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A Brief History of Key West - Orlando / Florida Guide

Florida Guide > Other Florida

It was several years ago that we first visited Key West, on our first cruise aboard the stunningly beautiful Royal Caribbean ship ‘Enchantment of the Seas,’ in her inaugural season. As we boarded the launches to take us to the town, we could see before us the island of Key West, which was once the largest and wealthiest city (per capita) in Florida. As the launch pounded its way over the waves towards this fascinating settlement we were filled with anticipation, and we were not to be disappointed.

Over 660,000 guests arrive here by cruise ship each year, including Royal Caribbean, Carnival, Norwegian Cruise Lines, Holland America, Celebrity and Costa cruises. It is a very popular destination, and rightly so, as it has a fascinating history. Whenever we have visited the weather has been perfect, hot and sunny.

Key West has a long and checkered history, appearing on European maps in the early part of the 17th century. It was named ‘ Cayo Hueso’ or ‘Bone Key’, due to the apparent discovery of the bones of dead Indians lying scattered on the beach. As settlers drove the native Indians from their homelands, southwards, there were many bloody battles, resulting in most of them fleeing, and many were left for dead, hence the name, Bone Key. At one time it was owned by England, until the end of the revolutionary war, after which the islands reverted to Spanish ownership.

In 1819 it was finally ceded to the United States, and the island was sold to an American businessman for $2,000! With its natural deep water harbour, it became a base for the US Navy, and was designated as a US port of entry. You can still see the Custom House which is now a museum. However, settlement was not without its problems as there was yellow fever, malaria and a general lack of fresh water.

Before Key West became what it is now, many of its residents made a living by salvaging ships which had been shipwrecked on the dangerous offshore coral reefs. These treacherous reefs, combined with stormy weather, meant that many ships with rich cargoes foundered off shore. However, it provided the ideal occupation for its citizens, as wrecking and salvaging became the island’s primary businesses, and many of them became very wealthy from the proceeds, selling off the valuable items that they had salvaged.

As well as this, salt harvested from sea water was a major industry from, 1830 until the Civil War, supplying much of the nation’s salt, used in food preservation. But this was superceded by salt obtained from salt mines discovered on the mainland. The Cigar industry also grew up here, as many cigar workers from Havana emigrated to Key West, and by 1890 there were 129 cigar factories. However, it lost its place as the leading American producer of hand-roller Cuban cigars when the industry moved to Tampa.

Sponges were also an important commodity at the beginning of the 19th century, and the waters around Key West had many sponge beds, but a deadly sponge fungus destroyed most of its beds. However, in the past 25 years, several small businesses have started harvesting Key West sponges again.

But Key West is perhaps equally famous for having attracted the rich and famous, such artists as Ernest Hemmingway, Tennessee Williams, and even the US president, Harry S Truman. You can still visit Hemmingway’s house where he lived for more than 10 years, writing prolifically. It is here that he wrote one of his most famous novels, ‘A Farewell to Arms.’ Descendents of his cats still roam the gardens. Harry S Truman, the 33rd President of the United States visited Key West over 150 times during his presidency, and you can still visit the house he stayed in, the Little White House, as it is so aptly called.

Today, Key West is a popular tourist destination, attracting people from all over the world. It has a cosmopolitan atmosphere and an abundance of museums, shops, and restaurants - don't forget to sample the delicious Key Lime Pie. Tourism is now its number one industry, so if you get the chance, take a trip down to this most southerly part of the US and sample its sultry delights.

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