Key West

World Facts Index > United States > Key West

A little island
Listen, its only a little island so don't expect to find a Chinatown and a garment district or a theater row here, for goodness sake. About the most you can say for Key Wests "districts" is that there really aren't any.

However, we're going to stretch a point here and lead you around the island for a look at what is here, built all choc-a-bloc and higgledy-piggledy as happens in a destination that never had any intention of being a destination but, like Topsy, just grew. (The other keys, which might also be considered districts, are covered in detail in the other guides.)

Key West got its name when it was dubbed Cayo Hueso by early Spanish explorers, who found a raft of human bones (hueso) on the shore when they landed here. That name was eventually corrupted to Key West and the monicker stuck. Some say it was bones of previous Spaniards, some say it was Indians, the more conservative among us say that no ones really sure just whose bones those were. However, the discovery proved a trifle dampening to the enthusiasm of those who found them and it was many more years before the island was to find its place in the sun.

In 1820, the island was bought from the Spanish for $2,000, quite a substantial sum in those days, and the purchaser was John Simonton, an Alabama businessman - a canny businessman, it might be added, whose name and descendants live on here and remain a powerful influence in the region.

Pirates were eventually driven out and the islands ragtag population of English Bahamians, Southerners and transplanted northerners rose to 2,700, many of them happily engaged in the pursuit of wrecking ships or waiting for the rocks to do so, then salvaging the cargoes.

So profitable was that enterprising career, in fact, that one wrecker, a Bahamian named William Curry, is said to have worked his way to a million dollars, making him Floridas first millionaire and wealthy enough to buy a $100,000 Tiffany table service. In those days, that was about 10 times more impressive than it is in todays dollars - and its not something to sniff at even now!

Many a rollicking tale was born in those rough and ready days, including this one: because the first salvager to reach a wreck was named "wrecking master" and was entitled to most of the loot, getting there first was a universal goal. One wrecker, who doubled as pastor, was delivering the sermon on Sunday morning when, from his lofty post above the congregation, he saw a ship foundering on the rocks. Inspired, he launched into a sermon so stirring the congregation was captivated. Meanwhile, he moved slowly toward the door, never missing a beat. When he reached the exit, ensuring that he would reach the wreck first, he generously called out "Wreck ashore!" and raced out the door, first, of course.

In the 1850s, however, a lighthouse was built, putting a bit of a damper on the wrecking business, and the towns industry began to change. A devastating fire destroyed the town in 1859. About the same time, cigar makers, fleeing war in Cuba, arrived in Key West, where they established a thriving industry. Key Wests port was a hot spot, too, and by the 1880s, the city was said to be the wealthiest in the nation.

It was pretty much downhill from there until promoters in these Keys discovered that the real gold in these islands was incessant sunshine, clear seas and iconoclastically bohemian residents, all items of surpassing interest to the winter-weary and the weird watchers. Thus was discovered the gold of tourism, and no one here has ever looked back.

Author Ernest Hemingway was sufficiently seduced by a visit to Key West to move in permanently, six-toed cats and all. Here the author met Sloppy Joe, the owner of a local Duval Street bar, and the two often retired to the back room to drink copious quantities of whiskey and exchange tales. Joes stories are said to have inspired several of Hemingways books, and he wrote a number of his stories while living the very good life right here in Key West. You can still visit his house, now occupied only by the descendants of his unusual six-toed cats. You can visit the bar, too, and join in the local discussions over which is the 'real' Sloppy Joes&$151;Capt. Tonys Saloon, which is generally believed to be the spot, or the current Sloppy Joes, which certainly looks as if it could have been. Presentation is everything.

Those bars alone make Duval Street a "district," so put that on your list, although it will be virtually impossible to miss as it cuts straight down the west side of the island, ending at the ocean, as do many streets here. Duval Street is the center of Key West life, with many hotels, guest houses, inns and bed & breakfasts, plus dozens of shops and restaurants, nestled into its tropical ambience.

Hemingway was just one of a host of writers and artists who have been drawn to this end-of the-world spot, where no one much cares how eccentric or outrageous you are. Playwright Tennessee Williams, who authored Streetcar Named Desire among others prize-winners, moved right in and today one of the towns theatres is named for him. Robert Frost spent some time here, and you can still see his cottage at Jessie Porters Heritage House Museum, which also chronicles many other eras of Key West life. John James Audobon, whose delicate and exacting drawings of plants and birds gained him fame as one of the worlds best known botanists, came here, too, and was so enchanted by rainbow-hued flowers and birds that he, too, moved in for a while and completed many drawings in what is now known as Audubon House. If you visit it, you'll see some of his famed work.

All of these spots are about a conch shells throw from each other and from Duval Street, so park the car somewhere (good luck) and exercise the shoe leather to get the best look into secluded courtyards, cascading rainbows of magenta, peach and purple bougainvillea, swaying palms, glowing hibiscus, intricate Victorian gingerbread woodwork....

What also might be called a "district," although you'll be hard pressed to differentiate it from the rest of the island, is an area near the tiny airport where a number of hotels and a few restaurants can be found. Don't concern yourself your sleep might be disturbed by aircraft noise. There are only a few flights a day.

One more possible "district" can be found just at the entrance to Key West. Its a small island called Stock Island, reportedly where the islands cattle and other stock were kept many years ago. Today the "stock" on Stock Island includes charter boats awaiting fishing fans, boaters and visitors who want to get a look at the crystalline waters that surround the islands. From here, too, you can take a ferry to what might be called another "district" of Key West, the Dry Tortugas islands, one of which is home of Fort Jefferson, once a prison housing just one miscreant, Dr. Samuel Mudd, who unknowingly treated John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of Civil War President Abraham Lincoln. Mudd spent years alone in this fortress prison.

When Key West was the wealthiest city in the nation, there were those intent on enjoying their bank accounts at home, and they constructed some handsome homes in which to count their money. Trimmed on the outside in ornate woodwork known as gingerbread, and on the inside in stained glass, acres of elaborate woodwork, and miles of embellished plasterwork, these homes have been restored and are today a pastel wonderland, many of them inns, restaurants or shops.

At the ciys port, an intriguing outdoor-indoor market has developed at which you can buy everything from handmade jewelry to hand-rolled cigars.

Above it all rides a relentless sun, the orb that unifies it all, adding non-stop heat to an already-hot party, and, fittingly enough, winding up each day with a built-in festival known as Sunset at Mallory Dock. While that little daily celebration is viewed by many of its juggler/street-performer/animal-trainer/jewelry-seller participants as an opportunity to pry the tourist dollar from the tourist wallet, there is a certain beguiling innocence about it all and little of the raw mercantilism that you would expect. Instead, it is an eclectic gathering at which all and sundry join in a celebration of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, which has an amazing array of definitions here in the nations southernmost city.

History of Key West

The Conch Republic
Eclectic and eccentric, wild and warm, blessed with some of Floridas cussed-est characters but equally blessed with some of its most spectacular sea scenery, the Keys are Floridas Wonderland where the White Rabbit, Alice and the Queen of Hearts frolic at will, perhaps in full dress - and no one pays the slightest attention.

Anything goes here - and usually does. Some years back, in fact, Keys residents, annoyed with the federal government, announced their intention to secede from the United part of the United States of America and re-unite as the Conch Republic. As usual, no one, including many of their own number, paid much attention.

A failure to care about what the rest of the world is doing or thinking is perhaps the single feature most characteristic of the Keys. Folks here deliberately lured ships onto the rocks and made a very profitable career out of it. Folks here hunker down at major parties when terrifying hurricanes are blowing up a storm a few miles off the coast. Just try and move them. Folks here garb up in the weirdest of costumes and welcome the resulting stares. Folks go fishing when the spirit moves them and get spirited when the spirits move.

They even die with style here: in Key Wests cemetery, one of the epitaphs declares: "I told you I was sick."

It has long been thus, here in this silvery ribbon of islands that trail off the southern shore of Florida like a ribbon dangling from a gift package. Thanks to never-fail warm temperatures and glistening seas that are equally toasty, the islands have long been an escapists nirvana.

Calusa Indians and other tribes found their way here, recognizing the islands' potential as hunting grounds, both on land and in the warm seas where shellfish, turtles and marine life of all kinds thrive. Generations later, those sailin' Spaniards, who discovered and settled most of the Sunshine State, arrived. On this occasion, the leader of the pack was adventurer Ponce de Leon, who first set eyes on the keys on May 15, 1513. He and his sailors dubbed the islands Los Martires, the martyrs, in salute to the rocks that, from a distance, looked like suffering men.

While that name didn't stick, the suffering did. Looting, pillaging pirates, chased by the U.S. Navy Pirate Fleet of the 1820s, hid out here. Hurricanes hit and mosquitoes bit, as did the Depression which, for a time, dampened hopes of tourism and bankrupted Key West.

Key limes and pink gold
There were also plenty of high points, however.

In the 1800s and 1900s, farmers found success, raising pineapples on large plantations that spread across the Upper Keys. Sugarloaf, a kind of pineapple, is now the name of one key and another is named Plantation Key. A canning plant in Key West provided pineapples to most of eastern North America in the early 1900s.

Citrus thrives in the sandy, acetic soil of the Keys. Some oranges and grapefruit were, and still are, grown, along with the exotic tamarind and breadfruit. But it was the tiny, yellow key lime that was to capture the attention of growers and become an icon of the keys.

Fishing has been a mainstay of Keys success from the earliest Indian inhabitants to todays charter and shrimp boats, the latter still netting the little crustaceans so successfully that shrimp are known here as "pink gold." Before synthetic sponges were invented, islanders also made a living fishing for sponges that live in the seabeds here.

One unusual island career: in the 1920s, a factory on Big Pine Key skinned sharks, then sent the skins north for processing into a leather called shagreen.

Those uninterested in farming or fishing found the Keys a key to another very profitable career: salvaging the cargo from shipwrecks and sometimes, it is said, doing the wrecking themselves by deliberately luring ships onto the rocks. That unsavory but very profitable career, bolstered by legislation requiring that salvage be brought to an American port, made Key West the wealthiest city in the nation in the early 1800s.

As the centuries rolled by, railroad entrepreneur Henry Morrison Flagler heard about this place, figured it would have allure for winter-weary Northern travelers, and that it would make a good jumping-off place linking his Florida East Coast railroad to ships sailing to Cuba. In 1912, his Railroad that Went to Sea steamed into Key West on tracks that hopped from island to island, passing over the shallow seas.

But then decline set in. Cigar makers departed for Tampa; the sponge industry declined. Enterprising entrepreneurs took a look at the possibilities of tourism and got things under way, but a disastrous hurricane in 1935 blew away the railroad and killed hundreds. While the railroad dubbed "Flaglers Folly" did not survive, the roadbed on which it was set did, and went on to become the Overseas Highway'the Highway that Goes to Sea. This two-lane roadway streaks across more than 100 miles from Miami to Key West, and has become to Keys tourism what peanut butter is to jelly.

Tourism takes off
Although dampened by World War II, tourism took off in the Keys after the war and has never looked back, thriving beyond the wildest dreams of those early Conchs.

Conchs (pronounced "konks"), by the way, is a reference to the big, pink-lined shells that you put to your ear to hear the oceans roar. Islanders born here are the only ones who can really call themselves conchs, but those who have lived here more than seven years qualify to be called "freshwater conchs," and those who visit often enough can earn the name visitor, replacing tourist. Now theres a reason to stay a while!

The Weather

  Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
Avg. High 74 75 78 81 85 87 88 88 88 84 80 76
Avg. Low 65 65 68 72 76 78 78 78 78 75 71 66
Mean 70 71 74 77 81 84 84 84 84 80 76 72
Avg. Precip. 2.0 in 1.8 in 1.7 in 1.8 in 3.5 in 5.1 in 3.6 in 5.0 in 5.9 in 4.4 in 2.8 in 2.0 in

 

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