The fort is probably better known as a Civil War prison where Dr. Samuel Mudd was incarcerated following his
conviction as a party to the assassination of President Lincoln. John Wilkes Booth broke his leg jumping off the
stage after shooting the president on April 14, 1865. Dr. Mudd treated the wounded actor, but maintained he was not
involved in the conspiracy.
Dr. Mudd was sentenced to life at a military trial on June 30 and sent to Fort Jeff in 1865. President Andrew Johnson
pardoned Dr. Mudd in 1869. An inscription over Dr. Mudd's cell reads, "Abandon all hope ye who enter here."
When war with Spain loomed in 1898, the Army turned over control of Fort Jeff to the Navy for a coaling station. The
Spanish American War was short and the coaling operations ceased in 1901. After damage from the hurricane of
1906, the fort was abandoned.
Incidentally, the World War-I veterans who died in the 1935 hurricane in the Upper Keys were originally scheduled to
work at Fort Jeff. One reason for their diversion to build ferry replacement bridges in the Upper Keys was that
negotiations with the Navy for a National Park was slow in accomplishment. Fort Jefferson is a national monument
in the Dry Tortugas National Park.
Fort Zachary Taylor is discussed also on the Key West web page. The fort was built some 1,200 feet offshore as an
island. A complex foundation was built and the walls rose some 50 feet above the water. A drawbridge connected
the fort to the mainland. Forty-water cisterns were built to store 750,000 gallons of potable water. As with Fort Jeff,
many of the master masons were from Ireland and Germany. The high vaulted ceilings and complex arches
required master skills.
The Great Hurricane of 1846 wreaked havoc from Key West to Indian Key. Both lighthouses at Key West were
destroyed and the city's structures badly damaged. The newly started fort was particularly set back from the
hurricane, then it was yellow fever's turn. The 'fevers' were a yearly threat during each summer. Years 1854, 1856
and 1862 were unusually bad hurricane years. In 1847, a new industry lurched into action - sponges. Already
established from the Bahamas, New York welcomed the high quality sponges gathered from the waters of the Keys.
The War Between the States
At the outset of the Civil War, Florida was a confederate state and it was expected that Monroe County would be also.
The Union had a considerable force in Key West because of the construction of Fort Taylor under Captain E. B. Hunt
(Corps of Engineers). Key West was taken easily on the night of January 13, 1861, when Captain James Brannan
took possession of the city while it slept. Key West played a major role during the war because of it strategic location.
Key West became the center for the Union's Gulf and East Gulf blockading forces. Many ships from many nations
were seized and brought into Key West's harbor for disposition. Records reflect about 300 Confederate blockade
runners seized and held. The two Martello Towers were always planned to thwart a land attack and work finally
began. Key West was also the logistic support center for Fort Jefferson. Fort Taylor is now a state park.
Key West's population increased 400 percent in the 1840s decade. In addition to wrecking and sponging, the
construction of Fort Taylor (1845) and Fort Jefferson (1846) had began. Considerable numbers of slaves were
brought in to be 'rented' for construction of the forts. During the 1840s decade the slave population increased 653
percent. Not to be forgotten is that the cigar industry was in its infancy.
The Civil War was largely responsible for Key West becoming Florida's largest city. Key West profited while other
southern cities were being reduced to rubble. Jacksonville was its closest competitor and while it was not
destroyed, it was set back considerably. In the 1890s it had to incorporate almost all of Duval County to edge Key
West out in population count.
I cannot say for certain if Monroe County existed in more than name only during the Civil War. Florida seceded from
the US on January 11, 1861. On January 13, 1861, the Union seized Key West which was also the seat of County
Government. Florida joined the Confederate States on January 18, 1861. Maj. French of the Fifth US Artillery took
command for the Union on April 6, 1861. The Union suspended all Florida officers on May 17, 1861. Maj. French
refused to allow any judicial of magisterial functions except those of the Union.
In view of the above, we might wonder if there was a functional Monroe County from 1861 to 65, and even for a few
years later. The answer I believe is yes for Key West, but will question how functional for all the county. County
government was necessary if for no other purpose than to process property deeds. The clerk of the court, Mr.
Crusoe, a southerner, left, but Thomas Boynton the US district attorney could have performed his duties. Records
are few describing county functions from 1861 through 1865.
Monroe County Grows in Size
Monroe County retrieved part of its original land back when the governor approved the Acts of 1866 bill on December
8, 1866. Dade County's present southern boundary was established starting "at the mouth of Broad Creek, a stream
separating Cayo Largo from Old Roads [sic] Key, extending thence in a direct line to Mudd Point." By default, this
returned the present Middle and Upper Keys to Monroe County with the county line between Key Largo and Old
Roads Key. On the overland route, the northern boundary is at about Mile Marker 114 on highway US 1. The western
boundary continued to extend northward to about Fort Myers. Information appears to be lacking to explain why Dade
and Monroe Counties wanted this change. The Bill passed without controversy.
The same year of 1866 marked Monroe County becoming the link to connect Cuba with the world. In 1858 the
trans-Atlantic submarine cable went operational and a second cable laid that year. Cuba was linked to the US via a
submarine cable to Key West then to Punta Rassa near Fort Myers. Both repeater stations were in Monroe County.
Punta Rassa later became Lee County in 1887 establishing Monroe County's present boundaries.
It is generally believed that the presence of the "fevers" as well as the heat and mosquitoes reduced the summer
population of the Keys. Of the three only heat and mosquitoes remain and they are controllable by aerial spraying
and air conditioning. An example of the "fevers", in by September of the summer of 1887, the Marine Hospital (1845 -
1943) reported that there had been 282 cases of yellow fever in Key West and 30 had died. In 1899, there were 1320
cases with 68 deaths.
Of the "fevers" yellow, dengue, typhoid and malaria, malaria was the lesser. Dengue and typhoid were not as deadly.
In 1899, there were 6,999 cases of dengue reported and no deaths. Supposedly they all began from three mariners
living in an old cigar factory. I am probably incorrect but the last case of yellow fever in the state was 1905. Polio was
the next serious threat in Key West probably due to improved drinking water treatment in the 1930s and the resulting
loss of passed on immunity. The 1940s and 50s were bad years for polio outbreaks in Key West.
A new industry was quietly ushered in. One of the prominent wrecking captains, a Captain Ben Baker, found a new
go between while awaiting ship wrecks. He planted pineapples on Plantation Key and Key Largo in about 1866 and
they thrived. A new industry was born and it was just in time as steam ships were becoming vogue. Steam ships
were not wind dependent and steered better in all wind conditions than sailing ships, so they did not wreck as often.
Also, the Lighthouse Service was placing more functional lighthouses along the reef, so the wrecking economy was
on its way out.
The market for pineapples was in the northern industrial states and ships began changing from wrecking to
transporting pineapples and other Key's products. It was not just that simple as pineapples had to be at the market
site within seven to ten days after harvesting. In the early days, unfavorable wind conditions spoiled many a
shipment of pineapples.
Using the decade of the 1880s as a reference, we find the Keys north of Key West were sparsely populated. To
summarize the inhabitants of these Keys proceeding from south to north:
- Charcoal makers inhabited the Lower Keys. (see Big Pine Key) The Cates, Sands and Knowles homesteaded Big
Pine and No Name Keys.
- The huge Pent family populated the Key Vaca area.
- The Pinders and Russells were well entrenched at Upper Matecumbe Key.
- The Saunders and Roberts occupied Windley Key.
- The Alburys, Adams, Pinders, and Knowles were on Plantation Key.
- The Alburys, Lowes, Johnsons and Tedders were on south Key Largo.
- The Alburys, Bakers, Bethels, Pinders, and Currys were in the Rock Harbor area.
- The Pinders and Johnsons were in the Newport (Key Largo) area.
- The Bells, Lowes, Russells and Pinders were in the North Key Largo area.
In the Upper Keys, Benjamin Baker and Menendez Johnson established separate post offices on Key Largo, but
they were short lived. Postal responsibility was passed onto Planter on south Key Largo. Sam Johnson and his
family settled at Planter on the south end of Key Largo around 1880. The son, John Wesley, in 1891 opened a post
office. With the only post office between Key West and the mainland, Planter became a focal point. It developed into
a small community with a post office, store, school, church and five farms. Small settlements like Basin Hills, High
Mangrove Point and Newport rose and fell.
Government records reveal homesteads being recorded throughout the Keys in the 1880s. The unincorporated
Keys were officially surveyed in the early 1870s and the Homestead Act of 1866 was finally applicable throughout the
Keys. For a five dollar filing fee, up to 160 acres were available for proving of a claim. For an additional $1.25 per
acre patented title could be had in six months. A trivia item for Monroe County is in July 1901 rural mail delivery
began in Key West.
Back to the Mainland of Monroe County
Leaving the Keys for the mainland, Monroe County's southwest corner of Florida had had minor uses since Dr.
Henry Perrine used Cape Sable for experimental plantings in 1839. Many military excursions were made in the area
during the Second Seminole War. Reportedly, during the Civil War Key West was over run with refugees and others,
so food was very scarce. The powers that be in Key West sent farmers to the Cape Sable area to grow food. This
could have occurred also in the Upper Keys and led to the farming of pineapples.
The entire southwest part of Florida, Fort Myers southward, was used for fishing since its discovery. Cubans,
Indians and Americans fished and traded more or less in harmony until political differences disrupted the rapport.
The Second Seminole War was probably the largest disruption.
Fort Myers as a fort or community did not exist until 1850. During the Seminole War it was Fort Dulany and was
completely destroyed by a hurricane on October 19, 1841. It was rebuilt on higher ground up river. General David
Twiggs ordered the fort rebuilt in 1850 and his daughter was married to Florida chief quartermaster, Colonel
Abraham Myers. As an honor to both of them the fort was named Fort Myers.
With a population of 349, Fort Myers voted to incorporate in August 1885, becoming Monroe County's second city.
However, its only school, the Fort Myers' Academy, burned in May 1886. The story goes that Monroe County was
miffed at them for letting the $1,000 school burn and put off building another one until later. The next year the big
cattlemen of the area pushed through a bill creating Lee County on May 2, 1887. It included all of today's Lee, Collier
and Hendry Counties.
One of the few incidences of a "tree claim" in Florida could have occurred at Cape Sable in the 1884 claims for the
(James A.) Waddell Coconut Grove. This 1,120 acre grove of trees dominated the water front for years to come. The
Tree Claim Act of 1872 was meant to entice tree planting in the treeless Great Plains of America. James Waddell
became mayor of Key West in 1895-97.
Chokoloskee was settled in the 1870s. In 1891, Charles McKinney opened a post office named 'Comfort' at
Chokoloskee. At the time it was incorrectly listed under Monroe County as it was really a few hundred feet in Lee
County. Remember Lee County was created in 1887.
Also incorrectly listed as Monroe County was the Everglade Post office opened by George Horter on July 19, 1893.
But correctly listed was Flamingo. The postmaster was Howell Low on December 30, 1893. Duncan Brady, a new
Englander bringing pineapple slips to Upper Matecumbe Key, sailed westward and was one of the first Flamingo
settlers in 1892. Cape Sable followed with a post office on February 23, 1904.
Flamingo reached its peak of prosperity a few years later. By 1900 about 50 families lived there and there was a
Monroe County school. Other popular family names were the Irwins, Roberts, and Douthits. Farming, charcoal
making and plume hunting were the area's economy. But it was plume hunting that brought the people and its name
Flamingo. Audubon warden Guy Bradley (not to be confused with Brady above) was murdered in 1905 by outlaw
plume hunters. Public rage over the murder and the pluming practice created the 1910 Plumage Bill which outlawed
the practice. By 1910 only three houses remained occupied. Flamingo also supported commercial gill net fishing
until it also was outlawed. When the Everglades National Park was created in 1947, Flamingo became a part of the
The Railroad that Went to Sea
Henry Flagler announced in 1905 that indeed the Key West railroad Extension would be built. Many figures exist of
how much he spent, but the important thing is, it was built. Some will even argue that.
Railroad construction was begun at many points throughout the Keys, not just from the two ends. However, the track
was laid from Homestead, Florida southward. The intermediate goal was the construction of and to Knight's Key
Dock. This was a small wooden city about one and a half miles out in Moser Channel south of present day
Marathon. Daily train and passenger ship service began in 1908 to Knight's Key Dock. The community on Key Vaca
soon became known as Marathon. Many Keys communities received names by given be railroad personnel. It
seems that what ever name the depot bore, the name continued.
Major challenges still faced the railroad's completion to Key West. The largest being the Seven Mile Bridge and next
was the Bahia Honda Bridge. Hurricanes in 1909 and 1910 made these even greater challenges. What many
thought could not be done was done when Henry Flagler rode the first passenger train into Key West on January 22,
1912. Key West was tied to the mainland by two thin ribbons of steel track.
The advent of the railroad would appear to have been the absolute solution for the farming industry in the Keys -
faster and daily transportation. However, that was not the way it was. The hurricanes of 1906 and 1909 did severe
soil and property damage throughout the pineapple growing Keys. A blight also damaged the crop of 1909 and
subsequent crops. The railroad, to add insult to injury, placed a smaller tariff on imported pineapples, so
pineapples as an industry went the way of wrecking. However, the infrastructure for growth was in place.
The key lime made an appearance with an attempt to replace the pineapple, but it also was not to endure. It is now
the 1920's and the land was worth more as a subdivision than a farm. Related railroad work and the tourist industry
began to emerge. Between 1925 and 1927 there were 25 subdivisions platted on Key Largo alone, and all platted
by outsiders. The land boom busted and Key Largo did not have another new subdivision until 1940. The land boom
effects were a little more obvious on Key Largo because of its nearness to Miami, but it was echoed down the chain
Without a doubt the railroad induced a major change of lifestyle in the Keys. Flagler's railroad depots created place
names like Jewfish, Key Largo, Rock Harbor, Tavernier, Islamorada, Matecumbe, Long Key, Marathon, Pigeon Key,
Spanish Harbor, Big Pine, Cudjoe, Sugarloaf, Chase and Boca Chica. Most survived, but some did not. Block ice
and daily mail service was commonplace.
The Lower Keys were attractive to sponging. Charles and George Chase formed The Florida Keys Sponge and Fruit
Company in 1910. In the 1880s, Jeremy Fogerty and Ralph Munroe had experimented with artificial sponge
cultivation. In 1897, the legislature passed laws protecting private sponge beds from poachers. The Chase brothers
purchased the Dr. J. Vining Harris' Sugarloaf Key holdings and went into business cultivating sponge beds.
A mini-manufacturing community evolved and after the railroad's arrival the community grew to around 100
inhabitants. The community sported the sponge buildings, a post office, store, railroad depot, telephone and an ice
plant. In the railroad timetables, Chase was posted at mile marker 506. The F.E.C. railway listed their stops in miles
from Jacksonville, Jacksonville being zero. What was lacking for Chase was law-enforcement as poachers could
clean out a year's worth of sponge growth quickly. In 1917 the Chase brothers declared bankruptcy and the assets
were sold to R. C. Perky.
Richter C. Perky probably controlled more land in the Keys than any other person at the time. Much of his land was
on Key Largo in grapefruit, but Sugarloaf Key was to be a vacation spot. Perky also undertook sponge cultivation but
he is better remembered for the 50-foot bat tower built in 1929. Perky could have been Monroe County's first
mosquito control, but the bats did not come to roost, however the sponge poachers did. Enforcement of the law
against poachers proved useless. Perky died in 1940 and the Perky Bat Tower, even without maintenance, still
stands tall weathering all subsequent hurricanes.
HISTORICAL PRESERVATION SOCIETY OF THE UPPER KEYS
Jerry Wilkinson · Key Largo, FL
The Historical Preservation Society of the Upper Keys meet at
Key Largo Library Community Room, second Monday of each
month. Most programs of a historical nature.
Strategy derived from the War of 1812 necessitated adequate coastal
fortifications, or so at least it was perceived. The result was a plan for
50 forts from New Orleans to Maine. It reached Monroe County in 1845
in the form of two huge brick forts, Fort Jefferson on Garden Key in the
Tortugas and Fort Taylor just off of Key West. This was the first major
federal construction project since Commodore Porter built the naval
Fort Jefferson and Fort Taylor were started almost together, however
due to its remote location, Fort Jefferson had different delays. At the
time, and perhaps still is, Fort Jefferson was the largest brick
fortification the US had. Over 44 million bricks were used for its
construction and it spread over 16 acres. 109 water cisterns were built
for about 1,500,000 gallons of water. 'Fort Jeff' is about 70 miles west
of Key West.
Also like Fort Taylor, Fort Jeff was not completed in time for the Civil
War. It was garrisoned in 1861 and remained in Union hands, but it
appears not to have been as useful as Fort Taylor was. The story
goes that about the only encounter it had was when a Confederate
ship entered the harbor and demanded the fort's surrender. The Fort's
commander, Major Arnold, replied to the Confederate messenger,
"Tell your Captain I will blow his ship out of the water if he is not gone
away from here in ten minutes." The bluff worked and Fort Jeff never
fired a gun in action during the war. The debate continues as to the
effect had it fallen to the Confederates and Fort Taylor remained with
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