William Astor, grandson of John Jacob Astor came from Germany in 1784 with 50 cents in his pocket and died at 82 worth $30 million dollars. William Astor purchased the Moses Levy tract of around 80,000 acres along the St. Johns River in 1874. No doubt the hunting, fishing and excellent water routes appealed to the new owner. He must have felt also that here was an opportunity to add to his already huge fortune, for soon after the purchase, he started an extensive building program. Hotels, including Astor House, wharves and warehouses were built, a railroad purchased, a telegraph office opened.
Some historians suggest, however, that William Astor developed Astor like Ferncliff (his famous estate on the Hudson River) as an escape from his wife's endless round of social formalities on Fifth Avenue. Mrs. Caroline Schermerhorn Astor, acknowledged queen of society and leader of the exclusive Four Hundred, clutched the scepter tightly.
William scorned the social whirl that surrounded his wife, and he also detested the office-bound life of his brother, John Jacob Astor III. Whenever he tired of Ferncliff, he stole away on his yacht, the Ambassadress, to spend the winters in Jacksonville and his thriving new town of Astor. On these trips, he practically lived aboard his yacht even when it was in port, since he disliked hotels.
Although William Astor was negligent in many ways and things, he gave generously to all community projects in his new settlement. He donated the first church, and also aided in the building of the schoolhouse. The old church is still standing is part of First Baptist Church of Astor.
The steamboat era reached its peak on the St. Johns by that time. The Debary, Baya and Clyde lines brought in mail, freight and tourists to the settlements along the river. The Palmetto and the Astor homes were listed in a Clyde Line pamphlet as the two hotels at Astor, with rates of $2 per day.
William Astor's railroad later known as the St. Johns and Lake Eustis Line, ran from Astor to the "Great Lakes Region" of Florida--touching Lakes Eustis, Dora, Harris and Griffin. For a time it earned an eight per cent dividend. The boat from Jacksonville to Astor connected with the train inland as far West as Leesburg.
One of the early settlers in this area, J. G. Cade, remembered that when he arrived as a lad of 11 with his parents from Kentucky in 1884, "Astor was so crowded that it was impossible to find lodging for that night. It took the incoming boat several hours to unload and reload for its return trip".
With a successful railroad and booming community, Astor now turned his attention to growing citrus. He was among the first capitalists to subject himself to a squirt in the eye from the juicy grapefruit. He liked it so well that he added it to the breakfast table of the local Astor House and to the Astoria, later the Waldorf-Astoria, in New York.
The popular Astor House also served such delicacies as broiled quail, baked duck, venison, bear steak and broiled bass, attracting many and millionaires from the North. Friends of the Astors also built small Winter cottages in the community.
Persons of lesser means came, too -- some seeking health, others to establish permanent homes. There were two general stores in Astor in the late 1890's, one on each side of the river, which had to be crossed either by rowboat or ferry.
In these mercantile establishments, you could buy groceries of all kinds, tobacco, snuff, firearms, harnesses, calomel, quinine, calico and brogan shoes. "At the rear of the stores stood three wooden barrels with faucets," Mr. Cade remembered. "One contained liquor, one vinegar and one cane syrup - all sold by the gallon. You had to furnish your own container and, furthermore, drink your $1 per gallon liquor at home," the old gentleman chuckled. "Often," he added, "no money passed over the counter. The proprietors took anything you had or raised on your place in trade -- sometimes a hen and a few chicks, a dozen eggs, fruit, as well as alligator, cow and deer hides."
On William Astor's death in 1894, most of the estate went to his son, John Jacob Astor IV, who was an inventor, capitalist and lieutenant colonel during the Spanish-American War. In contrast to this father, John Jacob was a stickler for method and often rewrote a telegram to save a dime. During his ownership, some of the pine timber was leased for turpentine.
John Jacob Astor perished in the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, and his Florida property went to his son, William Vincent Astor.
But with the coming of the railroad, now a part of the ACL, through the Central and Western part of the state in 1885, and Flagler's railroad to Florida's East Coast in the late 1890's the prosperity of Astor was doomed. Thus, steamboat travel declined, hotels were torn down and tourists went elsewhere.
After the disastrous freeze of 1894-95 and the later abandonment of the St. Johns River and Lake Eustis Railroad, many of the residents left for greener pastures. A few, including the Barney Dillard family, remained in the ghost town. They had faith in the future of their community and believed it would prosper again.
Their faith paid off. In recent years, newcomers have opened up ultramodern fishing camps, motels, service stations and restaurants to cater to the ever-increasing business.
The building which is now “Astor’s Floridian Inn” vacation rentals was built in 1957 to accommodate fishermen of that era while the home site was built in the 1890’s by William Astor as a home for his accountant who ran his shipping dock. The property was purchased by Robert & Leilani Harper in 1977. Robert passed away in October of 2009. Leilani still lives in the home site and recently converted the property to a bed & breakfast.