Pensacola's Rich History

History comes alive in the Pensacola Bay Area

by Lynne Christen
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Old Christ Church Pensacola
Stained glass window at Old Christ Church.
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Jewel-green waters and powder-soft beaches first attracted me to this gorgeous coast. But it didn’t take me long to discover Pensacola’s authentic history along with its beautiful beaches.

Founded by Spanish sailor Don Tristan de Luna in 1559, the Pensacola Bay Area was one of the first European settlements in the New World. Over the centuries, the flags of Spain, Britain, France, the Confederacy and the United States have flown over the “City of Five Flags.” The people of Pensacola have done a remarkable job preserving their cache of historic sites. Join me for a getaway that explores 450 years of rich heritage.

Historic Accommodations at the Pensacola Victorian
When we arrive at the Pensacola Victorian, it’s love at first sight. The meticulously-restored Queen Anne Victorian bed and breakfast inn is recognized for its easygoing elegance and the warm hospitality of innkeepers Barbee and Chuck Major. We jump-start our history quest each day with a hearty Victorian breakfast, and then follow in the footsteps of King Juan Carlos I and Queen Sofia of Spain, who visited Pensacola for the city’s 450th birthday bash in 2009.

Exploring Pensacola’s Historic Downtown
It’s a pleasant walk from the inn to Historic Pensacola Village in downtown Seville Square. The complex consists of 27 properties on the National Historic Register, 11 of which are open to the public. Guides dressed in period costumes go about their lives – candle-dipping, cooking, washing laundry by hand, making medicines and training their military – as if it were still Colonial times. I pause at the 1805 Lavalle House, the 1871 Dorr House, the 1890 Lear-Rocheblave House and the 1805 Julee Cottage (an integral part of the Pensacola Bay Area’s rich African-American heritage). At Old Christ Church, we see where Union soldiers stabled their horses during the Civil War.

Next, we spend a couple of hours among thousands of exhibits at the T.T. Wentworth, Jr. Florida State Museum and Pensacola Historical Museum. Later, we stroll The Pensacola Colonial Archaeological Trail and finish up at Plaza Ferdinand VII, where Gen. Andrew Jackson accepted the territory of West Florida from Spain in 1821.

Feeling “spirited” as night falls, we head to Apple Annie’s Courtyard in Seville Quarter (reputed to be one of Pensacola’s “haunted” restaurants). No paranormal encounters on this trip, but we learn that the best times for “ghost spotting” are during the Pensacola Historical Society’s summer night ghost walks, as well as their October haunted trolley tours and walking tours.

Pensacola's Historic Forts
On day two of our getaway, my husband, a naval history buff, looks forward to visiting several of the Pensacola Bay Area’s famous forts: Fort Pickens, Fort McRee and Fort Barrancas, all of which protected the harbor. The Advanced Redoubt was constructed to defend the Pensacola Navy Yard and Fort Barrancas from land attack.

Our first stop is Fort Pickens, the largest of four historic forts in the Pensacola Bay Area. Built between 1829 and 1834, it was occupied by Union forces during the Civil War. The Battle of Santa Rosa Island took place within sight of its walls. And, between 1886 and 1888, Apache chief Geronimo and members of his tribe were imprisoned here. Abandoned as a military post following WWII, Fort Pickens was reopened by the National Park Service in 1976.

Across Pensacola Bay, Fort Barrancas and the Water Battery perch on a high bluff at Naval Air Station Pensacola. Almost 150 years ago, Confederate troops occupying the fort exchanged fire with Union troops occupying Fort Pickens across the bay. Today, park rangers lead tours that are full of legends and lore, including tales of the spirits of Confederate soldiers who died in battle here.

The Pensacola Lighthouse
Closeby, Pensacola Lighthouse is the fourth tallest brick lighthouse in the country. Standing proudly through Civil War skirmishes and natural disasters, it is still an active lighthouse. Its flashing white beacon shines 27 miles out to sea at 20-second intervals. Saturday tours trace lighthouse history; the view is worth climbing 177 steps to the top. Keep an eye out for the ghost of the first lighthouse keeper, Jeremiah Ingram.

Sky to Sea: A Fitting Farewell to Pensacola
On our last day in Pensacola, we spend almost a full day tracing naval aviation through the decades at the National Naval Aviation Museum– one of the world’s leading aviation museums – located at Naval Air Station Pensacola. NAS was the nation’s first permanent naval air station and is currently the world’s largest training facility for Naval, Marine and Coast Guard aviators. More than 150 historic military aircraft are on display at the museum. Exhibits tell fascinating stories of combat actions, along with technological advancements through the decades. My favorite: The story of the USS Enterprise – the “Big E.”

On our last night in Pensacola, we dine at award-winning Jackson’s Steakhouse. Our nightcap: A performance by the Pensacola Symphony Orchestra at the recently-renovated Saenger Theatre, first opened in 1925 for Vaudeville shows and silent films. Next day before heading home, it’s a perfect morning to stop by Gulf Islands National Seashore to enjoy a walk on one of the world’s best beaches.

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