I’ve talked about coquina before. It is the shell-rock used to build the Castillo de San Marcos – the great Spanish fortress protecting St. Augustine. Recently we were riding our bicycles on Anastasia and paid a visit to the Royal Quarry site. You’ll find it just off A1A at the entrance to Anastasia State Park.
A short walk through the scrub oak brings you to the northern lip of the quarry. Today it’s hard to imagine the hustle and bustle of a quarry when looking over this idyllic site.
As you walk into the quarry you will begin to see signs of the work that took place here. Some of the stones still bear the scoring marks used to cut the coquina from the quarry. After chipping lines like you see here, wedges were hammered into the grooves and crowbars used to break the blocks free from the mass.
One wall still shows the work performed here. This site operated from about 1671. Originally, only blocks for the construction of the Castillo and other government buildings were removed from the site. It wasn’t until 1689 that the site was opened to the public. Because it takes months for the shell-rock to “cure” before it can be used in construction, it’s seldom used for building today. You will find it frequently used in landscapes – including here at Moultrie Creek.
As you leave the quarry – and Anastasia State Park – look for the narrow road separating the two parking lots at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm [located across A1A from the park entrance]. Aptly named Quarry Road, this is where the stones were dragged to the creek so they could be floated across the bay to the Castillo construction site. Artifacts from a small Indian village can be found – with a bit of digging -just behind the Alligator Farm property – possibly the home to some of the quarry workers.
Some of the best sights worth seeing are not found in tour guides.
Castillo de San Marcos
For more than 330 years, the Castillo de San Marcos has stood guard over the people of St. Augustine. During the first 100 years of the settlement’s existence, they built several wooden forts. The climate – and pirate torches – are rough on wooden structures so, after decades of requests, the Spanish crown agreed to pay for the construction of a stone fort.
There was just one problem. You don’t find a lot of stone in Florida. These Spanish settlers were quite resourceful and took advantage of an interesting shell rock found in the area. Called coquina (meaning little shells), it consists of many small shells fused together over time forming a sort of limerock. You’ll find coquina up and down the coast of Florida. The source of most of the Castillo’s construction material came from quarries on Anastasia Island – the barrier island protecting the settlement from the sea.
Coquina beach at Washington Oaks State Park in Flagler County
Coquina is easy to quarry. It is initially quite soft and can be cut with saws and axes. Once exposed to the air it hardens and changes color from orange to gray. It always remains quite porous. That turned out to be an advantage for the Castillo. Unlike normal rock, which shatters when hit by a cannonball, coquina either absorbed it like a sponge or it bounced off. As you walk around the fort today, you’ll see many holes where cannonballs and other shot penetrated some distance into the walls.
The Castillo was never captured in battle. Through the centuries it changed hands by treaty, but everyone who attacked the settlement after the fort was built went home in defeat. Coquina helped make that possible.
Coquina continues to be used in area construction. The house where I grew up had a coquina foundation and the original fireplaces were faced with the shell rock. It’s often used in landscaping – you’ll find several large pieces in my front yard. It’s one of many things that makes this area unique.
The Castillo de San Marcos is now a national monument and part of the National Park Service. You can visit the Castillo online, take a virtual tour of this amazing structure and learn more about its history.
Originally published January 12, 2008.
You won’t find much in the way of stone here in Florida. As a result many of our historical graveyards either have tombstones imported from elsewhere – Savannah and Charleston, for example – or wooden tombstones which have long since rotted away. A third option uses our local shell-rock, called coquina. This view of Huguenot cemetery offers a good representation of the uses – and limitations – of coquina in the graveyard.
The box grave in the foreground has a coquina foundation and is topped with a marble gravestone. The coquina shows a lot of wear as corners easily break off from the weather. The matching crosses on the left were also fashioned from coquina. Both show wear, with the one on the left especially worn. Coquina’s natural roughness makes it unsuitable for carving. As a result, often coquina was used to frame a marble plaque containing lettering. A sample of this appears in front of the crosses.
Although generally unsuitable for tombstones, coquina had its place. It was often used to build walls around family plots and to provide the foundations to tombs and tombstones made of other materials.
Coquina is a unique material that holds a special place in our history thanks to the two Spanish forts built of it. Neither fort was captured in battle – a record held in part to this porous rock. Unlike most stones which shattered when hit by cannonballs, here they either bounced off or were sucked into them.
When you visit this area, you will see many creative uses of our special shell-rock. Our graveyards offer a few of their own.