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.
For one thing the nation was entering a depression. The military moved out, the cigar industry was moving to
Tampa, the sponge headquarters moved to Tarpon Springs, maritime freight and port-of-call business was being
diverted to new ports. Key West barely grew at all. For that matter, there was little population increase on the other
islands, but there was change.
Since 1919 Key West and Cuba had been playing with air transportation. In the early 1920s, Aero Marine West
Indies used seaplanes for air travel. Pan American Airways jumped in with two planes in 1927. Even though the
depression was on, Pan Am established scheduled service between Key West and Miami in 1934.
The Great Depression
The highway was just in time for the 1929 stock market crash. The 1930s brought The Great Depression which
had severe effects on Key West. The tourists and associated building of the 1920s evaporated. This was followed
by the Navy reducing its base to maintenance status in 1932. Only the radio station remained in full operation.
Cigarettes replaced cigars and a disease threatened the local sponge activity. On July 1, 1934 Key West officially
declared insolvency and threw itself into the hands of the state.
The state was no better off than Key West and neither was the country. So it was up to President Franklin
Roosevelt and his New Deal programs with acronyms like the CWA, WPA, PWA, CCC, and FERA. Julius Stone
headed the Florida division of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) in Jacksonville, and he found
special favor in Key West. It appears that he spent more time in Key West than all the rest of Florida, and Key West
reaped the benefits. Many work programs were started and continued throughout the Works Progress
Administration (WPA) period.
The remainder of the Keys were struggling more or less for themselves, but they were not dependent on the
military, cigar making and sponges. In the Upper Keys three camps of World War I veterans were brought in to
build a bridge network to replace the inefficient and unreliable ferry system where there was no highway. Vehicle
ferry boats ran between Lower Matecumbe and Grassy Key, and Marathon and No Name Key. Bridge building
began in November, 1934, but it was for naught.
The Great Deluge of 1935
On September 2, 1935, the most powerful hurricane ever recorded over the North American continent struck the
Upper Keys. Forty miles of railroad were washed away but the concrete bridges remained intact. Hundreds of
veterans and their families drowned. Entire civilian families were decimated. Nothing but wreckage remained
from Plantation Key to Long Key. Points south of Windley Key had only maritime and aircraft transportation service.
Key West was partially isolated just as it was getting back on its feet. However, it had been shown the way to
success - tourism. Reportedly, the train had brought 17,000 passengers to Key West the winter before.
New ferries were brought in and the ferry landings rebuilt. Transportation was once again normal, minus a
railroad. The concrete railroad bridges were not damaged, just the filled roadbed in between. People with savvy
and vision took the reins and a federally backed loan for $3.6 million was obtained. The railroad's right-of-way was
purchased, bridges widened and converted for vehicles and a connecting highway built. With a lot of hard work it
was completed and a convoy of thousands of automobiles drove to Key West in late March 1938. Visitors, delivery
trucks and buses frequented all the principal Keys.
World War II
Time moved on and as World War II loomed on the horizon, the Navy began a build up in preparation. When war
did happen, the naval operations envisioned for Key West necessitated corresponding logistic support. This was
the precursor of modernizing the Keys. Nothing much changed for mainland Monroe County. A modern military
force required sufficient drinking water, electricity and an efficient highway, and that is what all the Keys received.
These three almost necessities for modern families laid the framework for growth in the Lower, Middle and
Of course, the war had to end and families get back together, but that just took time. Within a decade there were
high schools in Marathon and Plantation; new church groups never in the Keys before had meeting places.
Large developments like Ocean Reef, Layton and Key Colony Beach crept in.
Digressing back to the WW-II period, major progress was made for all of Monroe County in 1942 with the water
pipeline and a rural electric system. The Overseas Highway was improved and shortened by 17 miles along
today's route. This action by-passed the ocean route through Pirates Cove in the Lower Keys and the wooden
Card Sound bridge in the Upper Keys. In other words, the vehicle route was more or less as U.S. 1 is today. It can
safely be stated that 90% of the permanent population resided in Key West, but this was about to change. I will
stick out my neck and say that the main thrust were retirees, but many were retirees that did not remain retired.
Prosperity for All
After WW II, the whole country increased in mobility. Motels increased to the extent that motel laws were passed.
The Upper Keys began to grow again. First there was a weekend physician, Dr. Tallman, followed by a resident
physician Dr. Cohn, thanks to Nurse Frances Tracy.
On November 11, 1950, the voters of Monroe in my opinion made a huge decision. The voters voted
overwhelmingly to approve an anti-mosquito district - 1781 for and 170 against. I am certain this was one of the
elements that sustained the huge Upper Keys building boom that began in the 1950s. The opening of a high
school was another reason.
There had been efforts to control mosquitoes ever since Dr. Walter Reed announced mosquitos as disease
carriers. Actually, a Cuban doctor had done so earlier, but Dr. Reed received the credit. Drainage was the primary
attack weapon and the U.S. Navy pursued this vigorously. In November 1935, the F.E.R.A. appointed A.C. Tanner
to develop an anti-mosquito program in Key West and the W.P.A., a sister federal agency to FERA, joined in. A few
years later R.C. Perky built his unsuccessful bat tower on Sugarloaf Key. Bats eat mosquitos and had there been
significant bats, the bats could have diminished the number of mosquitos. How significant the reductions would
have been is questionable, but the project was unsuccessful.
World War II had a byproduct called DDT which became the chemical of choice for mosquito control and later
prohibited. Meanwhile, they continued to battle the countries polio epidemic. In October 1953 there were a total of
51 cases in Monroe County. In 1954, the Monroe County contributions to the polio March of Dimes was the
highest in the state. Irregularities in the controll of revenues for the Overseas Highway Toll was discoveries and
the toll was removed.
Marathon gained a full time lawyer, physician, dentist, fire department, etc. Very important for the Middle Keys, the
Seneys incorporated the Keynoter newspaper. 1951 saw a permanent Highway Patrol station built in Marathon
and two years later in January 1953 the first water meter was installed in Marathon. In the Upper Keys, the
two-room schools became overcrowded. The newly built Coral Shores High School graduated its first class in
1953. New churches sprang into life. Mosquito control was put into effect as a county agency in 1951. At first it
was spraying with trucks, but by 1960 the Beech type 18 aircraft was used. All the elements for growth were
falling in place.
Another 1950 event was Southern Bell installing dial telephone service for Marathon. Matecumbe and Key Largo.
Each customer had a four digit number. My 1951 copy was a Matecumbe book and the rates were to call Key
Largo on weekdays $0.23, Marathon 0.35, Key West $0.60 and Maimi $0.60. The number of listings were: Key
Largo = 124, Matecumbe = 147 and Marathon = 157.
On the mainland, the Everglades National Park obtained 1,076,552 acres of Monroe County for public use in
1947. Originally the park was planned to extend across Key Largo into the Atlantic Ocean. Monroe County
prevailed by withdrawing Key Largo from the park. Therefore, the park's eastern boundary runs a few miles off
the western shore of Key Largo.
On Big Pine Key, 22 new subdivisions were platted. However, this was followed by Congress passing bill
HR-1058 in 1957 creating a National Wildlife Refuge for the deer. Business was good around Big Pine Key and
the Lower Keys Chamber of Commerce established its office on Big Pine in 1959. Big Pine was well on its way to
becoming self supportive with its own economy and stores.
A side note on growth, from the Key West Citizen newspaper, in 1947 Dun and Bradstreet revealed 269
businesses in Monroe County. Then in 1953, Dun and Bradstreet revealed that Monroe County had 507
businesses. The was a 88 percent growth over a six year period. There is little doubt that the addition of rural
electricity, public potable water, and the improved and shortened highway during WW-II followed by the post
WW-II prosperity and change of public attitude, coupled with mosquito control, and an Upper Keys high school
jump-started growth. I wish I had other Dun and Bradstreet numbers to share with you. Anyway, in 1954 the Casa
Marina Hotel in Key West announced that it would be open year round. Construction began to extend the
Meacham Field runway by 600-feet. The average spendable household income in Key West was $8,518
compared to the national average of $5,246. Sheriff Spottswood also his jail was almost at capacity. Signs of
growth was almost everywhere.
Another sign of growth in the Upper Keys was in 1958 when a green and white sheriffs substation was opened
on Plantation Key. It was no longer necessary to call the Marathon Highway Patrol, or the sheriff in Key West, in
emergencies. Prisoners no longer had to be taken to Key West.
The county's growth finally forced the Monroe County Commission to meet outside of Key West, even though
official business still had to be conducted in Key West. It did just this under Mayor Harry Harris in March 1971 in
the 3rd District Justice of the Peace courtroom on Plantation Key. The commissioners debated a bill to hire a
county administrator as the 200 county employees were being governed directly by the five political
commissioners. It was thought that a good administrator could be hired for less than $30,000 a year and the
ordinance was approved in March 1976. The year before this, on April 15, 1975, the Florida Keys were declared
an Area of Critical State Concern. Therein was the basis for guiding the development of the Keys. A
Comprehensive Master Plan was eventually approved and a Rate of Growth Ordinance (ROGO) implemented.
The creation of the Conch Republic in 1982 while based on actual occurrences was in actuality more pomp and
publicity than government. A roadblock was set up at the junction of U.S. 1 and Card Sound road, just south of
Florida City in Dade County, at the on April 18, 1982 by U.S. Border Patrol. Their purpose was to search for illegal
aliens and drugs, both which had proliferated in Monroe County. These roadblocks caused traffic leaving Monroe
county to block up sometimes, but rarely, for hours (the first day was a problem). Key West community and
tourism leaders concerned over the impact on tourism announced the formation of the Conch Republic with a
mock secession from the Union.
Emotions ran high, but Federal Judge Clyde Atkins refused to issue even a temporary restraining order to end the
checkpoint. Conch Republic officers were appointed, passports for sale, radio stations played "Send in the
Clowns", the 74-foot schooner Wolf proclaimed the flagship, a hymn of the Conch Republic written, the Key West
flag adopted and many other national symbols enacted. In the end some 50 illegal aliens and about 50 pounds
of marijuana were seized.
The aforementioned growth also necessitated additional county government. A few of the larger additions were
the Jackson Square courthouse in 1986. In 1993, a Marathon Government Center was opened on the site of the
old Clark estate. This was followed by a new County jail on Stock Island in 1994 and an adjacent new sheriff's
office in 1995. However, an election for a special taxing district bond for Conch, Duck and Grassy Keys for new
fire fighting equipment ended in a tie of 60-60. The bond issue was defeated by the "luck of the draw" of a lot
required by Florida Law in cases of a tie vote. The importance of one vote appeared once again in the county
commissioner election of Allison Fahrer and Henry Rosenthal. Mrs. Fahrer won by one vote. The importance of
registering and then turning out to vote cannot be over emphased in Monroe County.
The build up of county governments facilities is still in progress. Major capital projects listed in the year 1999
Renovation of the old Key West Gato Cigar building = $6,123,000,
New Judicial Complex = $10,000,000,
Courthouse Annex = $1,500,000,
Renovation of the Old Courthouse = $5,000,000,
A Plantation Key Sheriff Substation = $2,250,000,
Marathon Community Park = $3,000,000,
Key Largo Community Park = $2,500,000 and the
Marathon Airport = $1,100,000.
In general numbers, since 1950 Key West maintained a population oscillating around 30,000 residents
depending on how the military and their dependents were counted. Key West had grown steadily until after the
arrival of the railroad in 1912, then dropped off some until WW-II and shot up to over 35,000 during the Cuban
missile crisis in 1963. In June 1973 Destroyer Squadron 18 and Submarine Squadron 12 were
decommissioned and the U.S. Navy began withdrawing. The Key West population decreased to the present
more or less stabilized number; however, the Upper Keys continued to gain population despite growth controls.
YEAR = 1920 1940 1950 1960 1970 1980 1990
Upper Keys 275 352 1,025 3,126 7,012 14,887 22,056
Middle Keys 100 218 925 5,000 5,756 10,221 12,792
Lower Keys 455 581 1,550 5,733 10,352 6,353 10,414
Key West 12,831 12,927 26,443 33,956 29,312 31,727 32,479
M. Cty. 13,444 14,078 29,943 47,815 52,432 63,188 78,024
Separating the 1990 census total of 78,024 into their divisions, there were:
UPPER KEYS Division: Key Largo = 11,336, Tavernier = 2,433, Plantation Key = 4,054 and other parts = 2,662.
MIDDLE KEYS Division: Marathon = 8,857, City of Key Colony Beach = 977, City of Layton = 183 and other parts =
LOWER KEYS Division: Big Pine Key = 4,206, Cudjoe = 1,714 and other parts = 4,495.
KEY WEST Division: City of Key West = 24,832, Stock Island = 3,616, Big Coppitt = 2,388 and other parts = 1,646.
CAPE SABLE Division: = Cape Sable and off shore islands = 292.
SHIPS AT SEA: =1,749.
For decades the unincorporated Keys population hovered at less than 2,000 total. There was a small peak in the
1912 time period. At the end of WW-II and influenced by a better highway, public water and electricity, their
population increased to around 3,500 by 1950. With population mobility, schools, churches, etc., the
unincorporated population then spiraled to about 50,000 in 1990 representing about a 1,300 percent growth in
forty years. Of course two communities have recently incorporated reducing this figure.
Much about the above settlements, industries and development is presented in other web pages along with
discussions of the people behind them. Today, Monroe County, the county of islands, is struggling under the
growth restraints of its Land Use Plan for the year 2010. The principal economy is tourism followed by retail
services, commercial fishing and government employment. Exactly where transfer payments to the retired
community is debatable. Plans are under way to turn over road responsibility on the mainland to the federal
government. Frequents discussions center around if the carrying capacity of the Florida Keys has been
exceeded. Under consideration is a protocol for central sewer systems on significantly inhabited Keys. Special
legislation has created an Independent Wastewater District for the island of Key Largo. A site for a new Key Largo
government center is in progress. There is talk of incorporating Stock Island.
The sounds of silence are gone.
In 1923, Big Pine Key was the scene of another possible new Keys
maritime industry. Increased uses of shark oil sparked Hydenoil
Products to build a shark oil plant on Big Pine's Atlantic shore. The
plant geared up and employed 25 men and operated six fishing boats.
From appearances all was well as by 1930 they caught and processed
an average of 100 sharks daily. They expanded the size of the plant, but
workers began to quit as the company was skipping paydays. Finally, in
1931 it closed for good when the manager complained of being owed
$3,000. When WW-II shut off the US supply of cod liver oil, other smaller
shark oil plants were attempted on other Keys, but they too were short
While the artificial sponge cultivation and shark processing plant were
struggling, Monroe County sensed the need for a vehicle highway. It
began in 1925 but the hurricane of 1926 delayed completion in the
Upper Keys. Then in 1928 a highway connected the Keys to the
mainland via a bridge across Card Sound and 40-miles of ferry service.
The railroad had provided most Keys communities with mail service,
daily ice, as well as other things that efficient transportation can
provide. The highway provided better day-to-day services with buses,
delivery trucks, day trips, etc. One change appeared to be alternative life
styles. Farming was still present, but there were now other choices,
and perhaps not as demanding. Farmers and fishermen alike became
fishing guides and operators of mercantiles, service stations,
restaurants, etc. Hand painted signs appeared along the highway
Recreational centers appeared as the Long Key Fishing Club, the
Anglers Club, the Caribbee Colony, the Marathon Yacht Club, Big Pine
Inn, Pirates Cove and others. Key West did not fare as well.
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