The History of Key West and the Florida Keys is quite amazing. So many different and historical things have transpired in the Keys over the generations since Jaun Ponce de Leon first visited Key West from Europe in 1521. Residents of Key West refer to themselves as “conchs”, pronounced conks, in reference to the early settlers of Key West who came from the Bahamas. Residents nowadays refer to themselves as “Saltwater Conchs, for those who were born there or “Freshwater Conchs” for those who were not born there, but who have lived there for at least seven years.The first settlers of Key West were Native Americans and can be traced back to the early 1800’s when Key West was known as “Cayo Hueso”, which is a name believed to be derived from early Spanish travelers who adapted the word “cayo” from the Taino Indians of Hispanola and Cuba referring to small Islands. The word “cayo’ translates to “Key” and the word “hueso” translates to “Bone” in English, or “Bone Key”. It is believed that Key West was littered with the bone fragments of the natives who had been there prior and may have been using the Island as a burial ground.
In January 1822, a US businessman named John W. Simonton purchased the Island from Juan Pablo Salas, who was deeded the Island in 1815 from the Spanish Governor of Cuba in a Spanish land Grant. Salas, in his eagerness to sell the Island actually sold it twice. Besides Simonton, he sold off the Island to John Strong and George Murray. Also, former Governor of the State of South Carolina General John Geddes purchased Key West. Though the Island was seemingly owned by several people, it was Mr. Simonton, who along with his new partners, John Whitehead, John Flemming and Pardon C. Greene, that was able to secure documented legal ownership of Key West in May of 1828 when Congress confirmed the land grant of Mr. Salas. Mr. Simonton quickly subdivided the Island into plots and undivided quarters and sold them to his partners. From there, they went on to become four of the most pivotal developers of modern Key West.
Mr. Simonton and his partners, along with the US Navy, saw the possibilities for economic opportunity in Key West and he lobbied in Congress for the establishment of a navy base because of the Island’s strategic location, being that it was situated on the primary Gulf-Stream shipping lanes and its natural deep water seaport was one that could support vessels from many countries. This, in turn, created a wealth of commerce and economic stability for the United States, as well as for the inhabitants of Key West.
In March 1822, Lt. Mathew C. Perry of the US Navy sailed his schooner Shark into Key West and physically planted the US flag claiming the Keys as official property of the United States. Nobody seemed to protest and so it became. At the time, Lt. Perry changed the name “Cayo Hueso” to “Thompson’s Island” for Secratary of the Navy Smith Thompson and the harbor for Port Rogers, president of the Board of Navy Commissioners. As piracy and slavery on the open sea became a serious problem, Congress soon tasked the Navy to put an end to it and, in 1823 dispatched Commadore David Porter of the West Indies anti-pirate squadron to protect US shipping and take charge of Key West. That much he did, and according to many, he exceeded his power quite a bit. Porter lost command in 1825 and in 1826 the Navy base moved to Pensacola.
In 1825 Congress enacted the Federal Wrecking Act which required that all items seized from wrecks in US waters be taken to a US port of entry. Wrecking soon became the prominent industry of Key West. “Wrecking” can be traced back to the mid 1500’s when the Indians first began salvaging wrecks. Around a century later ships from the Bahamas began to arrive in Key West and a short time after that the ” Elutheran Adventurers” adopted a governing document that stated that all ordnance salvaged from a wreck be held in common for the defense of the colony and all other items would be made ready for sale and with one-third of the of the proceeds going to the wreckers. By 1828, Key West had become a designated Port of Entry and began to blossom very quickly as many Bahamians wreckers moved to the Island in search of work and became US citizens.
In 1829, Key West had its first newspaper called “The Register”, and within a few years added the “Key West Gazette” and the “Enquirer”. “The Citizen” came along in 1904 and today is called “Key West Citizen“. Along about 1830, salt production became another boost for the Key West economy. Richard Fitzpatrick and William Whitehead became two of the top figureheads in town as it pertained to the salt producing business. It was used primarily for the purpose of food preservation, which was a very important industry at the time. By the 1840’s, a new industry on the Island began to flourish and brought Bahamians by the boatload to work in the business of Sponging. The Sponging industry brought secondary job opportunities to the residents while they awaited shipwrecks to occur. This rapid growth continued to prevail for close to thirty years.
It was during this period, in 1845, that the US Army began construction of Fort Taylor, named after President Zachary Taylor, and the US Merchant Marine Hospital just in time to become a major influence around the beginning of the Civil War. The fort was destroyed during the great hurricane of 1846 but reconstruction quickly followed. The Sand Key and harbor lighthouses were destroyed as well. At the time, Collector of Customs Steven Mallory penned, that of the 600 homes on the Island, all but eight were damaged or completely destroyed by winds estimated at today’s category 5 hurricane standards. Construction of Fort Jefferson, in the Dry Tourtugas also commenced in 1846 as well. This event did not discourage though, the good people of Key West from rebuilding their city and in 1847 constructed the Key West Lighthouse. Amazingly enough, the population of the Island actually grew almost 300 percent between 1840 and 1850.
Fort Taylor was completed in 1866 and was used again extensively during the Spanish-American War of 1898. Work had also begun in 1861 on two other forts. East and West Martello Towers were primarily used as armories and batteries for Fort Taylor and were connected to each other by rail. Fort Jefferson was primarily used as a military prison for captured deserters and construction was never completed. Among the most infamous occupants included Dr. Samuel Mudd, who was convicted of complicity in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. The Fort eventually became obsolete after the invention of rifled cannon which could penetrate the thick brick walls and the Army finally abandoned the property in 1874. The picture below is what it looks like today.
By 1860, the business of Wrecking had made Key West the largest and richest city in Florida and the wealthiest town per capita in the nation. A title Key West sustained well through around 1889. The Civil War(1861-1865) was also a major contributing factor to the Key West economy. By 1866 Key West became the hub for the International Ocean Telegraph Company underwater cable line that connected Havana, Cuba with Punta Rassa on Monroe County’s west coast to the US. This communication technology became vital when it came to establishing a link between Cuba and the US during the Spanish-American War. By 1870, the population of Key West had grown to 5,675 residents. A trend that would continue.
Cubans had been in Key West since the early 1830’s when William Wall established the first cigar factory in town. But by the mid to late 1880’s, the Cuban influence in Key West had grown to almost fifty percent of the population and were becoming established in the cigar business, reportedly operating as many as 200 cigar factories in town, producing nearly 100 million cigars a year. This helped Key West’s economy remain thriving and quite vibrant till about 1920 as the wrecking and salt business began to decline. Spanish became a second language and in 1870, the “El Republicano” newspaper printed the news entirely in Spanish. By 1876 Key West had elected it’s first, of many, Cuban Mayors. His name was Carlos Manuel de Cespedes. By 1890, the population of Key West had exploded to roughly 18,000 residents.
Key West had seen its fair share of fires over the years. Blazes in 1843 and 1859 really tested the mostly wooden city as fire fighting techniques of the era weren’t quite like what they are today, as you could imagine. But in the early morning hours of April 1st 1886, a spectacular wind-fanned blaze erupted in the San Carlos Hall on Duval St wiping out nearly fifty buildings, six wharves and the cigar factory, claiming four lives. This did not deter the people of Key West from bouncing back and rebuilding the city though. Metal roofs were mandated after 1886 to protect buildings from blowing embers from a fire nearby, and you can still see them today throughout the Keys.
Within a few years, the first transportation system appeared in the form of mule-drawn street cars. During the 1890’s the sponge market and cigar industries were keeping Key West on track in regards to a bustling economy. In 1891 Key West Customs House was built serving as a courthouse, post office, and center of government. Today the building houses the Key West Museum of Art and History. It was also in 1891 that Key West saw the arrival of Jose Marti from Tampa who was at the time trying to organize support for a Cuban Revolution against Spain. He would continue to visit the Island over the years until 1895 when he left for Cuba only to be killed in the battle of Dos Rios.
The USS Maine sailed from Key West into Havana Harbor on a peaceful mission to protect US interests in the region in late January, 1898. After being anchored in the harbor for 21 days, a huge explosion lite up the night sky on the evening of February 15th ripping a gaping hole through her hull, sinking the ship and killing 261 crew-members. Only 94 survived the blast. The first of many formal inquiries into the blast took place at Key West Customs House. To this day, no definitive cause of the blast were found. Several official inquiries that followed concluded that the explosion occurred inside the vessel, while other inquiries concluded the blast was detonated from outside the ship. 19 crew-members are buried in Key West Cemetery. Popular opinion at the time, as well as some unscrupulous newspaper articles kind of forced the US into what turned out to be the Spanish-American War which was brief, only lasting around four months.
More signs of modernization in Key West continued to take place as the first electric street-cars came into operation in 1899. The Key West Electric Street Railway Company, construction of what is now Flagler Avenue, and a wireless communication system was just a taste of what was to follow as a gentleman by the name of Henry Morrison Flagler would bring Key West into the twentieth century with a bang. In 1910 the first spikes were driven into the ground from Key West and Miami in what is still believed to be one of the most ambitious construction projects ever undertaken by man when Mr. Flagler’s work-force began to connect the Keys with the Florida mainland of Miami via The Florida East Coast Railway, later to be known as the “Overseas Railway”.
With land scarce in the Keys, new land had to be created by dredging in new land from the bottom of the Gulf for his railway terminal and docks. In all, about 134 acres, now called “Trumbo”. The project did have its fare share of obstacles. In October of 1906, a strong hurricane moved through the Keys killing more than 130 workers. Hurricanes in 1909 and 1910 delayed the project further and cost more lives in the process. The official Philosophy of Key West is, ” All People Are Created Equal Members of One Human Family” and that slogan was never more true than on the day of January 22nd of 1912, as throngs of people gathered in Key West to greet Mr. Flagler’s passenger train as it rolled into Key West setting off a week-long celebration. For the first time, Key West was accessible from the mainland by means other than by boat. The entire east coast of Florida was now connected by rail and it was with Mr. Flagler’s vision and the dauntingly hard work of many laborers that the project was completed only a year or so before he would pass away.
By 1918 a Naval Air Base was established at Trumbo Point for the training of pilots. By the early 1920’s the tourists began flocking to Key West and construction of the Casa Marina Hotel and La Concha Hotel were underway. By 1923 funds for a vehicular highway were approved. By 1926 Key West began replacing the electric street-cars with buses and by 1928, the Overseas Highway between Key West and Big Pine Key opened. Pan-Am World Airways was founded in Key West in 1927 when they were able to secure the US mail contract between Key West and Havana, Cuba. The stock-market crash though would bring progress in Key West and the nation to a screeching halt in 1929.
In 1928, a young man by the name of Ernest Hemingway arrived In Key West with his second wife Pauline. Mr. Hemingway liked Key West so much, he decided to stay for a while. During his time in Key West Mr. Hemingway wrote, “To Have and Have Not”, ” For Whom The Bell Tolls”, ” Death in the Afternoon”, ” Green Hills of Africa”, and ” Farewell To Arms” as well as many famous short stories such as, ” The Snows of Kilimanjaro” and “The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber”. Today, the home Ernest Hemingway lived and wrote in for ten years, is a wonderfully restored museum and tourist attraction that takes you back in time. The home is located at 907 Whitehead Street.
As the 1930’s began, the Great Depression put a stranglehold on Key West, as well as the entire nation and the so-called “boom” of growth in Key West came to an abrupt end for the time being. The cigar industry began losing its revenues to the cigarette manufacturers and the sponging business would soon be in the midst of its own downward spiral due to Red Tide disease. Construction began in 1933 on the Key West Aquarium and was completed in February 1935 thanks to President Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration Program which provided many needed jobs for the residents of Key West who were struggling during the depression. It was the first “open-air” aquarium built and it allowed the natural sunlight to filter in illuminating the displays.
Things were still pretty rough for Key West residents in 1935, but little did they realize they were about to take a turn for the worse. On September 2nd 1935, a powerful Category 5 Hurricane roared through the middle and upper Keys, damaging or completely destroying much of the Overseas Railway, cutting off Key West once again from the mainland, taking with it the rescue train and over 400 brave souls, most of which were WWI veterans who were working there at the time. Shortly thereafter, the FEC was financially unable to rebuild the damaged sections due to bankruptcy and forced to sell what was left of the railway bridges and roadbeds to the State of Florida. The State, in turn, using a great deal of the existing railway infrastructure built the “Overseas Highway“, known today as US1. The roadway was completed in 1938 and for the first time, tourists could now access the Keys by highway.
YouTube video courtesy of KeysTv