Located in northwest Florida, ten miles from the Alabama state line on its panhandle, Pensacola is rich in historic, military aviation, and natural sights, all with Florida’s signature sun, sand, seafood, and water aspects.
Although St. Augustine, on Florida’s east or Atlantic coast, is considered the oldest US city and took root after Admiral Pedro Menendez de Aviles sailed to it and established a colony, Pensacola, on the state’s west or Gulf of Mexico side, could have claimed the title if its own settlement had lasted.
Six years earlier, in August of 1559, Spanish explorer Tristan de Luna dropped his own anchor in an area local tribes named “Panzacola,” for “long-haired people,” with the intention of carrying out Luis de Velasco, the Mexican viceroy of Spain’s order of establishing a settlement on the bay.
Well provisioned and prepared, he was equipped with 11 ships and brought 1,500 would-be colonists, among whom were African slaves and Mexican Indians. But history was forced to take the wrong fork in the road when a fierce hurricane decimated eight of de Luna’s vessels on September 19.
Nevertheless, in an effort to salvage the expedition, he sent one of them to Veracruz, Mexico, to elicit aid, leaving the immigrants to eke out an existence on shore and survive by draining the supplies they had brought. Yet, instead of re-provisioning the colonists, the ships, arriving a year later, only rescued the survivors by taking them to Havana and leaving little more than a military outpost by the spring of 1561. By August, the handful of soldiers abandoned the new land site and returned to Mexico, deeming it too dangerous for settlement.
Although it was beyond knowledge at the time, a claim-to-fame as the oldest, continuous US city it would never be able to make.
It would be almost 150 years, in 1698, in fact, that foreign forces would once again seek to gain a foothold-in this case, Spain established a more successful garrison in what would become modern-day Pensacola and toward that end laid out a colonial town.
As has so often occurred throughout history, land, once claimed, became the prize others sought, often by military means, and Pensacola proved no exception. Spaniards initially surrendered to the French in May of 1719, but it was hardly the end of its ownership. France, Spain, Britain, and Spain once again would take possession over the next century, until the latter finally ceded Florida to the United States in 1821. Because the Confederacy also “took up residency,” Pensacola is considered the “City of Five Flags.”
A significant portion of its almost 500-year history has been preserved and can be experienced in the Pensacola Historic District, which is managed by the UWF Historic Trust, itself an organization supported by the University of West Florida, and it consists of 27 properties on the National Register of Historic Places.
Admission, only purchasable for a week, includes guided tours and visitor entry, and tickets can be obtained at Tivoli High House.
Important structures are many. Seville Square, for example, is the center of the old settlement and served as one end of the British route’s parade ground, ending at its twin, Plaza Ferdinand VII. It was here that General Andrew Jackson accepted the West Florida territory from Spain in 1821 and first raised the US flag.
A small, preserved section of Fort George, a target of the American Revolution’s Battle of Pensacola, is symbolic of British occupation from 1763 to 1781.
Original houses abound, including the Julee Panton Cottage, the 1805 Lavalle House, the 1871 Dorr House, and the 1890 Lear-Rocheblave House.
The Old Christ Church, located on Seville Square and built in 1824 by slave labor, is the oldest of its kind in the state to still occupy its original site.
There are also several museums: the T.T. Wentworth, Jr., Florida State Museum, which was constructed in 1908 and originally served as the City Hall, the Pensacola Children’s Museum, the Voices of Pensacola Multicultural Center, and the Museum of Commerce.
Although not technically part of the Pensacola Historic District, the Pensacola Grand Hotel is located on the site of the Louisville and Nashville Railroad’s passenger depot, which itself was constructed in 1912 to replace the original 1882 L&N Union Station that served Pensacola for 58 years. It is now on the National Register of Historic Places.
Restored in its original splendor and transformed into a hotel with a 15-story glass tower, it retains much of its early decoration, including a French clay tile roof and a ceramic mosaic tile floor, and is adorned with period pieces, such as a solid, drop-cast bronze light and antique furnishings.
Its opulent “1912, The Restaurant,” located on the ground floor, features entryway Biva doors from London, a cast-bronze French-style chandelier from Philadelphia, 1885 beveled glass from a Victorian hotel in Scranton, and scalloped-shaped grill work from Lloyd’s of London.
Naval Air Station Pensacola:
There are several significant attractions on Naval Air Station Pensacola, which can be accessed by the visitor’s gate and requires identification, such as a license, to enter
Located itself on the site of a Navy yard that was erected in 1825, it began as an aviation training station at the outbreak of World War I with nine officers, 23 mechanics, eight airplanes, and ten beach-propped tents, and was considered the first of its kind.
Dramatically expanding because of the Second World War, it trained 1,100 cadets per month, who collectively flew some two million hours. After its Naval Air Basic Training Command relocated its headquarters from Corpus Christi, Texas, to Pensacola, pure-jet aircraft were incorporated in the syllabus. Today, 12,000 active military personnel, 9,000 of whom receive aviation training, are assigned to the station.
The world-renowned National Naval Aviation Museum, also located here, is the largest and one of Florida’s most-visited attractions. It began not as a tourist sight, but instead as a means of including naval aviation history in cadet curriculums, for which there was neither sufficient time nor funding for the traditional book-and-study modality.
The facility, initially housed in an 8,500-square-foot wood frame building that hailed from World War II, became the locus of selection, collection, preservation, and display of aircraft and artifacts that represent the development and heritage of the service branch. It opened its doors on June 8, 1963.
Ever-expanding, it currently has 700 airplanes in its collection that are displayed in its 11 other official Navy museums throughout the country, but some 150 pristinely restored ones are still exhibited here after a new facility with 37 outdoor acres and 350,000 square feet of indoor space was completed. Admission is free.
Subdivided into the South Wing, the West Wing, a second-floor Mezzanine, and the separate Hangar Bay One, it traces the evolution of Navy aviation and the aircraft it operated from its inception to the latest Middle East conflicts.
The A-1 Triad, for example, was so named because if operated in the three realms of air (wings), water (floats), and land (wheels). The Nieuport 28, in the World War I section, facilitated aircraft carrier experimentation, while the mammoth Navy-Curtiss NC-4, at the threshold of the Golden Age exhibit, was the first to traverse the Atlantic from Trepassey, Newfoundland, to the Azores Islands off of Portugal.
Speed from jet fighters during the Cold War is represented by such types as the McDonnell F2H-4 Banshee, the North American FJ-2 Fury, and the Russian MiG-15.
Centerpiece of the West Wing is the “USS Cabot” island and a replica of its carrier deck, which is surrounded by an extensive collection of mostly World War II aircraft, including the Grumman F4F-3 Wildcat, the Vought-Sikorsky FG-1D Corsair, and the General Motors (Grumman) TBM Avenger.
Of the numerous exhibits on the museum’s mezzanine, which itself overlooks both the South and West Wings and can even be accessed by airliner ground stairs, there can be none that offer a greater contrast to each other than those devoted to lighter-than-air aviation and space exploration.
Evolved from the spherical balloon first successfully flown by the Montgolfier Brothers in 1783 in the first case, airships were large, controllable balloons which attained lift by the buoyancy principle themselves, but incorporated engines for propulsion and rudders and elevators for, respectively, yaw (steering) and longitudinal (pitch) axis control. Suspended gondolas housed the crew and passengers. Rigid types featured internal frameworks, which were not required by the non-rigid ones, such as blimps.
Gondolas or control cars from the Navy’s L-8 and World War II-era K-47 airships are on display. The latter, delivered on May 19, 1943 at Moffett Field, California, had a 425,000-cubic-foot internal volume.
In the second, or space, case, a replica of the Mercury Freedom 7 space capsule, the original of which was launched at 116.5 nautical miles and was air/space borne for 14.8 minutes, represents Naval Aviation’s contributions to the Space Program, because Naval Aviator Alan B. Shepard became the first American to enter that realm on May 5, 1961.
Also on display is the original Skylab II Command Module, which orbited the Skylab space station during 28 days between May and June of 1973. Operated by a three-member, all-Navy crew, it set several records, including the longest manned spaceflight, the greatest distance traveled, and the greatest mass docked in space.
Visible from both the mezzanine and the main floor is the 75-foot-tall, 10,000-square-foot Blue Angels Atrium that connects the South and West Wings and features four Douglas A-4 Skyhawks in a diving diamond painted in the aerobatic team’s dark blue livery.
Hangar Bay One, with 55,000 square feet of exhibit space, features such aircraft as the Sikorsky VH-3 Sea King, which transported presidents Nixon and Ford during the 1970s; the Douglas R4D-5L Skytrain, which became the first to land on Antarctica’s South Pole in 1956; and the Grumman F-14D Tomcat, the supersonic, swing-wing fighter that logged the last combat mission.
Visitor services include complementary tours, a laser-powered giant screen theater showing multiple daily films, two gift shops, and the Cubi Bar Café.
Practice flights of the famed Blue Angels flight demonstration team can be viewed at the Museum Flight Line, north of the museum itself.
Another historic attraction on Naval Air Station grounds is the Pensacola Lighthouse.
Because of the strategic importance of Pensacola Harbor, Congress appropriated $6,000 in March of 1823 to construct a lighthouse, choosing an appropriate site in June, but temporarily substituting a floating alternative, the “Aurora Borealis,” until construction was completed. Transferred from the mouth of the Mississippi River, it was positioned behind the western end of Santa Rosa Island.
The permanent structure, a 40-foot-wide, white brick tower with ten whale oil lamps, each of which was strengthened by a 14-inch reflector, was first lit on December 20 of the following year and enabled sailing vessels to steer toward it and then enter the harbor.
Although it proved more useful than the floating boat it replaced, it began to reveal its deficiencies by 1850: it was obstructed by trees on Santa Rosa Island and its light was too dim to serve as an effective navigation aid, prompting the newly-established Lighthouse Board to recommend a replacement that would rise at least 150 feet in height.
Responding to its request, Congress allocated $25,000 in 1854 and an additional $30,000 two years later. Construction of the new facility, located a half-mile west of the original, was completed in 1858. Rising 159 feet from a 30-foot-diameter base and tapering to a 15-foot top, it was first lit on New Year’s Day, 1859, by Keeper Palmes. It featured the most powerful lens then available, a first-order Fresnel one.
Now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Pensacola Lighthouse offers the visitor a glimpse into mid-19th century light keeper life, with a Visitor Center and Museum Shop located in the 1890s Carriage House, the Richard C. Callaway Museum in the 1869 keepers quarters, and the 177-step lighthouse itself, which can be climbed for views of Pensacola Bay.
Yet another historically important attraction on Naval Air Station Pensacola is Fort Barrancas.
“Situated on the bluffs overlooking Pensacola Bay, Fort Barrancas was built to protect the United States from foreign invaders,” according to the National Park Service. “Once considered vital to national defense, today Fort Barrancas illustrates the evolution of military technology and America’s values.”
Shortly after Spain ceded Florida to the US, the United States Navy selected Pensacola Bay as its main Gulf Coast Navy yard and concurrent with the decision was the dispatch of Army Corps of Engineers officers to survey the coastline with the intention of constructing fortifications to protect the Navy yard itself.
Built over the ruins of the 1798 Spanish fort designated Fort San Carlos de Barrancas-“Barrancas” being the Spanish word for “bluffs”-it was the third such fortification on the bay. The existing, 1797 Batteria de San Antonio was retained and modified.
Taking form between March 21 and September 21 by the hands of enslaved laborers, who worked from sunrise to sunset, it incorporated significant armament, including ten 24-pound cannons.
Although it was built as a defensive structure, it only engaged in combat during the Civil War.
Because of new developments to cannons and naval war vessels, the US government began evaluating proposals for new coastal defenses in 1885 and after the curtain closed on World War II, it was declared surplus in 1947.
A trail leads from the Visitor Center to the actual, kite-shaped fort, whose prominent features encompass a scarp and counterscarp, a ditch, a drawbridge, a sally port, a guard room, an open parade area, and a water battery. A tunnel connected the latter two. Cannon projectiles fired from the water battery itself were intended to ricochet off of the bay and hit ships at their water lines.
The fort’s four-foot-thick by 20-foot-high walls, comprised of six million bricks, features archways and valued ceilings.
The nearby Advanced Redoubt, constructed between 1845 and 1870, protected the northern side of the peninsula, location of the Pensacola Navy Yard.
Bridge- and causeway-linked, via Gulf Breeze, to the mainland, Pensacola Beach, eight miles from downtown Pensacola and accessed by Interstate 110 South, is a narrow stretch of sugary sand on the barrier island of Santa Rosa, overlooking emerald waters of the bay and the Gulf of Mexico and offering ocean-related activities, such as swimming, sun tanning, fishing, snorkeling, sailing, and diving. Fiery red, chartreuse, and purple sunsets regularly paint the sky.
Beach-fronted hotels are numerous, such as the Surf and Sand, the Margaritaville Beach, and the Portofino Island Resort, along with known names like the Hampton Inn, Hilton, Holiday Inn, SpringHill Suites, and Days Inn. Florida-indicative seafood restaurants, with indoor and outdoor seating overlooking the water, include those such as Hemingway’s Island Grill, Flounder’s Chowder House, the Grand Marlin, Shaggy’s Pensacola Beach, and Peg Leg Pete’s.
Stretching 1,471 feet into the water, Pensacola Gulf Pier affords fishing for bluefish, pompano, redfish, Spanish mackerel, and spotted sea trout. Flounder is not to be ruled out.
The self-guided Footprints in the Sand Eco Tour, marked by informative signs, affords the opportunity to learn about local plant and animal life, including dolphins, sharks, turtles, birds, fish, and flowers. Each one explains a different ecological topic.
Pensacola Beach is part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, which itself stretches 160 miles from Fort Walton Beach, Florida, to Cat Island, Mississippi, and includes barrier islands, maritime forests, bayous, marine habitats, and historic forts. The park headquarters, offering orientation films and exhibits about the Live Naval Oaks Area, is located in Gulf Breeze, the island between the mainland and Pensacola Beach.
Shaped by the Gulf of Mexico the national seashore preserves pockets of American history and culture and encapsulates the visitor in Florida’s flora and fauna. In the void formed by the water and sky, for instance, dolphins surface, starfish swim, and pelicans and seagulls allow the breeze to carry them across the panorama.
One of the Gulf Islands National Seashore’s historic preservations is Fort Pickens, located on the western end of Santa Rosa Island directly across the Pensacola Bay Harbor entrance from Fort Barrancas. Named after Brigadier General Andrew Pickens, a patriot who fought with distinction in South Carolina during the Revolutionary War, it was once the largest brick structure on the Gulf of Mexico.
Tracing its origins to 1821, when the Third System of coastal forts was extended to include protection of Pensacola Bay and its mainland shore communities, it adopted a secondary purpose four years later when legislature to establish a Navy yard and depot was passed. As part of the trio of defenses, it was intended to guard the western end of Santa Rosa Island in cooperation with fortifications of the bluffs north of the channel and on the eastern end of Perdido Key.
Its construction, under the supervision of US Army Corps of Engineers, commenced in 1829 after the government acquired 998 acres of land and the pentagon-shaped structure, built up of more than 21.5 million bricks and equipped with more than 200 cannons, was completed five years later.
“(Workers) used construction materials such as lime, water, and sand to mix mortar; lumber for grillage and to build wharves, scaffolding, and support buildings; lead sheets to waterproof casemate arches and for gutters and drains; granite for steps and traverse stones; copper sheeting, bars, and fixtures for use in powder magazines; (and) brick for the main work and counterscarp,” according to the National Park Service.
Requiring a garrison of 500 men during wartime, but able to accommodate double that number in emergencies, the five-bastion structure, consisting of a single tier of casemates and a barbette tier, was capable of unleashing a ring of fire from its seaward-facing walls.
In the event, the only combat it ever experienced occurred during the Civil War.
Today, visitors still enter Fort Pickens through its original sally post, the main entrance secured with heavy oak doors. The plaster-lined quarters served as both residences and hospital rooms. The arched casemates provided protected artillery positions and a base for the second level cannons. Three main chambers, each holding 1,000 pounds of gunpowder, were connected by a tunnel system. The powder magazines, storing the fort’s black power supply, were wood-lined to keep them dry and necessitated the slipper-covered boots of soldiers who entered them to prevent potential ignition from sparks. The generator room was the location of the steam-powered generators installed in 1903 to provide electricity for searchlights and other modern equipment.
The counterscarp formed a dry mount to protect the fort from land-based assaults. Rain water was collected and stored in cisterns for drinking. And the tower bastion, pointing directly across the channel, ensured the harbor’s protection.