Dear Call Box: I haven’t been to Tillie K. Fowler Regional Park at 7000 Roosevelt Blvd. in years and wondered about the tower and other amenities. I also heard it had an historical background.

J.H., Northside

Dear J.H.: The 509-acre park across from Naval Air Station Jacksonville’s main gate is one of the city’s largest, a wooded oasis for nature lovers in the midst of urban sprawl. For what’s known as a passive park, it’s had an active history.

It’s been a haven for hobos who set up camp under its towering pine, water oak, sweet gum, maple and Southern magnolia trees.

Squatters chopped down some of those trees for bonfires, residents used it as an illegal dump site and off-road racers as a drag strip.

But let’s go back to 1917, long before there was a naval base, and its historic red brick roads. World War I was raging, and the U.S War Department took over a former National Guard camp as a major training center for Army quartermasters. The site was named Camp Joseph E. Johnston after the Confederate Civil War general.

That December, the camp became a remount station covering about 160 acres. The station consisted of 16 buildings, 14 stables and provisions for 4,000 horses and mules, according to an historic marker. It expanded so quickly that it covered several square miles on both sides of Roosevelt (U.S. 17), including what is now the park, making it the largest of all quartermaster training camps. Most of the barracks had to be built on stilts because of mucky areas, and the ground filled in around them.

The roads were built with tons of fill and then covered with sand and then brick to move men and animals, the marker read. Remnants of the 16-foot-wide road are preserved at several locations in the park.

Several sites say the road was already established at the time work on the camp began. During the war, the road was so widely used that holes had to be constantly repaired. During “rush hour” going to and from work, the road was so narrow that traffic had to be made one-way, another marker said.

By the mid-1920s, the National Guard again occupied the base and renamed it Camp Foster. In 1940 Naval Air Station Jacksonville opened. The Navy used some of that land across from the base for Navy housing during the 1940s.

Meanwhile, an archery range was developed in the woodlands in 1988 for military and civilian employees. In the early 1990s it became a public range and is maintained by the North Florida Archers Club.

Seeing a need for more recreational activities on the Westside, then-City Councilwoman Tillie Fowler began lobbying for the park in 1991 when she represented the area. The $2.4 million project came together when the Navy agreed to lease the land to the city for $1 a year for 99 years.

It opened as Westside Regional Park in September 1996. But developing the park didn’t come without some construction challenges, as described in a 1996 Times-Union story.

"We had to carry building materials through what was basically a swamp," Chuck Cameron, the project manager for W.R. Townsend Contracting, said in the story. "You can see how close the trees are to the buildings. It looks like they grew up around the building and not the other way around."

To keep visitors from walking through fragile wetlands, a wooden boardwalk was built, using recycled wood chips rather than asphalt on most of the trail and cutting down as few trees as possible. The boardwalk trail leads to a 33-foot viewing tower of the marsh and the wildlife that inhabits it. Occasionally observers can spot otters, raccoons, turkey vultures, eagles, ospreys, warblers, cardinals and woodpeckers.

A nature center showcases flora and fauna found within the park. Across from it is an open-air classroom with programs offered for students, scouts and other groups. Additional amenities include an off-road bike trail, a butterfly garden, a relatively new dog park, miles of hiking trails, a playground and a picnic area tucked back into the trees along the road through the park.

In 2005 the park was renamed after Fowler, the council’s first female president who served eight years in the U.S. House of Representatives before retiring in 2001 and was a nationally recognized authority on military issues. She died of complications from a brain hemorrhage in 2005.

Also that year, more than 200 volunteers participated in a one-day effort to clear the brick roads that had become covered with vegetation. The project was done in conjunction with Home Depot, Volunteer Jacksonville, Citigroup, Earth Day Network and the Hands On Network.

Lesley Royce, a parks naturalist with the city at the time, said in a Times-Union story that she had long wanted to make the road more accessible.

"Most of it was grown over on either side, and it really bothered me that this road had been there so long and nothing had been done to restore it or maintain it," Royce said. "What they've done is awesome."

The volunteers cleared a 1,000-foot-long portion of the road of overgrowth and widened the path to about 16 feet. They patched bad spots, built four benches and two wooden trash receptacles, Royce said.

Then in 1997, 200 volunteers from AT&T dug up more trash that had been illegally dumped. They hauled away 4 1/2 tons of trash — 200 tires, enough car parts for four vehicles, a truck bed, roofing shingles, water heaters and baby carriages.

There have been other maintenance efforts through the years.

One constant has been the Navy and its nearby presence. The roar of jets can be heard as you meander along the trail.

If you have a question about Jacksonville's history, call (904) 359-4622 or mail to Call Box, P.O. Box 1949, Jacksonville, FL 32231. Please include contact information. Photos are also welcome.

Sandy Strickland: (904) 359-4128