Located along the western banks of the St. Johns River between the mouth of the Ortega River and NAS Jacksonville, Ortega and Venetia are close neighbors today, but were separated by water until just about a century ago.
The area now known as Ortega is believed to have been a popular hunting and gathering site for transient populations of Native Americans for many years. The area was actually an island until US 17 was constructed through the middle of the area, and was a little hard to get to. This made it desirable to hunters and gatherers and, later, outlaws and Confederate troops.
European settlement began in earnest in the area around 1770 when the English granted the island to Abraham Jones, who established a small farm but died just five years after the grant was made. When the Jones family left the island, a distinguished soldier turned highwayman named Daniel McGirtt took up residence at the farm and used it as a base of operations and hideout until his arrest and imprisonment sometime in the late 1780s or early 1790s.¹
By this time, Spain once again controlled Florida and the Spanish governor granted the island to John McQueen, who adopted Spanish citizenship and became known as Don Juan McQueen. McQueen was one of the largest landowners in the area, with holdings that included the island now known as Ortega and Ft. George Island. Advancing age and the near-constant threat of conflict compelled him to sell Ortega and Ft. George to John McIntosh, who named the island "Ortega" after the judge who helped secure the sale of the property.¹
McIntosh turned Ortega into a 4,000 acre working plantation growing Sea Island cotton, corn and sugar. He also harvested timber for his St. Marys lumber business, with which he divided his time. McIntosh sold Ft. George Island at a loss to Zepheniah Kingsley, who built a plantation there whose buildings and ruins are now a national park.¹
McIntosh and his son-in-law, Henry R. Sadler, ran a profitable plantation at Ortega until Sadler's death in 1854. The land was sold in 1856 and again a year later, but it appears that the island was sparsely inhabited through the Civil War period, with the exception of a freed slave and his family who operated a 40-acre farm. In 1864, Confederate troops took advantage of the stragetic location of Ortega Point and fired mortars at Union ships in the St. Johns River.¹
Life on Ortega island was very quiet until 1902, when U.S. Senator Wilkinson Call purchased the land on behalf of the Ortega Town Company, later reorganized as The Ortega Company and began selling lots in what is now known as Old Ortega. Once the original wooden bridge connecting the southern end of Avondale with Ortega Point was completed in 1908, Ortega became more accessible and benefited greatly from the Florida real estate boom of the 1920s. The old wooden bridge was replaced by the concrete structure that stands today, and development of Ortega Terrace began in earnest.¹
Between Old Ortega and the Terrace stood the Florida Country Club, which was a popular neighborhood clubhouse for about ten years, after which it was sold for development to Knight-Orr. This is why the homes in Country Club Estates tend to be newer than the homes in Ortega Terrace or Old Ortega - they were built on the former grounds of the country club.¹
While Ortega Terrace residents were building traditional colonial revival, French Provincial, and Tudor homes in 1925, the chief surgeon at St. Luke's Hospital founded Venetia, a development named after the region in northeast Italy. He began building Italian Revival and Mediterranean Revival homes on streets with Italian names in a neighborhood adjacent to the new Timuquana Country Club, itself an example of traditional architectural style. The building boom soon became a bust, and many lots in Venetia were left undeveloped. In the 1940s and 1950s, infill completed the neighborhood and Venetia Manor, located on the south side of Timuquana Road, was developed as a subdivision.²
Ortega Forest, located on the west side of US 17, was developed beginning in the 1940s and largely completed by 1970. Homes and lots in Ortega Forest tend to be larger than in Ortega or Venetia. Ortega Forest is home to a popular public elementary school and attracts families from nearby neighborhoods as their children reach school age.
Today, Ortega and Venetia are close neighbors with fluid movement between them. Venetia is characterized by its closed-off, yet accessible, location which makes it conducive to block parties, bike riding, and other neighborhood activities. Ortega's streets are quieter, the homes tend to be larger, and residents tend to buy and sell within the neighborhood rather than out of it. There are two private clubs in the neighborhoods and they serve as gathering spots for residents of both neighborhoods, as well as the larger surrounding area.
1. Snodgrass, Dena. (1981) The Island of Ortega: A History. Jacksonville, FL: The Ortega Elementary School.
2. Wood, Wayne W. ( 1989). Jacksonville's Architectural Heritage: Landmarks for the Future. Jacksonville, FL: University of North Florida Press.