The History of the Keys

First encountered by the Europeans by Ponce de Leon's expedition in 1513, the Keys were named Los Martires, the martyrs, because the islands consisted of twisted, torturous strips of land surrounded by turquoise waters.  For three more centuries, they were inhabited only by Native Americans and opportunistic pirates such as Gasparilla and Black Caesar, who plundered ships that passed nearby.  The first Spanish settlement in the Keys was Cayo Hueso, the Isle of Bones, so named because explorers found the remains of a vast Indian graveyard.  The British later Anglicized Cayo Hueso into Key West.

The land belonged to the Spanish until 1821, when Juan Pablo Salas sold it to John Simonton, a businessman from Mobile, Alabama, for only $2000.  Salas had acquired it as a Spanish Land Grant in 1815.  John Simonton soon took on three northern partners:  John Whitehead, John Fleming, and Pardon Greene.  On the scene arrived General John Geddes of Charleston who had also purchased Key West.  It was discovered that Don Juan Salas had sold it twice... first to John Strong, then to Simonton.  As this were not bad enough, Strong had previously sold Key West to George Murray before John Geddes.  What a mess.  On May 23, 1828, Congress ruled Simonton as the legal owner.  This was probably Florida's first land scam.

Key West was founded in 1822, and by the 1850s grew to about 2700 people.  Most came from New England and the Bahamas to work as "wreckers", salvaging millions of dollars of cargo from ships that ground on the reefs.  About once a week, a ship would run aground and the cry "wreck ashore" could be heard throughout the town.  Wreckers would race out to the reef to salvage the ship and its lading.  Cargos included everything from gold, silver, china, tea, lumber, cotton, laces, silks, rums, and fine wines to elegant furniture.  By 1830, Key West was the richest city per capita in the entire US and was so for about 50 years.  In 1856 alone, the 2000 residents split almost $400,000 in booty, which would equal about 7 million in today's dollars.

Florida CigarsIn 1869, refugees from a Cuban civil war poured into Key West.  Among them was Vicente Martinez Ybor, a major Cuban cigar manufacturer.  Soon the city became the world's leading cigar manufacturing center with 100 factories producing 100 million cigars a year, each rolled by hand.  Later, this business moved to Tampa.

The next industry to arrive was sponging, once grossing $750,000 a year.  Sponges from Key West were shipped to New York and became known as superior to those from the Mediterranean.  A natural disaster, called a red tide, killed the Key West beds in 1910 and the sponge business collapsed.

  A major stage in the Keys development came in 1905, when railroad magnate Henry Flagler vowed to extend his Florida East Coast Railway south from Miami to the excellent deep water port at Key West.  Seven years later, in 1912, the first train steamed along the entire length of "Flagler's Folly", proving to the skeptics that it could be built.  Flager, his goal achieved, died a few months later.

 Disaster struck September 2, 1935.  A fierce hurricane packing 200 mile per hour winds pushed an 18 foot tidal wave across the Upper Keys, washing out the tracks and killing more than 800 people.  The only thing left standing was an angel that marked a grave in an Islamorada cemetery.  To reconnect with the mainland, the Overseas Highway was constructed directly on the old railroad bed.  Many of the bridges you see next to US 1 are the original railroad trestles. 

With all of the industries, except fishing, now gone and the closing of a large Navy Base, people started moving away from Key West,  During the Great Depression, the population dropped from 23,000 to only 11,000 and 80% of those were on relief.  By 1933, Key West was unable to pay the salaries of the city employees and went bankrupt.  In 1933, the federal emergency relief agency (FERA), announced that it would transform the island of Key West into a tourist mecca- America's only Caribbean island.  The first step would be to build an Aquarium and make it the tropical city's first tourist attraction.  

And it worked... By the end of the first season, Key West had already attracted 40,000 tourists.  Today, Key West is a bustling tourist area that attracts crowds from all over the world.  Cruise ships empty excited passengers into the streets, who explore the town and spend money. 

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