The Historical Text Archive: Electronic History Resources, online since 1990 Bringing you digitized history, primary and secondary sources
HTA Home Page | Articles | United States/20th Century | What A Man! John G. Christopher

Email to a friend
Printer friendly

What A Man! John G. Christopher

John Garrison Christopher, 1855-1933

Source: Jacksonville 50th Anniversary of the Telephone

Grocer, shipping magnate, hotelier, churchman, gun runner, communications promoter, civic leader. What a man!

His parents were Knickerbockers[1] and he was a Missouri mule, born in St. Louis, July 4, 1855, where his father was in the wholesale grocery business. When his father died in 1864, his mother moved the family back to Knickerbocker land, back to Yonkers, NY. Six years later, John graduated from Yonkers High School at age 15. He then spent two years preparing for college. Rather than attend Yale University, a college for the very elite, he opted to do the Grand Tour of Europe from 1872 until 1874. He had economic resources and connections and could have afforded to be one of the idle rich but he was ambitious.

He followed his late father’s occupation as a wholesale grocer from 1874-77 and did well. His salary rose to $3,600 ($72,803 in 2010 dollars). He tired of the business and resigned, turning down an offer of $5,000 ($101,115) to stay.[1] Instead, he followed his sister and her husband, William S. Wightman, to Jacksonville, Florida where the two created a wholesale grocery firm, Wightman & Christopher in 1877. They were partners for ten years.[2]

The Jacksonville area was growing rapidly and also served as a portal for a vast hinterland. It was a railroad hub as well as a riverport and a seaport.[3] Clyde steamships run thrice weekly to NY and Boston. Tourism was important but the growth of the timber and naval stores industries were more important. By 1902, the naval stores business had moved from Savannah, Brunswick, and Pensacola. The wholesale grocery business grew to $12,000,000 done by twenty-nine businesses by 1906.

After a tragic loss, he married well. On January 21, 1879, he married Sarah Morton Bowers of Yonkers, NY but she died a half a year later on July 8, 1879. Then he married Henrietta Shoemaker on October 3, 1882. She was the daughter of R. M. Shoemaker, the railroad president from Cincinnati. This marriage connected him to a powerful transportation family. His father-in-law was involved in several railroads, the Little Miami Railroad, Mad River & Lake Erie Railroad, Dayton and Michigan Railroad, Cincinnati, Hamilton, and Dayton Railroad, Kentucky Central Railroad, the Kansas Pacific Railway, Cincinnati Southern Railway Company, Cincinnati Consolidated Street Railway Company, and the St. Louis Bridge and Tunnel Company.[4] The Shumachers [Shoemakers] were from Herkimer County, New York as was General Francis Spinner, former U.S. Treasurer, who lived at Pablo Beach in a tent for about two years—1885-87—because he said it was good for his health. Spinner was the father-in-law of Shoemaker, the first cashier of the First National Bank of Florida. The General created a compound, “Ruby Camp Caroline,” where his friends and acquaintances joined him. The compound included a pavilion with a honky-tonk. Prominent businessmen in Jacksonville began building summer cottages at the beaches; by 1895, seventy summer cottages dotted the shore.

In the early 1880s, Christopher went into the steam boating business on the St Johns River. Tourists, mostly from northern climes, liked to take a steamboat from Jacksonville south to Palatka or even further. Christopher owned several boats. His Queen of the St Johns was the largest ever to ply the St Johns River.

Queen of the St. Johns

Ocean going ships were more profitable and he entered the business in 1878. He was an agent for the Squires Line in the 1878-1884 period. The Squires Line sailed schooners between Jacksonville and New York. Christopher, with Baltimore capitalists, established the Jacksonville and Baltimore Packet Line between the two cities and operated it for nineteen years, retiring from the line in 1900. In the 1890s, he organized the Merchant Steamship Company of Florida which used ventilated ships for fruit and vegetable trade with New York. He named the first ship the steamer John G. Christopher. When it arrived in Jacksonville on January 16, 1892 from New York, it was met with great jubilation.

Christopher was an early adopter. The first phone line was installed in Jacksonville in 1878 and it didn’t take him long to see the business potential of the device. In 1880, he worked with B.D. DeForrest to create the first Jacksonville telephone exchange was formed with thirty-four subscribers.[5] He built the first electric generating plant in Florida. In 1896, he started a machinery and mill supply business that became one of the largest in the Southeast and used this two-story warehouse.[6] It seemed that he had the Midas touch.

J. G. Christopher Headquarters and Warehouse, 1939 Source: Metro Jacksonville[7]

Not all went well for him, however. His venture into the hotel business was a disaster. In 1883, he was one of the Jacksonville businessmen who backed the building of the narrow-gauged Jacksonville & Atlantic Railroad from South Jacksonville to within 1100 feet of the ocean. The area was first called Ruby Beach, then Pablo Beach, and then, in 1925, Jacksonville Beach. Christopher started building the magnificent Murray Hall Hotel where Beach Boulevard meets the ocean in 1884. The luxurious Murray Hall Hotel was occupied even before it opened in 1887. During July 5-10, 1885 it was used for the encampment of state troops, not long enough to make a difference. The hotel cost $150,000 and had 192 rooms or a 350-guest capacity. Steam heated the hotel but it also had 58 open fireplaces, a danger in a wooden building in a settlement without fire protection. The Hotel generated electricity for itself and the rest of Pablo Beach. Its artesian well supplied the city until 1918. For entertainment, it had a children’s playroom, a billiard room, bar, and an orchestra for its ballroom. Christopher dreamed of attracting the wealthy in both summer and winter. One could telephone Jacksonville from the hotel.

Murray Hall Hotel Source: Beaches Museum & History Center

Murray Hall Hotel Source: Beaches Museum & History Center

Murray Hall Hotel Source: Beaches Museum & History Center

Murray Hall Hotel Source: Beaches Museum & History Center

C. H. French, an experienced hotelier, managed it the first year but the Christophers took over for the next three to cut expenses. The hotel could accommodate more people than the tiny settlement! A tornado struck on September 23, 1889, killing a boy and wreaking destruction:

A tornado passed over Pablo Beach, sixteen miles from here, at six o'clock last evening and did great damage to Murray Hall, an immense beach hotel. The tin roof was torn off, the windows and doors burst in and the building left in a generally shattered condition. The servants' quarters and carpenter shop near the hotel were completely demolished. PRINCE O'NEIL, a boy thirteen years old, was standing by the horse and buggy of Lawrence Haynes, near the dancing pavilion, awaiting the arrival of the evening train. The horse, vehicle and boy were lifted into the air and blown nearly 200 feet to the beach. The boy was killed outright.

A freight car on a side track was lifted in the air, turned over twice and landed on the north side of the main track, sixty feet distant. A passenger train due at six o'clock was half an hour late, owing to obstructions on the track. Had it arrived on time a hundred cottagers returning from the city would doubtless have been killed or seriously injured. The force of the wind was such that pieces of timber were driven through the two-inch plank flooring of the railroad station and were with great difficulty extricated for the passage of the train. The cottagers escaped with little or no damage, and no serious injury to persons is reported beyond the death of the O'NEIL boy.

The damage to Murray Hall and surroundings is estimated at $10,000. It closed for the season last Wednesday. It is owned and managed by John G. Christopher, of this city. Great excitement prevails among the cottagers, but the weather is again perfectly calm. The tornado covered an area of not over seventy-five feet in its revolutions and buildings and persons outside of this circle were uninjured. The tornado was less than three minutes in duration and passed off toward the northwest.[8]

The Murray Hall and surrounding buildings burned to the ground as a result of a boiler room fire on August 7th, 1890. Reports attest to the spectacular sight as the middle of the night fire lit up the sky; the blaze could be seen for miles. As Dwight Wilson says:

“The building created a fire storm, and the Ocean View Hotel, a block away, was almost destroyed. Pryor’s Grocery burned. The railroad station, the pavilion, the two pagodas, the sheds, some homes, the wooden bulkhead and a box car were all destroyed. Sheet metal from the roof fell 600 feet from the fire. Railroad rails for a hundred feet twisted and curled.”

John G. Christopher and wife lost $225,000 less the $4,000 insurance but Henrietta Christopher was relieved that the financial albatross died. The railroad company lost its pavilion and terminal but fared better, losing only $500 after its $5,500 insurance policy was paid. The lessee, J. W. Campbell, owner of the St James Hotel in Jacksonville, lost little.[9]

The Christophers were congregants of St. Johns Episcopal Church in Jacksonville and they allowed the hotel parlor to host Sunday afternoon services until the mission church, St Paul’s-by-the-Sea, was built at 2nd Street South and 2nd Avenue South in 1887. The railroad donated the land; congregants provided funds. Henrietta Christopher bought the first organ and she and her husband were avid supporters of the little chapel. Church services were held in the summer for the most part and priests came when possible.[10] The original building has survived albeit without its tower and was moved to the grounds of the Beaches Museum and History center in Jacksonville Beach. It and the modern church are successes of Christopher.

St. Paul’s-By-The Sea, 1906

Original Chapel, 2007 Photo by Don Mabry

Original Chapel, 2007 Photo by Don Mabry

He supported the leftists in Cuba who were fighting to drive the conservative Spanish government off the island from 1895-98. The United States remained neutral in the Cuban-Spanish War of 1895-98 until it joined the fray in 1898 for a variety of reasons. Americans tended to favor the independence fighters and a few aided them with money, guns, and refuge. Napoleon Bonaparte Broward used his ship The Three Friends to carry arms and munitions from Nassau to Cuban independence revolutionaries on the island in 1896. Broward piloted the seagoing tug to Cuba, carrying a Cuban hero, General Enrique Collazo (veteran of the Ten Years' War), two officers, fifty-four men plus arms and ammunition to Cuba, giving the insurrectionists much-needed hope. Jacksonville Cubans had made the arrangements. Running guns was a profitable and exciting business and he made eight illegal trips. Broward was so good at it that Spain complained but U. S. authorities could not catch him.
Christopher’s important role was widely reported in newspapers. For example The Morning Call of San Francisco ( March 19, 1896) and The Record-Union, of Sacramento (March 18, 1896) reported that five tons of the arms and ammunition seized from the schooner “Mallory” were sent via a sealed railroad car to Jacksonville from Cedar Key. When the contents became known in Jacksonville, the arms were stored in the Wightman & Christopher warehouse. The illegal arms stayed until March 12th, then were loaded on the Three Friends and Broward sailed to Alligator Key near Miami on the 13th and took the Mallory in tow to take men and munitions to Cuba. Christopher was President of the Friends of Cuba Club of Jacksonville.[11]

The Three Friends

When the Cubans and Americans won the war in 1898, the felony crime of the gun running was conveniently forgotten. Besides, few had sympathy for Spaniards.

Christopher was an upstanding member of the Jacksonville community. In 1897, he ran for mayor of Jacksonville, making no promises to special interests and only lost by 163 votes. He was a founding member of the of Board of Trade [Chamber of Commerce] and was President in 1896. His memberships included the prestigious Seminole Club, Jacksonville Country Club (which he served as President), Patriarchs Club, and St. John’s Episcopal Church. He was a founding Director of the National Bank of Jacksonville since its beginning.[12] He also served on the State Board of Health in the early twentieth century until 1913.[13]

In 1901, he commissioned Robert H. Paul to build a large home for him on the Atlantic Beach ocean front at 11th Street. The house still exists. While it was being built, he lived at the Continental Hotel, a few blocks south.[14]

On the left, the Christopher-Bull House. Photo by Don Mabry

John G. Christopher survived until 1933 having lived a full life. Henrietta died in 1922 when he was 67 years old. By 1925, he had married a native Vermont woman, Anna, three years his junior. They rented a house at lived at 780 Riverside Avenue for $210 a month ($2520 a year) in a neighborhood were houses were worth $25,000 or more. In 1929, 71% of families had incomes of less than $2,500. By 1930, Hilma Sarllra, a 50-year-old woman, born in Finland of Russian parents, was living there as a servant.[15]

Why bother about writing about such a man? After all, he was neither a state nor a national politician. He wasn’t an inventor or a soldier. He wasn’t an intellectual idol or a teacher. Instead, he was a local entrepreneur who helped develop Jacksonville, Florida into an important city. He showed Jacksonville Beach the possibilities of tourism while also attending to its religious life. Most people never accomplish so much. We need to know more about such people.


[*] An old sobriquet for New Yorkers

[1] The Inflation Calculator found is found at The average working man earned between $400 and $500 in 1900 so his salary was very high.

[2] Charles H. Smith, Jacksonville and Florida Facts, 1905-1906. (Jacksonville: H. and W. B. Drew Company, 1906), 24-26.

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

[4] Obituary, New York Times, February 11, 1885.

[5] Fiftieth Anniversary of the Telephone, 1876-1926, and Chronology of the Telephone In Jacksonville. "City's First Telephone Directory in 1880 Listed 34 Subscribers," Florida Times-Union, December 27, 1964.

[6] Remembering The East Bay Street District | Metro Jacksonville

[7] Ibid.

[8] “Pueblo [sic] Beach, FL Violent Tornado Strikes, Sep 1889.” Elyria Democrat Ohio 1889-09-26. Posted by Stu Beitler on

[9] James C. Craig, “Murray Hall,” Jacksonville Historical Society Papers, Vol. III, 1954. Dwight Wilson, drawing heavily upon Craig’s work, provides an account of the attempts to create luxury hotels on the ocean shore. See “The Murray Hall and the Continental: Our World-Famous Hotels of Yesteryear,” Tidings Vol. 13, no. 1 Winter 1992; “A Jacksonville Hotel Burned,” New York Times, August 8, 1890.

[10] Harley Henry, “A Brief History of St. Paul's by-the-Sea,” St. Paul's by-the-Sea web site,, on March 23, 2012. Unpublished manuscript, “A Chronology of St. Paul’s by the Sea
Episcopal Church, Jacksonville Beach, Florida. Revised May, 2007, copy in the Beaches Museum.

[11] The Morning Call of San Francisco ( March 19, 1896) and The Record-Union, of Sacramento (March 18, 1896). See Samuel Proctor, Napoleon Bonaparte Broward: Florida's Fighting Democrat. Gainesville, University of Florida Press, 1993, pp. 100-103 for Christopher’s involvement.

[12] Rowland H. Rerick, Memoirs of Florida, Vol. 1 . Edited by Francis P. Fleming. (Atlanta: Southern Historical Association, 1902), pp. 484-6.

[13] H. Clay Crawford, Report of the Secretary of State of the State of Florida, For the Period Beginning January 1, 1911, and Ending December 31, 1912. 1913. T. J. Appleyard, State Printer, Tallahassee. Fla.

[14] See my work: “A Man and Three Hotels,” HTA Press, March 16, 2006; “Harcourt Bull's Atlantic Beach, Florida, HTA Press, February 8, 2007; and World’s Finest Beach: A Brief History of the Jacksonville Beaches (Charleston and London: The History Press, 2010.

[15] A search of retrieved data on the household in 1930. Jacksonville city directories through 1925 are available online through the Jacksonville Public Library web site. He, his wife, and servant are found on U. S. Census Bureau, 15th Census Populations 1930, 15-16 (Washington, DC), page 532 of 15thcensus313unit.pdf.