History of Key West

United States > US City Index > Key West > History

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!