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Shipwreck Historium Museum, Key West - Orlando / Florida Guide

Florida Guide > Travelling

Key West, although a tiny island, just 3½ miles by 1 ½ miles, is a treasure trove of interesting places to visit, many of them centred around Mallory Square. As a magnet for artists and famous people, as well as a shipwrecker’s paradise, Key West has an abundance of historic buildings and museums, and one of the most interesting is the Shipwreck Historeum Museum.

During the age of sail, over 100 ships a day sailed past Key West, but these waters were some of the most treacherous in the world. An average of one ship a week was wrecked along the Florida Reef, and those who earned their living from these wrecks would watch from observation towers for unfortunate ships to plunder. Some would even patrol the reef in their own small boats. As soon as a wreck was spotted it the wreckers raced to get to it first, as the fortunate winner became the wrecking master, who would take charge of the salvage operation and get the lion’s share of the booty. Once these items had been brought ashore they would be sold at auction and the wreckers would get between 20-50% of its value, according to how dangerous and difficult a job it had been.
As the result of its offshore coral reefs, and regular hurricanes, ships regularly floundered off the coast, providing rich pickings for the residents of Key West, and making it the richest city in the USA. Some were legal wreckers, whilst others were simply little more than pirates and buccaneers.

One museum you won’t want to miss is the Key West Shipwreck Historeum Museum. Located in a huge wooden warehouse, full of booty from shipwrecks, here you can see some of the original cargo from the Isaac Allerton, a merchant ship which was caught in a hurricane in 1856. Although the ship’s passengers and crew were saved by the Key West wreckers, the ship sank in five fathoms of water, and not all of her cargo was salvaged. However, in 1985, local divers rediscovered the wreck and brought much of its cargo ashore, where it is displayed in the Shipwreck Historeum Museum.

A visit to this fascinating museum will introduce you to the historical character Asa Tift, who is full of interesting facts about the life of the wreckers, as well as tales of their daring salvage operations. He was actually a marine architect and salvage wrecker himself, and in 1851 built the house which eventually became home to Ernest Hemmingway. You can watch a video presentation about the shipwrecking industry, which shows underwater footage of the wreck of the Isaac Allerton. There is a 65ft tall look out tower which you can climb – such towers were used by wreckers to spot ships which had floundered on the reefs offshore. From here you can enjoy a superb view of the city and its harbour, so don’t forget to take your camera with you for this photo opportunity.

This is a small museum and the tour takes approximately 30 minutes, but it opens for an amazing 365 days a year!

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