Like the Castillo, some 250 yards away to the east overlooking St. Augustine Inlet, the old city gates look like they have been there since the beginning. Indeed, it is almost impossible to talk about the gates without talking about the fortress that inspired them. The iconic coquina towers that flank the foot of St. George Street are regarded by some tourists as an isolated remnant of the past, a photo op or even another clever historical reproduction. Few realize that without the Castillo, the gates and the defensive line that stretched between them all the way to the San Sebastian River, there would be no St. Augustine.
All this history began with a camp full of Spanish adventurers and a Timucuan settlement called Seloy. Mix in a century of frontier warfare and piracy, the lure of potential wealth and status, you get a growing colony scattered over a small point of land defended by a series of wood and earthen forts. Surviving by luck, hard work and sheer tenacity, a township was beginning to emerge by the 1650's. Even at that, it almost ended there. In 1702, British forces attacked St. Augustine, intent on driving out the Spanish colonists. The newly-completed Castillo repulsed all attacks, with the colonists inside safely weathering the invasion of their town. The only problem was that with everyone inside the Castillo, there was no one to prevent the British from looting and burning the town. ¡Bastantes!, said the governor, we need to build a wall around the whole place. Work began on the palisades two years later.
By 1709, a long earthen wall strengthened by palm log armor called the Cubo Line ran the length of what is now Orange Street, with a wooden gate allowing access to La Calle del Gobernador (St. George Street). Orange Street was probably referred to as simply "el camino del perímetro" - the perimeter road. A city map dated 1739 marks the site of the entrance as La Leche Gate. In 1763, John Bartram described a line of earthworks surmounted by several rows of Spanish bayonets and a broad moat running from the Castillo to the San Sebastian. Along this line were wooden gates at the end of "Calle Real" (St. George Street), a battery on the San Sebastian and two redoubts between, one of which was at the end of present-day Cordova Street (destroyed when the San Marco Hotel was built, but now reconstructed).
In 1770, St. George Street (a British appellation that fell out of favor with the returning Spanish) became San Patricio or calle que va a la Puerta de Tierra - "the street leading to the Land Gate". But it would not be until 1808 that Spanish engineer Captain Manuel de Hita would build the beloved coquina gates that are synonymous with St. Augustine. One hundred and thirteen years after the completion of the Castillo, two and a half centuries after the first Spanish colonists arrived, the new Land Gate crowned the long military construction project that assured the tiny city's survival into the twenty-first century. Double four-foot square coquina pillars frame a passage that could be opened 12 feet wide. Each pillar is 14 feet high with matching towers of white masonry and topped with a pomegranate, the symbol of fertility. At the time of its construction, the tower roofs would have been covered in red plaster.
All evidence of the wall west of the city gates had disappeared by the 1880's, as well as the connection to the Castillo's moat. The re-routing of Kings Road and Bay Street (now A1A and Avenida Menendez) destroyed and paved over the last vestiges of the eastern end of the line in 1910, leaving only the old City Gate. By now trees were growing in the earthworks and the masonry was cracking. The city considered demolishing the gate towers but when their plans were made public, both the Maria Jefferson Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Florida division of the National Society of Colonial Dames in America adopted the landmark, simultaneously launching efforts to save and restore it. To educate citizens and rally public sentiment, three women- Elizabeth Dismukes, Annie Woodruff and Rosalie James began showing up at the gates in black mourning dress and serving tea to the passers-by. Some stories exaggerate the campaign, stating that they chained themselves to the gate, however they never had to resort to that tactic. Years of restoration and research by both the Colonial Dames and the National Park Service were celebrated at the tri-centennial of the Castillo when a bronze plaque was installed at the old City Gates. Commemorating the history and preservation of this important touchstone to the city's past, the 1972 plaque replaced an earlier incomplete tablet the Colonial Dames had attached at the turn of the twentieth century.
The old City Gate has been under the protection of the National Park Service since 1933 and is now designated as a National Monument, an extension of the Castillo. With the reconstruction of the Santo Domingo redoubt at Cordova and Orange Streets, the Cubo Line is starting to take shape again. It's an amazing and often overlooked piece of St. Augustine's history, a virtual time machine. Two hundred years of humanity has passed through these portals. Walk through the gate with them and you become part of the wonderful continuity of life.