St Augustine’s Zero Milestone – A Not-So-Spanish Old Spanish Trail

One of the things that I love about St. Augustine is the endless array of historic sites and places of interest. There are hundreds if not thousands of interesting bits of history that tourists walk by every day. Only some make an effort to learn about the things that they see. Others simply create a set of facts that sound like they know what they are talking about. I get a kick out talking to the tourists about some of these historic landmarks and listening to their theories about the things that they are seeing.

The zero milestone marker is one of the most misunderstood landmarks in St. Augustine. The marker is a six foot diameter coquina stone ball with a bronze plaque attached to it. Only the year “1928” which is inscribed on the plaque prevents the visitor from including the stone with St. Augustine’s nineteenth or eighteenth century historic lore. The plaque simply states that the monument marks the beginning of the Old Spanish Trail between St. Augustine and San Diego, California.

Many tourists conjure up a vision of Spanish missionaries and soldiers slogging their way from this marker across the United States to San Diego. The fact that the marker is dated 1928 does little to change their speculations. However, the facts are that the Old Spanish Trail did not have its origins in Spanish St. Augustine but in Mobile, Alabama. The City of Mobile developed as a French, not Spanish colony at Fort Louise de la Mobile.

In 1915, two north-south highways were planned – the Dixie and Jackson. Both highways would develop traffic from Northern tourists to Florida and New Orleans. The Jackson road was planned to cross Mississippi rather than Alabama on its route to New Orleans. As a result the Rotary Club of Mobile Alabama mounted an effort to lobby for the route to go through Alabama rather than Mississippi based on some statistics that demonstrated that although the route through Alabama was longer, more people would benefit. They were unsuccessful with their lobbying attempt the urgency to build an east-west route through Mobile became more important than ever. As a result, a plan to create an east-west highway that would link Mobile to New Orleans and Jacksonville and thereby connecting to both of the north-south highways was conceived.

The effort on the part of the Mobile Rotarians gained momentum and their objective was announced in 1915. Palmer Pillans, President of the Rotary Club promoted it as a highway that would connect cities in Florida with Mobile and the coast of California.

To enhance and romanticize the road it was called the Old Spanish Trail. Although it is true that the road would connect many Spanish initiated settlements the purpose was what today we would call marketing hype.

In any case the effort gained momentum only to be stalled by the World War I and some serious logistical problems created by natural barriers. By 1918 the project was literally dead in the water. In 1919 the Old Spanish Trial gained new life when the leadership of the product shifted to Texas. New leadership was elected. Harral B. Ayers became the Managing Director of the Old Spanish Trail Association. Beginning with the Texas routes, he worked hard and provided the leadership and political influence necessary to bring the project its fruition in 1929.

To celebrate the completion, the Old Spanish Trail Association hosed a huge party in St. Augustine where the zero mile marker was dedicated. At the conclusion of the event – a motorcade departed for a trip to San Diego. There were some who made it all the way and some who did not. However, the road continued to be promoted with all the hype that its coincidental Spanish connection could muster well into the 1960’s.

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