Written by Heather Carroll
From New York’s “The Big Apple” to Claxton, Georgia’s “Fruitcake Capital of the World,” it seems like every city, town, burg and hamlet has at least one nickname. Pensacola has many, and most are rooted in the city’s long history, which spans 450+ years.
America’s First European Settlement
Sister cities Pensacola and St. Augustine, Florida, have a longstanding feud about which deserves to claim the title of America’s “oldest” European settlement. It’s true that St. Augustine is our nation’s “oldest continuously occupied European settlement.” But the fact remains that Tristán de Luna y Arellano and around 1500 soldiers and colonists arrived in Pensacola in 1559. For the record, that’s six years before St. Augustine was settled, 48 before John Smith and company established Jamestown, Virginia, and 61 before the pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts.
Just weeks after making landfall, the Pensacola settlement was hit by a hurricane that sank half the fleet, decimated supplies and killed hundreds. Those first colonists managed to hold on for a couple of years but ultimately had to abandon the settlement. Archaeologists have discovered the remains of two of the original ships that were sunk by the hurricane. Discovered in 1992 and 2006, the Emanuel Point shipwrecks are the oldest in Florida. And after a 2015 discovery of mid-16th century Spanish pottery sherds and other artifacts, archaeologists pinpointed the exact location of the 1559 settlement in a residential neighborhood in Downtown Pensacola.
So, Pensacola is the nation’s earliest multi-year European settlement, but isn’t “earliest” just another way of saying “first” and/or “oldest”?
City of Five Flags
Pensacola’s “City of Five Flags” nickname is representative of the five governments that have ruled our area: Spain, France, Britain, the Confederacy and the United States. Up until the American Revolution, European powers built and sacked fortifications as they battled for supremacy in the region. General Andrew Jackson hoisted the American flag in 1821, ending Spain’s control over Pensacola. During the Civil War, Florida seceded from the Union, but Fort Pickens remained under Federal control throughout the war.
Today, five flags continue to adorn Pensacola’s City Hall. In the past, the “Stars and Bars” flag represented Confederate rule, but in 2015 the decision was made to fly the Florida state flag instead.
One of our biggest annual celebrations is the Fiesta of Five Flags, a 10-day festival to commemorate Pensacola’s founding by Don Tristán de Luna that features parades, historical reenactments and treasure hunts.
World’s Whitest Beaches
One look at our shores, and it’s easy to see how we got the “World’s Whitest Beaches” nickname (and the “the Emerald Coast” for that matter). The Pensacola Bay Area sports miles and miles of clear blue skies and turquoise-colored waters that lie in stark contrast to the purest, whitest beaches known to man.
Unlike most beaches, which are an amalgam of stone, lava, seashells, coral and other organic matter, the beaches of Pensacola and Perdido Key are made almost entirely of pure white quartz. Our sand must be seen and experienced to be believed. It’s so dazzlingly white that sunglasses are a necessity. And the sand is so fine-grained – finer even than sugar – that it squeaks or “barks” when you walk on it.
Our soft, clean sand is a joy to dig your toes in or sculpt into sandcastles. (Being that fine, it also tends to stick to the skin. Just pack some talcum powder in your beach bag. Before you head home, sprinkle some on your sandy parts, and the clinging sand will brush off easily.)
Cradle of Naval Aviation
In 1914, as the U.S. was gearing up for World War I, Pensacola was chosen as the site for the nation’s first naval air station. By war’s end, Pensacola Naval Air Station had trained 1000 naval aviators. Today, the base continues to train aviators from every branch of the U.S. military. It is home to the Navy’s world-famous precision-flying team, the Blue Angels. The team’s practices (Tuesdays & Wednesdays, March–November) are free and open to the public. Visitors can explore this fascinating chapter of American history, from “Cradle” to present day, at the National Naval Aviation Museum, which also happens to be Pensacola’s #1 attraction. Visitors can see more than 150 beautifully restored aircraft, including one-of-a-kind flying machines like the NC-4 seaplane that was the first to cross the Atlantic. The museum also features more than 350,000 square feet of indoor exhibit space and free guided tours from retired or active duty airman who bring the past to life with gripping tales of ingenuity, combat and triumph. (It’s important to note that visitors should enter Pensacola NAS via the West Gate located off Blue Angel Parkway.)
Western Gate to the Sunshine State
We got this nickname from our beloved Mayor Emeritus Vince Whibbs Sr., who with an unprecedented seven consecutive terms from 1977 to 1991 is Pensacola’s longest-serving mayor. The term was part of Mayor Whibbs’ Official Greeting:
“It is my privilege and pleasure as mayor to welcome you to Pensacola, the western gate to the Sunshine State, where thousands live the way millions wish they could, where the warmth of our community comes not only from God’s good sunshine, but from the hearts of the people who live here. Welcome to Pensacola, America’s first place city and the place where America began.”
Visitors can see a life-sized statue of our Mayor Whibbs, inscribed with his amazing greeting, at the Vince J. Whibbs Sr. Community Maritime Park (nicknamed “Bayfront Stadium” or “Blue Wahoos Stadium”).
Whatever you want to call Pensacola, it’s a wonderful place to visit, and you just might want to live here.