jacksonville. At the end of his work career, he constructed the Merrill-Stevens South Side docks. Finally, he was a land developer in Arlington, an area adjacent to the cities of Jacksonville and South Jacksonville. His life is an American success story.

F. W. Bruce and family, 1914         Source: Cleve Powell

        Frederick William Bruce died at home in his beloved Arlington on December 18, l932.

[1] Known as F. W. Bruce.

[2] Descendants of immigrants from the Balearic Islands of Spain, Italy, and Greece, brought by Dr Andrew Turnbull to his colony of New Smyrna south of St. Augustine. When the colony failed, the colonists went north to St. Augustine.

[3] Although Jacksonville now encompasses all of Duval County, for most of its history it consisted of many towns—Jacksonville, South Jacksonville, Baldwin, Pablo/Jacksonville Beach, Mayport, Atlantic Beach, and others—and many square miles of farms, ranches, rivers, lakes, creeks, and marshes.

[4] She was a Minorcan.

[5] She married on November l3, l904 in Jacksonville, Florida to Cleveland Johnson. They had three children, Frederick Bruce Johnson, Claris Ruth Johnson Jaques and Mary Louise Johnson. Two grandchildren, Ida Louise Johnson and Ruth Clara Jaques.

[6] Now the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

[7] His name was Goyathlay but the Spanish and then Mexicans called him Jerónimo (from St. Jerome). See for Geronimo’s place of imprisonment.

[8] “Liberty Ships,” Jacksonville Historical Society, Retrieved October 11, 2010.

[9] Old Arlington, Inc., “A Brief History of Arlington, “ Accessed September 22, 2010.

Note: Cleveland Powell kindly supplied copies of the letters of his great grandfather, F. W. Bruce, photographs, and written materials from his F. W. Bruce Collection. More important, he encouraged me and patiently answered questions.

Bearss, Edwin C. "Military Operations On The St. Johns, September-October, 1862 (Part I)," Florida Historical Quarterly, 42:3 (January 1964), 232-248.

Bearss, Edwin C. "Military Operations On The St. Johns, September-October, 1862 (Part II)," Florida Historical Quarterly, 42:4 (April 1964), 331-351.

Brown, George E., Historical Data, Florida District, Engineer Officers. January 21, 1944. Typescript supplied by Cleve Powell.

Bruce, F. W., letter to Captain A. Anderson, November 16, 1889. Bruce Collection.

Bruce, Frederick, View showing the 82 foot concrete water tower at the Merrill-Stevens shipyard in Jacksonville, Florida,

Buker, George F., Sun, Sand and Water: A history of the Jacksonville District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 1821-1975. Washington: Superintendent of Documents, United States Government Printing Office, 1981.

Buker, George F. “Spanish-American War Fortifications, “Fort Caroline National Memorial. Contract No. PX 531090043.

Buker, George F. Jacksonville: Riverport-Seaport (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1992).

Davis, T. Frederick. "Engagements at St. Johns Bluff St. Johns River, September-October, 1862," Florida Historical Quarterly, 15:2, pp. 78-85.

Davis, T. Frederick. History of Jacksonville Florida and Vicinity 1513 to 1924. Jacksonville, 1925.

Furber, George C., compiler, revised and enlarged by Ezra S. Stearns, History of Littleton, New Hampshire: Genealogy. Published for the Town by the University, 1905.

“Information sent the National Cyclopedia of American Biography on F.W. Bruce c-1933.” Supplied by Cleve Powell.

Jacksonville Board of Trade, Report, 1887. p.18.

“Jetty Fishing in Jacksonville, Florida, “ Retrieved September 10, 2010.

Mabry, Donald J., World’s Finest Beach: A Short History of the Jacksonville Beaches (Charleston and London: The History Press, 2010).

Old Arlington, Inc., Frederick W. Bruce, Historical Marker, Bruce Park.

Old Arlington, Inc., “A Brief History of Arlington, “ Accessed September 22, 2010.

Powell, Cleve, “F. W. Bruce and the Spanish American War (4-25-1898/12-10-1898),” typescript, December, 2004.

Powell, Cleve, “World War I- Merrill Stevens South Side Ship Yard, History made on an already Historic Site,” typescript, 2010.

U. S. Corps of Engineers, Annual Report of the Chief of Engineers, U. S. Army, to the Secretary of War for the Year 1892. Washington: Government Prininting Office, 1892.

U. S. Government, The Annual Report of the Commissioner of Patents for the Year 1893. Congressional serial set, Volume 3173 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1894),

Donald J. Mabry