Tales of Flying Fish, Fighter Jets, Lost Explorers and Hipster Colonists
Through some 460 years of history, our little berg along the Gulf of Mexico has collected some cool stories and tall tales. We hear chatter of America’s “almost” first city, the sad imprisonment of Geronimo and fake news about a lost Beatles’ Rolls Royce. We even have fish that can fly across state lines. Well, sort of. We’ll get to that.
With the help of my Greek friend Wikipedia and friendly historian/bartenders, let’s share some non-fake, tweet-worthy tidbits about Pensacola. So come on, sit a spell.
The Land of Hairy People and America’s First Hipster Settlement
Some 460 years ago, Spanish explorer Don Tristan de Luna landed a fleet of ships carrying 1500 people in “Panzacola” to establish what would be considered the first European settlement in the continental U.S.
Nowadays, De Luna’s landing is celebrated by festivals and pageantry hosted by our “Fiesta of Five Flags” heritage organization. Every June, the Fiesta Forces relive the historic landing — aboard a modern fleet of air-conditioned cabin cruisers, mega sport fishers and luxury yachts.
If only Don Tristan de Luna had their radars, air conditioning and luxury suites. He would have secured the supplies and saved the ships battered by the violent hurricane in 1559 that sunk his fleet before they had even had the chance to offload the ships. Don Tristan eventually was forced to abandon the settlement and went to the Yucatan, leaving the honor of first city to our opposite-coast town of St. Augustine. (It’s OK, we have better beaches.)
So what about our name? “Panzacola” was of Native American origin and given to Spanish settlements in the 17th and 18th centuries. Fun fact: It means, roughly, “Land of Hairy People.” Could this have been the first hipster settlement in Florida?
The Lost Bay, Found
In 1693, Spanish scientist and cartographer Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora was sent to find a hidden pass that would provide safe harbor to the Spanish fleets. The story goes that Gongora was blown off-course, but a friendly native tribe camped along the coast led the storm-tossed explorer to find the pass. The lost or “perdido” bay was found.
The Spanish name stuck. Perdido Key became a found treasure that proudly lives up to its name.
The Mighty O: The World’s Largest Artificial Reef
The once mighty, combat-tested aircraft carrier, USS Oriskany, is serenely docked at her final resting place in the Gulf of Mexico, about 28 miles south of Pensacola. Imagine an 872-foot aircraft carrier, encrusted with barnacles and harboring hulking grouper and amberjack as it rests on the seafloor.
The Mighty O was decommissioned and later donated as an artificial reef in 2006. It has been designated the world’s largest artificial reef and has since been named by The Times of London as one of the top ten wreck diving sites in the world. Local divers call it “The Great Carrier Reef.” FYI: The Oriskany is considered a deep-water dive and requires an advanced diver certification.
Finned Flyers of the Flora-Bama
Many years ago, a musician named Jimmy Louis was inspired by a cow-chip-tossing contest in Oklahoma. But with a shortage of cow chips in Florida, he spotted a mullet soaring briefly over the Gulf. Eureka!
So about 1978, the soon-to-be-famous Flora-Bama Interstate Mullet Toss/beach party took flight. Now, in late April every year, the wild weekend at the Florida-Alabama state line draws tens of thousands to celebrate the miracle of finned flight (sort of).
Fin Fact: Mullet is one of few fish to have a gizzard, a bird-like attribute. And, scientists believe the mullet’s aimless leaps help generate oxygen.
Fun Fact: The Flora-Bama Bar and Lounge could have just been “The Flora.” The state-straddling bar opened in 1964. By then, the state line moved! So Florida gave Alabama two miles of Florida's beaches in exchange for Alabama building the Perdido Pass Bridge.
Birth of the Blue Angels
The Navy’s Flight Demonstration Team — er, the Blue Angels — had numerous home bases after they formed in 1946. They were briefly stationed at Whiting Field in nearby Milton, but set their roots at Sherman Field on NAS Pensacola in 1955 — and have nested here ever since.
Pensacola is the only city in the country that hosts two Blue Angels show a year – the annual Pensacola Beach Air Show in July and the Blue Angels Homecoming Air Show every November on Pensacola NAS.
Pensacola’s Own Musical Angel
Legendary classical musician Don Shirley was born in Pensacola. A musical prodigy, Shirley was playing the organ at his father’s church, St. Cyprian’s Episcopal Church in the historically black neighborhood of Belmont-DeVilliers, by age three. By age nine, Shirley was studying at the famed Leningrad Conservatory of Music in Russia. He went on to become a renowned composer of organ symphonies, a piano concerto, a cello concerto, three string quartets, a one-act opera and works for organ, piano and violin.
Still no recollection? In the 1960s Shirley embarked on a concert tour that included the Deep South. For part of the tour he hired a bodyguard and driver — New York nightclub bouncer Tony "Lip" Vallelonga. Their story inspired the 2019 Oscars Best Picture film, “Green Book,” and Mahershala Ali won best actor for his portrayal of Shirley.
The Mississippi Blues Come to Florida
Belmont-DeVilliers, the neighborhood where Don Shirley grew up, now boasts an official stop on the Mississippi Blues Trail. An early center for blues, ragtime, vaudeville and jazz activity, Belmont-Devilliers developed into a regional cornerstone as the “chitlin’ circuit.” Touring acts and local musicians found a welcome base in Pensacola’s African American business and entertainment district for several decades. Blues performers such as B.B. King, Junior Parker, and Sam Cooke found a welcoming home in the neighborhood’s theaters and clubs.
We Have Trails for That!
Want to paddle all 1,515 miles of the entire state of Florida? The Florida Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling Trail starts right here in the Pensacola Bay Area. However, we strongly suggest you pause here for a bit. No need to rush!
Pensacola also proudly claims the start of the Great Florida Birding & Wildlife Trail. Our spots include Fort Pickens, Big Lagoon State Park and the Pensacola Bayfront. Spring and summer is shore-nesting season for colonies of protected black skimmers, plovers and least terns. They scratch out tiny clefts in the sand to lay tiny camouflaged eggs. The chicks often dart along roadways. So slow down, keep a safe distance and you enjoy the trail!
Geronimo’s Fortress Prison
Did you know that Geronimo lived here, briefly? The great Apache leader and other Apache warriors were captured and transported to Fort Pickens by train and ferry boat in 1886. Through May of 1887, locals and tourists visited the fort to see the captive Geronimo and his warriors — all for a 50-cent admission.
It was a sad part of our history.
Rare Sea Turtle Nests
Several species of sea turtles lumber ashore to dig their nests every spring and summer on Pensacola’s beaches. You’ll see the nests marked by park rangers and volunteers. This recent years, Pensacola Beach got the rare reward of a Kemp’s Ridley’s Sea Turtle nest - the smallest and the rarest species. Tread lightly!
The Quartz Coast
Our squeaky, soft, white sand has traveled a long way, and for a long time, to squeeze between your toes. Over millennia, quartz particles eroded from the Appalachian Mountains are carried down by rivers, like the Apalachicola, and eventually flow into the Gulf of Mexico and to your toes. You’re welcome.
Bushwacker, I’ll drink to that
The creamy, chocolatey frozen bushwhacker enchanted former Sandshaker Lounge owner Linda Murphy when she visited the Caribbean. So she brought the recipe back to Pensacola Beach. Circa 1977, the Bushwacker was born here – although foggy Bushwacker historians argue over exactly when this happened. But don’t blame the Bushwacker — it’s a Pensacola native now and you can find it in different flavors and doses from Pensacola to Perdido Key.