Key West History

Aerial View of the Park

Aerial view of the park
Photo by Rob O'Neal

Discover a city where real estate titles date back to the Kings of Spain. Stroll the palm-lined streets and discover gingerbread mansions, tin-roofed conch houses, the John Audubon House and Ernest Hemingway's home. Walk in the footsteps of Thomas Edison, Lou Gehrig, Harry Truman, and Tennessee Williams. Gaze at the fabled treasure of the galleon Atocha. Discover tomorrow's fine art treasures by Key West's well-known and unknown artists.

Only in Key West would the sun shine brightest when it sets. Everyone gathers for the never planned, always varied Sunset Celebration on the Mallory Dock. Once the sun is safely tucked away by jugglers, mimes, musicians and street artists, the city moves to a different beat. A night beat. The streets, filled with sidewalk cafes, open-air bars, legendary pubs and world-class restaurants come alive. Gourmets and gourmands alike treat their palates to island specialties. Drama, musicals and comedy flourish on our stages. As you enjoy these sights, you'll discover that modern Key West is a warm-hearted place where all are welcome. The city's vibrant Gay and Lesbian Community helped spearhead the island's economic and social revival in the 1980's.

In Key West you can use convenient public transportation, taxis, pedi-cabs, tourtrains, trolleys, bicycles or even your own two feet to see the sights. However you choose to see the town, you'll discover that old town Key West is one of America's true architectural and botanical treasures. On even the tiniest lanes, the locals have faithfully restored old wooden homes and adorned them with lush tropical trees and flowers. New restaurants and stores are popping up in the historic Bahama Village neighborhood, which was settled in the 19th Century by Bahamian immigrants. Hemingway loved coming here to mix with the hard-working locals at boxing matches and arm-wrestling contests.

The island's seafaring tradition lives on at the renovated Historic Seaport district, known locally as the Key West Bight. Dozens of shrimp boats once called this harbor home. These days, "the Bight" is a popular place to arrange a day on the water, whether you are a diver, snorkeler, fisherman or eco-tourist. Others come just to stroll along the harbor walk or dine at one of the many restaurants.

In this city of fascinating contrasts, you could easily find yourself wanting to let go of mainland hassles permanently.

Come visit Key West. Like all the Keys, you'll find it's rich in history.

Not long after Christopher Columbus reached the New World in 1492, adventurer Ponce de Leon and fellow Spanish chronicler Antonio de Herrera set sail toward Florida in search of the elusive Fountain of Youth. They never found the Fountain but they did find the Florida Keys.

The day was Sunday, May 15, 1513.

Here is precisely what Herrera wrote for posterity: "To all this line of islands and rock islets they gave the name of Los Martires [The Martyrs] because, seen from a distance, the rocks as they rose to view appeared like men who were suffering; and the name remained fitting because of the many that have been lost there since."

There is no record that anyone from their ship came ashore and for hundreds of years, the island chain was left mostly to the pirates. Eventually, the pirates were chased away by a fledgling U.S. Navy pirate fleet established here in 1822.

Settlers followed while the native Indian population, the Calusa and mainland tribes, died out. The early settlers set up groves of Key limes, tamarind and breadfruit. In the Lower Keys, pineapple farms flourished and a large pineapple factory was built which furnished canned pineapple to most of eastern North America.

In later years, a thriving shark processing factory was established on Big Pine Key. Amidst the abandoned farms, it employed workers to catch sharks and skin them. The hides were salted down and sent north to the home factory in New Jersey. Here, they were processed into a tough leather called shagreen.

Other settlers in Key West and in Islamorada became wreckers who salvaged goods from ships that foundered on the nearby reefs. Some say the wreckers deliberately lured ships onto the shoals. Whatever the truth, Key West became the wealthiest city in the United States. Later, sponge harvesters found a good market for the sponges they gathered in the waters of the Keys. Still later, cigar makers from Cuba established factories in Key West. Railroad tycoon Henry Flagler built his impossible railroad "that went to sea,² and wealthy visitors traveled to vacation in the Keys.

All this, in turn, died out, and in the Great Depression the Keys seemed to face a bleak future. The city of Key West went bankrupt. It was then, with federal aid, that Keys officials decided their islands still had something to offer: sea, sun and a good year-round climate. In the weather beaten, shabby era of the 1930s, the railroad was destroyed by a ferocious hurricane and the concept for a highway to take its place was born. The famed Florida Keys Overseas Highway opened in 1938, but the outbreak of World War II dashed prospects of tourist gold.

The U.S. Navy, which had driven off the pirates a century earlier, came to the rescue again by turning Key West into a submarine base. In 1949, shrimp were harvested commercially in the Keys for the first time. They quickly earned the nicknamed pink gold. Tourists finally began to come in earnest. Today, more than three million visitors arrive each year. For most, the Florida Keys are the closest thing they will ever find to the fountain of youth.