Tides of Change: Spengler Island Cleanup

Spengler Island, an island within the San Sebastian River, has deep roots in local history. John F. Whitney was a well-connected Northern entrepreneur and grandson of Eli Whitney, inventor of the cotton gin. Whitney purchased Spengler Island in 1870 and built a mansion home. Interestingly, Mary Todd Lincoln, widow of Abraham Lincoln, stayed in the home at least once in 1874, after the president’s assassination. Unfortunately, the house tragically burned down in the 1920s. While the property is located within the City of St. Augustine, in 2006 St. Johns County acquired the property with a conservation easement to assure that the property would be “retained forever in its existing natural condition and to prevent any use of the property that will impair or interfere with the environmental value of the property.”  Unfortunately, these expectations have not been upheld through time. 

Aerial picture showing the Spengler mansion in the San Sebastian River. Photograph is oriented towards the northwest.

In early 2023, a concerned neighbor filed a Pollution Observation and Reporting Tool (P.O.R.T.) report with Matanzas Riverkeeper to notify us of extensive litter on Spengler Island. When Matanzas Riverkeeper visited the site back in February, there was extensive evidence of illegal camping and dumping. Litter was literally everywhere. Sleeping bags, mattresses, tents, tarps, plastic bottles, even a Halloween mask were strewn about. Additionally, the historic resources on the island were heavily disturbed with some of the original red bricks from the footers of Whitney’s mansion evidently having been used as a fire pit. Even though one of this conservation land’s prohibited uses include dumping trash and waste, this was clearly not being monitored or enforced. Furthermore, because the San Sebastian river is extremely shallow and has limited access, conducting a cleanup was logistically very difficult. 

Site photo from Spengler Island pre-cleanup showing litter and debris left behind.

In April, Matanzas Riverkeeper collaborated with San Sebastian neighbors and Flagler College’s Natural Sciences Club to conduct a cleanup of the debris on Spengler Island. After launching from Flagler College’s floating dock and a short paddle up the river, students helped bag the extensive debris and staged the litter to be picked up at a later date. Following the cleanup, the Flagler students were treated to a pizza lunch, graciously donated by Carmelo’s Pizzeria.

Spengler Island cleanup crew: Flagler Natural Sciences club, Dr. Ed McGinley, Dave Hightower, Kevin Priester, and Matanzas Riverkeeper staff. Photo: Paige Priester.

The following week, Riverkeeper staff with the assistance of volunteers Dave Hightower, Capt. Adam Morley, and his son Elon, removed the staged debris and traversed through the salt marsh to get the trash onto a trailer to take to the landfill. The final tally for the cleanup was over 1,500 pounds of litter and debris. We will continue to monitor and coordinate with County staff to ensure this island remains free of litter and in an acceptable condition for conservation and historic preservation.


Left: Small skiff captained by Adam Morley tows a canoe manned by Dave Hightower, Jen Lomberk, and Silas Tanner, towing a jon boat full of litter and debris. 
Right: Final heap of litter and debris. Total weight was over 1,500 pounds. 

At Matanzas Riverkeeper, we could not do the work that we do without the support of our community. We extend heartfelt gratitude to Flagler College and our local neighbors for their invaluable assistance in revitalizing this historic site. Together, we are making a tangible impact on the health and beauty of our waterways and our community.