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Key West City

Key West City Hall is located at 3132 Flagler Avenue, Key West, FL 33040; phone: 305-809-3700.

Ernest Hemingway House, ca. 1851, 907 Whitehead Street, Key West, FL, National Register

Photo: Ernest Hemingway House, ca. 1851, 907 Whitehead Street, Key West, FL. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1968 as a National Historic Landmark. Photographed by User:Andreas Lamecker (own work), 2006, [cc0-by-1.0 (creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/deed.en], via Wikimedia Commons, accessed October, 2013.

Key West as Described in 1939 [1]

Key West, the southernmost city in the United States, 100 miles off the Florida mainland, occupies a coral island barely four miles long and less than two miles wide, lying between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. Other keys are visible from the eastern end of the city, low emerald islands in a shimmering, painted sea beneath high-piled lavender clouds. Steamers and other craft work their way through the old Nor'west Channel, a charted course taken for centuries. Much of the vegetation that grows on the island — sapodilla, banyan, tamarind, East Indian palm, frangipani, night-blooming cereus and a host of others — sprang from seed brought through this channel by seafaring men from far ports of the world. The natural, deep-water harbor is lined with sponge and fish docks, with turtle crawls and markets. Launches, dories, and sturdy smacks of commercial fishermen tie up here, often alongside battle cruisers and liners at anchor.

The sea is an ever-present consideration, yet most of the island is cut off from it by the fenced-in area around West Martello Tower and by the private hotel grounds and beach on the south; by the Fort Taylor fortifications on the west; by the Naval Station on the northwest; and by the docks and abandoned railroad terminal on the north. The city's skyline is low, broken only by two groups of tall radio towers, a large hotel and the buff cone of a lighthouse.

North and South Roosevelt Boulevards, wide connecting drives planted with palms, rim the island on the east, affording beautiful marine views. Both of these, and Flagler Avenue between them, lead into the downtown area. Duval Street, the main business thoroughfare and the only one completely traversing the island, might be taken as a symbol of Key West. It extends northward from a bathing pier in the Atlantic Ocean through a combined business and residential section, and terminates at a steamship pier in the Gulf of Mexico. At each end of the street a sign reads: Stop! Thru Traffic!

Streets in the business section are almost deserted during the heat of day, houses are shuttered and dogs sleeping on the sidewalks are not disturbed by detouring pedestrians, none of whom is ever in a hurry. The iceman rings a bell to announce his approach (his product is made of distilled sea water), and occasionally an automobile, a bicycle, or a motor scooter passes, though deep-gutted intersections discourage rapid movement from one street to another. Before completion of the highway, a mule-drawn mail wagon met incoming and outgoing planes, boats, and busses, and in between times resumed its regular schedule of hauling sponges. The downtown section comes to life on Saturday nights. Townspeople throng the streets and mingle with the fishermen who have come in for supplies and amusement. Inspired Negro Saints carry on revival meetings at corners, and there is more than a hint of the Spanish promenade as men gather along the walks, their eyes following the ladies as they pass. Open-front cafes, coffee houses and bars, nearly all erupting music, invite patrons. Many of these places have rear swinging doors labeled Club in Rear, and embellished with an ace of clubs or pair of dice.

Restaurants, nearly all owned by Cubans, feature Cuban-American cooking and specialize in seafood. Turtle steaks, conch steaks, and stews are popular foods, as are bolichi road (beef stuffed with hard-boiled eggs), alcaporado (beef stew prepared with olives, raisins, and other ingredients), black bean and garbanzo soups, and arros con pollo (chicken with yellow rice). Other dishes are stuffed chaotas, baked and fried plantains, preserved guavas, and baked guava duff with hard sauce. Since the island furnishes little forage for cows, and supports but one dairy and a flock of goats, evaporated milk is usually served.

There are no tearooms in Key West, but coffee shops are everywhere, serving black, sweetened coffee and buttered, hard-crusted bread that comes from the oven in two-foot loaves. Coffee is drunk at all hours of the day and night, not much at a time — un buchito — just a swallow. These shops are social institutions; here newspapers and magazines are read, problems of the day are discussed, and local gossip is exchanged.

Its isolation on the last of Florida's inhabited keys and its proximity to the West Indies have given Key West characteristics of friendliness and leisure, and tempered it with the Latin approach to life; the inhabitants are congenial and curious, ready with a smile and conversation in a community where it is normal for everyone to know everyone else. The city is made up of a conglomeration of races speaking English and Spanish, each influenced by Negro dialects. Among the merchants, commercial fishermen and artisans are descendants of settlers who migrated here chiefly from Virginia, the New England States, and the West Indies. About 1/4th of the population is descended from Cubans and Spaniards that arrived with the establishment of the cigar factories in the 1860s, and from refugees of the Cuban Revolution of 1868 and 1898. Key West Conchs are the offspring of two groups of cockney English; one group migrated to the Bahamas from London in 1649, another moved from Florida to the Bahamas when Spain regained Florida in 1783. Descendants of these two groups emigrated to the Florida Keys during the early 1800s when marine salvaging and fishing became profitable. Both white and Negro immigrants from the Bahamas speak with a cockney accent and use cockney words and phrases. The Negro population, confined to a section west of Duval Street, is almost wholly of Bahama origin, with a few immigrants from Cuba. Since slavery was abolished bin the British territories long before it ended in the United States, there are few ex-slaves on the islands. Most of the Negroes are employed in fishing and turtle industries, and in domestic service, though some collect and sell large, rose-pink conch shells.

Houses in Key West differ little from those of the island's first settlers — pirates and seamen of foundered vessels who built homes similar to those they had seen in New England, New Orleans or in the Bahamas. They used materials found close at hand — salvaged lumber, occasionally cedar and hardwoods from the upper keys and Cuba, and pine from Pensacola. Masonry made its appearance in 1844 when schooners arrived with great cargoes of brick and cement for the construction of Fort Taylor.

Then as now, the local builder, ever mindful of hurricanes, built staunchly. The typical Key West house, a one-and-a-half story frame structure put together with mortise and tenon joints, and secured by pegs and trenails, is anchored deep in the native coral rock. None has a basement because of the solid rock beneath the topsoil. Few are painted, for paint does not last long in the tropics. Roof area is of prime importance because the city depends solely on rain for its drinking water, as that obtained from drilled wells is brackish. Many houses have roofs with two and even three combs, and every inch of roof space is drained into pipes leading to backyard cisterns. Most houses have slatted shutters, which remain closed to keep out the glare, the slats permitting a free current of air. Many of the older houses were ceiled with wooden panels, and some of the interior trim is from cabins of ships wrecked on the nearby reefs.

Houses on the northern end of the island were constructed during the era of the city's greatest prosperity. Here wealthier citizens, some of them shipmasters, exceeded the average modest story-and-a-half dwelling and built dignified two- and three-story structures, often topped with a lookout platform or mirador. Two-story porches frequently extend around three sides of these houses.

It is probable that Ponce de Leon sighted Key West in 1513 when sailing south along the islands after landing in the vicinity of St. Augustine. Other early Spanish adventurers threaded the maze of the keys during that century, and named this island Cayo Hueso (Bone Key), because of the numerous human bones found here. Legend attributes the presence of these bones to a warring Indian tribe that pursued enemies over the Florida Keys and slaughtered them, leaving their skeletons to bleach in the hot sun. The island was later occupied by pirate crews that infested the neighboring seas, and by fishermen supplying Cuban markets, but the small settlement at Key West was abandoned when Florida fell into English hands in 1763.

Florida again became a Spanish possession in 1783, and in 1815 the King of Spain gave this island to Juan Pablo Salas, a young artillery office of St. Augustine, for services rendered the Crown. Eight years later Salas sold it to John W. Simonton, an American, and in the same year the Government sent Commodore David Porter with his mosquito fleet to rout buccaneers from the keys. Following his successful campaign, families from New England, Virginia and South Carolina settled here, along with many Tories who had fled to the Bahamas during the American Revolution.

About this time many inhabitants turned to salvaging cargoes from vessels wrecked on outlying reefs, and ships were said to have been deliberately lured to destruction by false flares and beacons. A U.S. superior court, established on the island in 1828, issued salvage licenses, ruled that a cargo belonged to the first salvage crew reaching a doomed ship, and tried cases involving salvage questions. Wrecks boomed the town; professional wreckers who had previously taken their cargoes from American waters to Nassau and Havana courts now made their headquarters here. Buyers came to bid on merchandise salvaged from ships lost on the reefs. In years of severe storms, salvage receipts often reached $1,500,000. Erection of Federal lighthouses (the first in Key West was built in 1825) brought aid to mariners and gradually diminished this business.

The U.S. Naval Station was enlarged during the Mexican War of 1846-1848; construction of Fort Taylor was begun on the island, and that of Fort Jefferson, 60 miles west on Dry Tortugas. At the beginning of the War between the States the Government fortified Key West with the two Martello Towers. Local citizens were strong Confederate sympathizers, but the city, like other port towns of Florida, was held by Federal forces throughout the war. Nearly 300 blockade runners were captured, brought here, and tried in the admiralty court during this time.

Key West had become the world's largest cigar manufacturing center by 1870; and many Cuban patriots who fled to Key West prior to the Spanish-American War were employed in the factories. A cable was laid to Cuba in 1866; nuns opened a girls' school two years later, and a public school system was established to supplement private instruction. The city had a population of 10,000 in 1880, which during the next decade grew to 18,000. Fire destroyed half of Key West in 1886, including Vincente Martinez Ybor's large cigar factory. This plant subsequently moved to Tampa where there existed a stable water supply, better transportation facilities, and some tax exemptions for factory owners.

During the Spanish-American War, Key West again became an important naval base. News of the sinking of the battleship Maine was brought by motor launch from Cuba and sent to American newspapers from Key West. Many of the dead and wounded were brought here, and an American fleet impatiently awaited sailing orders.

The Overseas Extension of the Florida East Coast Railway, a romantic engineering feat, completed in January 1912, linked Key West and intervening keys with the mainland. Freight trains were transported by ferry from the terminals to Havana; trade with Cuba thrived, and a year later Key West's population reached 22,000.

The World War added to the city's importance as a naval base. Patrol vessels, submarines, planes and dirigibles were stationed here. Thomas Edison carried on extensive experiments nearby with depth bombs. Throughout the prohibition era, with Cuba only 90 miles away, rumrunners played hide and seek with Government agents, and exciting chases recalled the activities of slave traders and hijackers of earlier years.

Trade with Cuba fell off rapidly after the Armistice, and only a few minor cigar factories continued operation. Steamship lines dropped the city as a port of call; increased tariff on Cuban pineapples closed local canning factories; the depression years soon destroyed the markets for fish products, the sponge fishing industry was not entirely revived, and the tourist business vanished. Garrisons of the Naval Station and Army Post were removed and the Coast Guard headquarters were transferred to St. Petersburg.

Whereas in the 1830s Key West was adjudged the richest city per capita in the United States, in 1934 it was bankrupt. There were no funds in the treasury, no market for its bonds, and public officials were unpaid. In July of that year the city council passed a resolution petitioning the Governor of Florida to declare a state of emergency for Key West. Because approximately 80 percent of the inhabitants were on relief rolls, the Governor authorized the Florida Emergency Relief Administration to attempt rehabilitation of the stranded community. A program was originated whereby Key West was to be made the American winter resort of the tropics, competing with Bermuda and Nassau. Citizens volunteered and actually contributed 2,000,000 man hours of labor; streets were cleaned, beaches developed, adequate sanitation provided, houses renovated and redecorated. Hotels, long shuttered, were reopened, and fetes were devised to attract visitors.

The program, hailed as one of the Nation's most interesting experiments in community planning, made the city a proving ground for Government-sponsored cultural projects. FERA artists, transferred from other sections, covered walls of public buildings, cafes and nightclubs with murals, and recorded upon canvas and copperplate the manifold life of the island community. Classes in handicraft were organized to teach persons on relief new ways of livelihood through use of native raw materials. These products, on sale at a number of shops, include ash trays, buttons, buckles and pins carved from the hard shell of coconuts; palm-fiber hats, purses and rugs; novelties made from shells and fish scales, and Spanish drawnwork.

Pageants and operas were presented under the auspices of the Relief Administration; unemployed writers produced descriptive literature designed to attract the more conservative visitors who passed through on their way to the Bahamas. A housing service provided quarters for newcomers and arranged every detail from hiring servants and stocking pantries to preparing and serving the first meal. Forty thousand persons visited Key West the following winter.

Just as Key West seemed on the road to financial recovery the Labor Day hurricane of 1935 swept across the upper section of the keys, and though the city was unharmed, miles of the Overseas Railway tracks were destroyed, and much of the highway that paralleled parts of it was washed away. The railway company, already in receiver's hands, abandoned the extension and moved its ferries to Port Everglades near Fort Lauderdale; the island's commercial fishing industry, lacking quick transportation to mainland markets, was ruined.

Proposals for the Overseas Highway were resumed in order to eliminate ferry service established by the State and in 1936 the railway's right-of-way was taken over by the Monroe County Toll Bridge Commission. Utilizing long spans over which Flagler took his railway to sea, the system of highways and bridges, opened to traffic in 1938, brought the city within five hours of Miami by motor.

  1. Federal Works Agency, Works Progress Administration, Federal Writers' Program, Florida: A Guide to the Southernmost State. American Guide Series, Florida Department of Public Instruction, 1939.
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