Every since I was a kid I can remember going to Key West and seeing forts, lighthouses, old sailboats and turtle crawls. I especially liked sea turtles and found it interesting to see where they lived, apparently unaware of everything the world had in store for them.
The U.S. acquired Florida from Spain in 1819 and by the early 1820s established the first permanent settlement of Key West. The U.S. Navy set up a base with it’s Anti-Piracy Squadron since pirates had been preying on vessels legitimately salvaging shipwrecks “wrecking” along the Keys reef. The Navy stopped the pirates and wrecking became a way of life in Key West, making it the wealthiest town in Florida by the mid 1800s. Key West’s Fort Zachary Taylor remained in Union hands during the Civil War (1860s) even though Florida was a Confederate state. In 1898 the harbor hosted warships headed to Cuba for the Spanish American War, helping deliver Cuban independence from Spain.
The town’s prosperity waned as lighthouses and steamships diminished the wrecking trade in the late 1800s. By the early 1900s the town was restless since the once vibrant cigar industry had all but moved to Tampa due to labor unions in Key West. Events in Cuba continued to have an effect in later years with daily ferry runs to Havana until Fidel Castro came to power around 1960. Communist rule only 90 miles away formented the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Cuban Missile Crisis which militarized the town and the Mariel Boat Lift which brought tens of thousands of Cuban refugees into Key West.
Henry Flagler’s Oversea Railroad would establish Key West as America’s southern most port in 1912. The tracks never created the expected boom though it did provide a critical link to the mainland establishing the tourism industry. The railroad built the Casa Marina Hotel in 1921 and paved the way for the Overseas Highway that opened in 1938 (the railroad was destroyed in a 1935 hurricane).
Notable guests moved to town like authors Ernest Hemingway, Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams. President Harry Truman had his Winter White House in Key West after WWII and the Navy has maintained a presence to this day with a significant air base in nearby Boca Chica. In later years Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville theme continues to make Key West a popular tourist destination with great fishing, diving, parties, seafood and yes – historical sites!
To learn about the history of the Florida Keys check out our latest book The Florida Keys: A History Through Maps. To view our decorative maps visit our site or call today to place a custom order, (239)963-3497.