By Jerry Wilkinson
quick overview of commercial electricity began when Thomas Edison
an electric dynamo producing direct current in 1879. The first company
was the California Electric Light Company producing electricity for 24
lights. In 1886 William Stanley produced alternating current in Great
Mass. Buffalo, New York was the first city to receive electric power on
a large scale. For a time comparison, the Statue of Liberty was
With that said, the first recorded use of an electric power plant in the Keys as one might guess was in Key West. In 1889, John J. Philbrick established an electric plant followed by William Curry Son's in 1897 who in addition to their own use, offer power to a few customers. Electric street car service were offered in 1900; however, it was 1906 before it was in full operation. The Stone & Webster Corporation bought both electric companies in 1909 when it also purchased the street car company. Therefore, the tiny city of Key West was not far behind the rest of the nation in offering electric service.
Unincorporated Monroe County was a little slower. Years after most of Florida had public service electricity, the Upper Keys had none. Henry Flagler had used commercial dynamos to produce direct current electricity at some of his railroad construction sites. The need for electric power was needed on Key Vaca when Flagler moved the headquarters for the Key West Extension there from Miami to complete the track to Key West in 1908. The plant was thought to be located about where the present (2000) Chamber of Commerce building is but actually was located at the end of the "wye" dock located on today's 33rd Street. Railroad houses rented for $15 a month with electric power included. The plant was closed in 1916 when the railroad closed its Marathon headquarters.
Perhaps the first home electricity other than batteries consisted of a
few random, personal gasoline power plants. One of the more popular
power plants in the early days was the "homelite" unit. Commercial
such as the Bill Thompson docks in Marathon used larger electric
This became essential as it was not practical to continue using block
for larger operations.
Another group use of private electric generators was the "Millionaires Club" on Upper Matecumbe Key. This exclusive club was built in the 1920s by eleven members of the New York Cotton Exchange. Bertram Pinder assisted by his two brothers were the caretakers for 12 years. The club house was a two and a half story building, but most of the members built separate houses nearby. The club, the member's houses and the three Pinder families shared electricity from a common generator. The three Pinders operated and maintained the generators.
A real attempt to provide an Upper Keys community with this not-so-new invention of electricity was made by H. S. "Mac" McKenzie in Tavernier. Mac came from Miami in 1928 and began constructing what was to become a small business center.
Along with bulk oil storage tanks, he built a gas station and added iceboxes on the sides of his delivery truck to deliver both ice and gas. In addition, he built an icehouse, drug store, theater, hardware store, lumber yard and auto repair garage.
Behind his drug store, he, in conjunction with Florida Power and Light (FP&L), put in a 50-hp diesel generator and installed electric lines to those homes that chose electric service. Mac's daughter Joanne remembers the generator being named "Old Hessie." Her uncle, Austin Reese, operated the plant. The office, maintenance and generators were at first across the highway bayside in one facility. After WW-II, the office was moved oceanside of the highway and additional generators with necessary expansions continued.
In the beginning, the hours of electric service changed depending upon the season of the year. An example of typical daily service: 5:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. On Saturdays, Mac would leave the electricity on until midnight. Power lines ran along the highway from about MM 90.5 (the Gieger packing house) to MM 92 (the Albury houses). This was not enough hours for food refrigeration, so most homes used kerosene refrigerators and life wasn't half bad.
A few later later, Alonzo Cothron constructed the small electric system in Matecumbe. Like the Tavernier unit, he only provided electricity during essential hours. Eventually the Tavernier plant served about 37 customers and Matecumbe about 22 customers. Marathon is reported to have had a similar operation.
Another early private power plant was installed for the Caribbee Colony on southern Upper Matecumbe Key in the early 1930s. George Merrick of Coral Gables development fame was trying to recover from his financial losses that resulted from the real estate bust of 1926. He built the large resort complete with restaurant, cottages and marina. It was known for its electrically lit outdoor dance floor and its extremely large thatched roof chickee hut built by the Seminole Indians. Excursion trains came in the morning and departed in the evenings from the Matecumbe siding. The 1935 hurricane destroyed the Caribbee Colony.
The Key West Citizen dated July 20, 1937 contains an article about Preston Pinder, property owner of the plant's future site, and Sheldon Stone, both of Matecumbe, traveling to Key West on matters of a county authorized electric power and light franchise.
On May 11, 1935, President Franklin Roosevelt created the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) and the next year Congress passed the Rural Electrification Act. Back in the Keys, the 1935 hurricane wiped out 40 miles of the railroad. The state acquired the railroad’s right-of-way and concrete bridges to build the two-lane Overseas Highway eliminating the ferry boats. Officially opened in 1938, all of the Keys were then easily accessible by vehicles. More people came to the Keys which brought on a growth in population and electric demand.
Born partly of dreams, necessity and visionary genius, the Florida Keys Electric Cooperative Association, Inc. (FKECA) was certified by the Florida Secretary of State on January 22, 1940 with an office address of the "Marathon Grocery, Marathon, Florida." It had its first board meeting four days later and John A. Russell of Islamorada was elected chairperson.
Of the nine incorporators, one was from Stock Island - Alton Park, two from Marathon - A. E. Woodburn and William A. Parrish; one from Islamorada - John A. Russell; two from Tavernier - Samuel Lund and Ellie Lowe; three from Rock Harbor - C. B. McPherson, Ed Lauringer and T. Jenkins Curry. The FKECA benefited from the REA that offered federally financed electric distribution systems for rural communities. The Florida Keys certainly met this requirement!
The articles required 300 memberships to begin operation. A membership cost $5 each. It was easy to convince the commercial operations but residences were were more difficult. Parrish purchased 20 additional memberships to round out the needed 300. The paperwork was done; therefore, a physical electrical network began. By the way, a membership still costs $5.
The Electric Cooperative purchased the holdings of FP&L and McKenzie for $6,230 on November 5, 1941. It also purchased land, constructed a plant in Tavernier and with transformers and electric wire went on line December 1, 1942. Captain Roy Tracy, husband of nurse Frances Tracy, "the Angel of the Keys," helped install the engines for the generators. Captain Eugene Lowe, William "Spud" Albury and Austin Reese were some of the first equipment operators. Alonzo Cothron installed the first electric lines.
However, the timing was not the best, it being 1940. Across the big pond, Germany had invaded Czechoslovakia, Poland, Bohemia, Moravia, France, Norway, Denmark, Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg. We all know what happened on December 7, 1941. The entire industrial capacity of the United States became occupied with World War II on three continents. Various rationing concepts for war essential goods were created.
World War II produced several good changes for the Keys. First, the Navy in Key West needed a water pipeline and an improved and shorter highway. At that time the highway followed the Card Sound route which was seven miles longer than the present US 1 route. The highway and the water pipeline were built and installed along this shorter route. The highway length was also reduced by 10 miles in the Lower Keys for a total shortening of 17 miles.
President Roosevelt had formed several dollar-a-year civilian advisory groups to assist in the control and distribution of war-essential resources that included electric components. One of these dollar-a-year men was Charles E. Wilson, president of General Electric, a builder of electric transformers. Wilson's dollar-a-year job was serving on the War Production Board, which in effect, controlled the use of war critical materials.
Wilson was in the Upper Keys in 1942 on a fishing vacation. One of his fishing guides was Captain Eugene Lowe of Tavernier, who thought he had just another big shot on a fishing trip.
Mr. Wilson had a great day landing a large tarpon, which called for a celebration. Sometime during the celebration, Captain Lowe mentioned how badly the community needed electrical transformers for the local electric system- copper wire is used for transformers. Mr. Wilson quickly replied, "How many do you need?" After thinking for a moment and not wanting to appear greedy, Capt. Lowe said, "Oh, we could use at least six." They say that only a couple of weeks passed before the transformers arrived. In 1946, Capt. Lowe was elected to the Board.
Captain Cliff Carpenter, also a fishing guide for Charles Wilson, recalls Wilson having to come to the rescue again for additional copper electrical wire. Generators without wires to distribute their electricity were useless.
The FKEC was physically divided into two major parts, the Upper and Middle Keys. It acquired two portable "circus" type portable generators and installed one by the Sundry Store and the other by the Overseas Lounge in Marathon. When the transformers were acquired they could provide better power distribution for most of Marathon. By 1943, most who wanted electricity in Marathon had it provided.
Perhaps Charles Wilson left some of General Electric's motto “Progress Is Our Most Important Product” in the Keys from his wartime fishing trips. Therefore, by 1944 the Upper Keys had highway, postal, telephone, water and electric services.
Growth in the Keys responded to the wartime additions of the better, shorter highway, water pipeline and electric system. Finally the war was over and the economy was boosted. Tourists flocked to the Keys and some remained as residents. In 1947 the FKECA extended electric service to the Anglers Club and house in between on North Key Largo. In 1951, Coral Shores School opened to cope with the growing communities. The Upper Keys opened its first medical clinic staffed by Dr. Harvey Cohn and his nurse/wife Dorothy in 1953. An airport was built at Ocean Reef in 1956. FKECA had to expand also to accommodate this greater demand for electricity.
Rather than install more and larger electric generators, FKECA at Tavernier instead installed an electric transmission line to the Homestead City Electric System in 1957. The following year FKECA contracted with FP&L to purchase electricity wholesale, as it does today. The sound and odor of the diesel generators disappeared. This was was not possible at Marathon; therefore, the power plant was enlarged. Management remained at Tavernier and management adjusted accordingly.
In 1953, the FKEC built a modern concrete power plant capable of expansion as demand increased. Alonzo Cothron did the work. By 1960, the Marathon facility could provide 11,000 kw from its plant. It operated faithfully through Hurricane Donna which destroyed much of the outside facilities; however, the diesel generators were running as each portion of poles, transformers and lines were restored. Across the highway, the increased demand/customers required larger offices.
The next major grid expansion was in 1981 when transmission lines were installed between Tavernier and Marathon. This combined the two separate facilities into one and Marathon could use the purchased power from Florida Power & Light at Homestead. After nearly 4 decades of constant operation, the diesels at Marathon could shut down and be used only for emergencies.
To provide additional flexibility, in 1987 transmission lines were installed to connect the electrical grid to Keys Energy in Key West. The entire Keys were now electrically interconnected.
On June 19, 2004 the Marathon power generation station was named and dedicated to Charles A. Russell who began there as an "oil wiper" in 1961, advanced to the Chief Operations Officer for FKEC in 1988 and had recently passed away.
The FKEC electrical grid served the Upper Keys quickly after many of the electrical power poles near Homestead were destroyed during Hurricane Andrew. The Charles A. Russell Generator Facility can be brought onto line within 20 minutes if and when needed in the future. The generators are operated at least weekly to insure proper operation. The tie line to Keys Energy Service in Key West is also available and vice versa.
To view other photos if the FKEC, please click HERE
and then use the return arrow.