Information about the Florida Keys and Key West
First settled in the 1920's at the tip of the island chain stretching south from
mainland Florida, Key West is the southernmost city in the continental United
States. In fact, it lies 755 miles further south than Los Angeles.
Separated from the Florida mainland by a series of 42 bridges, the tiny island is
closer to Havana than it is to Miami and it's individualistic, Caribbean-flavored
culture reflects that proximity. It's natives, commonly called Conchs, take their
name from the tough, tasty mollusk found in near-by waters.
Key West is part colorful seaport, part haven for artists and writers, part
cosmopolitan getaway. Early in it's history, the old island's maritime
environment attracted a lively blend of New England ship captian.s Cuban
cigar-markers, Bahamian salvagers, southern aristocrats, and West Indian
In the early and mid 1800's, the island drew it's primary income from wrecking -
salvaging cargoes from ships that foundered on the reef seven miles out. The
hardy wreckers often fought near gale-force winds to rescue crews and cargoes
form sinking vessels. Their bravery earned financial rewards at Key West's
Admiralty Court and the wrecking industry ultimately became so profitable that it
made Key West the richest city per capita in the country.
Following the Civil War, the island's wrecking-based economy diversified.
Drawn by the favorable climate, Cuban cigar makers set up shop. Fishermen
and spongers harvested the bounty of the waters, and the islan'ds natural salt
ponds attracted a brisk salt-making industry.
Just after 1900, millionaire Henry Flagler began construction of a grand project:
an "Overseas Railroad" stretching from the Florida mainland to Key West.
Complete din 1912, it subsequently carried half a million visitors to the island
with trains chugging down 157 miles of track from Miami.
Unfortunately, the amazing railroad only lasted 23 years before it was destroyed
by the hurricane of 1935. What remained of the track and bridges was sold to
the government to be used for the Overseas Highway which was finished in
The death of the railroad, combined with the effects of the Great Depression,
was almost a death knell for Key West. Once the richest city in the country, it
declared bankruptcy. Government officials urged moving residents to a region
less affected, but he determined Conchs chose instead to stay and stick it out.
Slowly, the island's economy recovered. World War II revitalized Key West' Naval
base making the island and it's surrounding waters a stronghold in the fight
against German submarines. President Truman's fondness for Key West was
a boom as well. He spent 175 days of his six and a half year presidency in the
"Little White House" he established on Navy property.
Several years later came the discovery of rich shrimp beds just offshore-bearing
pink shrimp so plentiful and flavorful that they were nicknamed "pink gold" and
shrimping became a primary island industry.
Today a world-renowned tourist destination, Key West is home to acclaimed
artists and crafts-men, writers, treasure hunters, and characters fleeing the real
world. Often called the Conch Republic (named when a border dispute with the
mainland prompted the island to secede form the Union and declare
independence), Key West is proud to share its colorful heritage, casual
atmosphere and unsurpassed climate with visitors!