I-95 Exit 380 in FL To: US 17, to Yulee, Florida and Kingsland, Georgia
The Florida town of Yulee is named for the first Jewish member of the United States Senate who was also considered the father of Florida Railroads. However, the first railroads in Florida transported more logs and less people than would be thought! The first railroads were used for logging operations -- but I digress.
David Levy Yulee was born David Levy in 1810 in Charlotte Amalie, on the island of St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. His father Moses Levy was a Moroccan Sephardic Jew who made a fortune in lumber. At the time, the Virgin Islands were owned by Denmark and a sizable Jewish population lived there. One of the oldest synagogues in the western hemisphere still exists today in the capital of Downtown Charlotte Amalie.
After the family immigrated to the United States, Moses Levy bought 50,000 acres of land near present-day Jacksonville in Florida Territory. Moses wanted to establish a "New Jerusalem" for Jewish settlers.
His son, David Levy, dutifully served in the territorial militia, including the Second Seminole War, and in 1834 was present at a conference with Seminole chiefs, including the famous Seminole War Chief, Osceola.
-Thereafter, the handsome young David married well. Soon after his 1846 marriage to the daughter of ex-Governor Charles Wickliffe of Kentucky, David Levy added Yulee to his name, the name of one of his Moroccan ancestors. Though Yulee became Christian and raised his children as Christians, he was subject to anti-semitism throughout his career.
In 1851 Yulee founded a 5,000-acre sugar cane plantation, built and maintained by slaves, along the Homosassa River. The remains of his plantation, which was destroyed during the Civil War, are now the Yulee Sugar Mill Ruins State Historic Site. You can visit these ruins off the next exit.
In 1845, after Florida was admitted as a state, the legislature elected him as a Democrat to the United States Senate, the first Jew to win a seat in the Senate, and he served until 1851. In 1855 he was again elected to the Senate, and he served until withdrawing in 1861 in order to support the Confederacy at the start of the American Civil War.
David Yulee is considered the father of Railroads in Florida where he built the first cross peninsula line from Fernandina Beach near Jacksonville at the Florida-Georgia line to Cedar Key on the Gulf Coast.
In the 1850’s, cedar lumbering was big business since light weight cedar was used to produce Faber Pencils.
Incidentally, Faber Pencils are still in use today. Using his influence in Congress to procure Federal Funds, Yulee engaged slave labor to lay the tracks across Florida and access the dense cedar wilderness along the Gulf of Mexico.
Today, at the Fernandina Beach Train Depot, a statue of Yulee sits “waiting for his train.” No doubt, this statue has invited some controversy.
Yulee's inflammatory pro-slavery rhetoric in the Senate earned him the nickname "Florida Fire Eater”. David Yulee supported slavery and secession.
After the war, Yulee was imprisoned in Fort Pulaski for nine months because of his support for the Confederacy. He then returned to railroad building.
Selling the Florida Railroad, Yulee retired with his wife to Washington, D.C. in 1880, where she had family. He died six years later while visiting in New York. Yulee was buried at Oak Hill Cemetery in Washington, D.C.
Both the town of Yulee, Florida and Levy County, Florida are named for him. In 2000, the Florida Department of State designated him as a Great Floridian.