Florida Keys History
The Florida Keys are actually the remains of a living coral reef, now fossilized. There is very little topsoil here and very few beaches. What we do have is a wonderful variety of wildlife, sea life, and birds. We also have clear water, a coral reef, and fabulous weather.
First discovered by Europeans in 1513 by Ponce de Leon’s expedition, the first residents of Key West were the Calusa Indians. The battles between the Spaniards and the Indians are what gave the island its name, Cayo Hueso. In Spanish, it means “Isle of Bones” for all of the burial mounds that were found there. The name was later anglicized to Key West.
From the time of discovery until the early 1800s, the Keys were populated by Indians, pirates, and fishermen living off the land and shipwrecks along the reef. Much gold and silver was lost by the Spanish in the Keys including the 1733 Plate Fleet disaster caused by a strong hurricane.
In 1822, Key West was purchased from Spain by John Simonton. By the late 1820s, it was a town of approximately 2,700 people, most of whom made their living as “wreckers,” men that went out to salvage the goods from the ships that ran up on the reef during storms. Along with wrecking, there were also as many as 165 cigar factories, which later moved to what is now Tampa, and sponge fisheries which also moved on and eventually vanished.
The saddest and most damaging industry of all was the harvesting of sea turtles; it was a big part of the economy and consequently, the turtles were hunted nearly to extinction. There is now a small museum at the site of the turtle canneries.
By the late 1800s, people began to move north and settle along the Keys. They made their living by growing pineapples, coconuts, and the now famous Key limes. These were transported down to Key West and to points north.
As civilization moved through the Keys, an enterprising railroad magnate named Henry Flagler decided that he would extend his Florida East Coast Railway all the way down to Key West to make use of its deep water port. It took seven years and the loss of many lives for “Flagler’s Folly” to be completed. During the process of the construction, two major hurricanes washed out much of the track that had been lain, causing setbacks and much re-engineering. The railroad was completed in January 1912.
In the end, Flagler rode his train into Key West only once. He was old, sick, and blind, and died a few months after the inaugural run. The rail service ran for 20 years before the storm of 1935, a ferocious hurricane with an 18-foot-high tidal surge, washed out much of the upper Keys track and knocked a train off the track, killing scores of people. All told, more 800 souls perished in the storm.
The railroad was never the success that Flagler dreamed it would be, and the company decided not to rebuild. It sold the right of way to the state, which built what is now the only road in and out of the Florida Keys, the Overseas Highway. It is built on the former railroad bed, and remnants of the old railroad (mainly bridges) can still be seen today alongside the new road.