History of Grassy Key
By Jerry Wilkinson

 If you are not familiar with the general location of Grassy Key, CLICK HERE for a basic area map. This article is a history of Grassy Key based on known data collected over several decades. There are time period gaps for which I do not have any information. Where ever practical I will remain  chronologically. At the end there is an email tab where you can contact me to provide any additional information.

The origin of the term "Key," used to identify an island, is not well established. Most believe that it is an adaptation of the Spanish word "cayo,' used by the Taino Indians of Hispanola and Cuba. At least in the New World, the Spanish used the words "cayo" or "cayuelo" for a very small island. The English changed the word to "Cay" or "Kay." English maps of the Keys made just prior to the Revolutionary War of 1776 used the word "Key." A Colonial American court record of 1744 used the word "Keys" when referring to the Florida Keys. See, Admiralty Papers, Vol. 2, 1743 -1744.

The Key now known as Grassy Key has been known by several names in recorded history. Following is a recitation of the known documents referring to the key by various names.

The DeBrahm chart of 1772 shows Grassy Key as "Ellis Island." The hand written journal of F.H. Gerdes in 1849 named all the islands between Duck Key and Fat Deer Key as "Grassy Keys."

John Lee Williams, in his 1837 book, The Territory of Florida, discussed the names of various keys. In the section titled “Islands,” Williams stated, at page 37, "... The Vacas or Cow Keys are ten or twelve in number, and extend about 15 miles in length. Some of them are four miles in length, while others are scarcely half a mile long; some are covered with tall pines, some with hammock trees, and some almost entirely with grass...."

Flagler's construction in 1905 considered the same area as ten separate Keys. They were Grassy Key, five Crawl Keys, Vaca, Boot, Hog and Knight's Keys.

Florida became a state in 1845, but the Keys were not officially surveyed until the 1870. Charles F. Smith surveyed the Grassy Key area in February of 1873 for the surveyor general. The chart below is the final approved survey by the Florida Surveyor General. Marathon (then Key Vaca) is shown to the left, and Duck Key is to the right, of the Tom's Harbor Keys. At the far left, a portion of Grassy Key, shown as Kraal (Crawl) Key, is visible. Chas. Smith's first Florida survey map 1874

The most recent document discussing the name of Grassy Key is the U. S. Coast & Geodetic Survey letter for project HT 156 (1935-1936). The letter shows the name “Grassy Key” at Page 2 of Sheet No. 15. The letter states that "Local information states that the Key was named after an old settler and not because it was partially covered with grass." A note to the letter states that Grassy Key had that name in an 1855 wrecker's court record for the burning of the ship Concordia. However, I have a poor copy of the Concordia wreck letter and I believe it reads "Crawl Key."

Following is a summary of the known history of Grassy Key.

Prior to transferring Florida to the United States in 1821, Spain made numerous land grants to her loyalists. For example, Juan Salas received Key West in 1815. In January 1814 Key Bacas and the adjacent Keys were granted to Francisco Ferreira by the Spanish governor, Sebastian Kindelan. One of the adjacent Keys was Grassy Key. When Florida became the Territory of Florida, Ferreira filed a land claim to the Land Commission. Congress approved the Ferreira Grant in 1830. Nevertheless, title issues remained for decades. Finally, on May 16, 1899 President William McKinley signed documents allowing clear title to be granted for Grassy Key and the others. It is not known if Ferreira ever set foot on any of the ten Keys. He lived in St. Augustine.

The absence of clear title apparently did not deter the owners of Keys property from buying and selling the land. Property records indicate the heirs of the Charles Howe family, formerly of Haden, Mass., Indian Key, Duck Key and Key West sold all of Grassy Key to Horatio Crain, of Key West, in 1899. Horatio had married Howe's daughter, Amelia. This sale occurred just after the Ferreira Land Grant had been resolved. As a result, the Crain family had a huge land holding on Grassy Key.

Construction of the Florida East Coast railroad at Grassy Key took place from 1905 to 1908. FEC Construction Camp No. 7 was located on Grassy Key. Work was primarily sand and rock fill. The sand was usually dredged in and the rock was dynamited else where and transported to the work area. The rail bed was built up to an average of 8 feet above sea level throughout the Grassy and Crawl Keys area. Grassy Key had a side track and some section worker houses, but no station.

Many do not realize that the F.E.C. operated scheduled daily train service from Miami to Knight's Key Dock from early 1908. It was from Marathon southward that had to wait until 1912 for train service. These trains made necessary services available to the islands they served, which did not have harbors. The railroad brought some prosperity to Grassy Key. The U.S. postal records show that Julius W. Taylor was appointed as postmaster of the Crainlyn post office on August 26, 1908.

For a period of one year, Grassy Key received some attention from the press and investors. The first newspaper article that I have mentioning Julius W. Taylor is the Miami Metropolis on March 20, 1908: "- PRAISE FOR GRASSY KEY - Capt. J. W. Taylor, the pioneer merchant of Grassy Key, Fla., has been in the city the past few days visiting friends and renewing old acquaintances. Capt. Taylor speaks in the most enthusiastic terms in the future of this latest resort of the Florida East Coast extension, where he has made home ever since the beginning of the enterprise, and advises the Jacksonville people suffering from the heat to go to Grassy Key where the ocean and Gulf breezes steadily blow. Capt. Taylor knew Jacksonville some fourteen years ago and the wonderful improvements made in the course of those years [he] is completely lost and is utterly unable to find his old landmarks so familiar to him. He expects to be in the city several days longer and is making temporary headquarters with Mr. Roux, the promoter, and while here is purchasing stock for his store finding he can do as well in prices as in the New York markets - Jacksonville Metropolis."

There are other references to a land promotion deal on Grassy Key. The Jacksonville Florida Times Union newspaper, in its Key West Topics section, dated April 29, 1908 states, "Just now more attention is being paid to Grassy Key, the property of George Crain. He has laid out a model city, the plat containing acres of land. ... There is to be a post office established there at an early date. A hotel is nearly completed so that its prospectors can find good accommodations." Note: I do not know of a "George" Crain. Edward Crain did have a brother, St. Clair Crain.

In the September 3, 1908 edition, the paper said "A new corporation has been formed in this city [meaning Key West] to be known as the Ocean Beach Hotel Company, the purpose of which is to build a hotel at Crainlyn, on Grassy Key. The officers of the new company will be Dr. J. N. Forgarty, president; Edward H. Crain, vice president and general manager; William H. Malone, secretary; Frank J. M. Roberts, treasurer. ..."

On August, 9, 1909 the postal records show the post office was transferred from Julius Taylor to Edward H. Crain, son of Horatio Crain. In my collection of FEC railroad timetables there is a railroad flag stop on Grassy Key known as Crainlyn.

Not much is known of the Crainlyn Ocean Beach Hotel other than it later burned. The date is not readable on my copy of the newspaper, but I believe it was 1913.

Mr. Crain closed the post office on June 30, 1914 and postal service was transferred to Long Key. The postal application stated that the post office was 80 feet east of the railroad and near the 34 Range line. Therefore, I believe it was almost across the highway from the present Dolphin Research Center. The development fell into disrepair. Grassy Key property owners can refer to their voluminous property abstracts for specific details. Later Julius Wood and Harold Gibson became involved in straightening out the entanglement of lot titles. There are streets named after Ferreira, Howe and Crain.

There are often discussions when was the end of the wrecking industry in the Keys. Most will reply that it was the wreck of the Alicia in 1905. For me, other than its great size, the most memorable event was the Alicia's captain running around its deck while the wreckers were looting its cargo screaming: "I thought the people in this area were civilized!" There was a later wreck of a Norwegian  steamer running aground off Grassy Key reported in the Florida Times Union, April 18, 1910. Wrecker Alfred Atchison and a number of other wreckers were there, but she refused their assistance and got herself off the reef.

Grassy Key Ferry LandingMoving forward in time, Monroe County bonded $2.65 million dollars in 1925 and the first overseas highway was opened in January 1928. To complete the trip to or from Key West, one had to take a ferryboat to cover the 40-mile water gap in the highway. There was a ferry landing at the lower end of Lower Matecumbe Key and No Name Key; therefore Grassy Key was omitted at first, but not forgotten. Project ten of the bond funds included $200,000 for an 11-mile road from Grassy Key through Marathon to Hog Key with a ferry landing at each extremity. The Grassy/Hog Keys portion and was completed in about 1930. This reduced the ferry ride to two 14-mile trips. and provided access to and from Grassy Key to the mainland and Key West.

This new vehicular service to Grassy Key presumably influenced the construction of Ed Neff's Bonefish Lunchroom, as I see gasoline pumps. Edward R. Neff and his wife Mabel moved here just before the 1935 hurricane and were not injured. They had three children: Mabel Margaret, Edward Jr.and John B.  Surely there were other early inhabitants along the Grassy Key shoreline other than Crainyln and Mr. Neff.Ed Neff's

My next recorded event was the 1935 Hurricane. Although the terrible destruction was mainly in the Upper Keys, there was a ripple effect throughout the entire county. The first recorded report after the hurricane was quite lengthy and rather than paraphrase, I quote the Grassy Key portion as  sent by federal officials:


Key West, Florida

      "Grassy Key is at the very northern end of this stretch of land. We were able to get only one third of the way up on this key as road is practically all washed out. Ferry slip on the upper end of this particular key is all gone and needs a new apron and the approach will need to be refilled before it is serviceable. Have learned from a person that  inspected this slip that the pilings are all still standing and can still be used, so the work of repairing the ferry slip will not necessitate use of a pile driver. In some places on Grassy Key the railroad is washed out to sea for over a block from where it originally stood on a seven-foot road bed, even some of this roadbed is completely washed away.
      "The only residents living on this key were connected with the Florida East Coast Railway. There was one family of white people called the Favises. These people went to Marathon and were saved. There was also a crew of section negroes and about four section houses in which they lived. Most of the section negroes went to Marathon with the foreman, Mr. Davis, but four of them remained and were washed to sea. Learned that the names of these men are: a negro called "Foots", a negro man Jim Ashe, his wife and small child. These four people, as stated, were washed to sea and to date have not been heard from or found.
     "All of the negro section houses were completely washed away and the only thing standing on this key is one-half of the white foreman's house and it will be impossible to repair this structure or rebuild it on the old foundations.
      "The Florida East Coast has shut down all the work along the key that were struck by the storm and it is understood that they will move their workers to the place they want to go and possible in some cases be able to find other employment for them. At present it is understood that most of these people have been moved to Key West. There are only three Florida East Coast facilities that remain at Marathon, Florida. "

The Miami Daily News newspaper printed the following as additional information: ". . . Names of the negroes dead at Grassy Key are Jim Ashe, his wife and son, Henry; Coffin; Ferries and Farrington. . . ." This railroad area is believed to have been in the Crainlyn area.

After the hurricane, the railway was abandoned and its bridges and right-of-way were used to construct a continuous vehicular highway to and from Key West by 1938. During WW-II, the highway was improved again for Navy support traffic and became US-1. This opened up much of the previously difficult to reach Keys areas for habitation; however, I do not have information of those who settled Grassy Key during the period of 1938 and 1950.

Telephone owners listed on Grassy Key in December 1952 are:
-Bailey, C. G. surveyor, Morton St.  2032
-Dorsett, J.S.   2182
-Engel, Wm contractor   2034
-Ginovannielli Jo's Restaurant   2183
-Grassy Key Lodge   2043
-Hidely Hole Bar   2031
-Lones, B. C., Guava Ave.  2035
-Motel & Pizza   2183
-Navarro's Motel   2046

If you noticed in the above number list, the phone number 2183 was listed for two entities. About 1
Jo-Jo's Motel950, Joseph and Josephine Ginovannielli opened the Grassy Key Motel and Luncheonette with an Italian flavor in 1947. As time passed, Jo-Jo's at MM 60 was improved and remains today. In the 1954 phone book, the "Grassy Key Bldg Supl Co" was added with the same 2043 number as the Grassy Key Lodge.

Also in the 1950s was the Bonefish Harbor fishing   camp. This is quite possible  the same location as the  Ed Neff  1933 Bonefish Key Lunchroom. Bonefish Harbor  fis
hing camp is listed in the 1954  phone book with  number 2423.  It even could have been southward on Fat Deer Key where the present Bonefish Bay is.

Bonefish Harbor
      The 1964 phone book has an entry for
Grassy Key Electric. Al Kunitz, an electrical contractor of Marathon, was the owner.

One very well known Grassy Key settler was Milton Santini. The Santini's are a Corsican family appearing in the Keys in the 1850 census. Listed are Philip and Mary and five children living somewhere in the Lower Keys in the general area of Summerland Key. One of the children was Nicholas "Tino" Santini who married a Mary Frances Daniels who had a son, Victor M. Victor married Bessie Lee Hadden who gave birth to Milton. After WW-II, Milton and his brother, Norman, netted mullet between Tavernier and Marathon. A cousin, Lawrence, fished out of Rock Harbor. Milton had two other brothers, Fabian and Leo. For more genealogy of the Milton Santini family CLICK HERE.
Milton Santini photo

 Milton is not in the 1954 phone book, but he is in the 1957 issue. [I am missing 1955 and 1956.] He was, therefore, in operation by 1957. As stated before, having a phone does not necessarily show the exact time of residency. My estimate is that Milton was on Grassy Key in 1954 or 1955.

Thanks to material collected by Milton's cousin, Marci Hallock, and an article written in the Ft. Myers' Sand Paper with information given by Milton's nephew, Donald Santini, we have an understanding of the beginning of the Santini's Porpoise Training School.

The Santini brothers, hearing that Miami Sea Aquarium was paying $100 for each porpoise delivered to Tavernier or Marathon, started catching porpoises. Norman would drive the boat with a string tied to the distributor cap wire so as to be able to quickly stop the engine. Milton would dive off the bow with a four-foot rope lasso, and rope the porpoise. Norman would kill the engine, dive off the back and swim to assist Milton. Norman's son, Donald would steer the mother boat towing a skiff near the captured porpoise and the three would load it into the skiff. The skiff had been prepared to transport the mammal properly so it would not dehydrate or sunburn. Donald's job was to keep the porpoise calm on the trip back to Milton's pens at Grassy Key.

Milton's nephew, Donald, states that they had been capturing porpoises for about two years when they caught Mitzi, later known as Flipper, and Milton did not have time to sell Mitzi as he had to leave for the Seattle Washington Fair of 1956 to deliver five or six porpoises.

The trip to Seattle was a disaster. The boom on the truck taking the porpoises from the Seattle airport to the fair struck an overpass killing a couple of porpoises and breaking Milton's back. He was airlifted back and upon release from the hospital, went back to Grassy Key, his wife Virginia and their kids, the porpoises.

Milton & Mitzi
While resting in a recliner beside the pool and squeezing a ball to strengthen his arm muscles, the ball fell and bounced into the water. Mitzi immediately tossed the ball back to Milton. Milton, not believing his eyes, threw the ball far down the pool. Again, Mitzi, retrieved the ball and tossed it back. A star is born. Another day while training Mitzi by rewarding her with a fish, he tossed the fish too far behind her. Mitzi went up and swam on her tail backwards to retrieve her reward. Thus was born the "Backward Tail Walk."

It is a long story, but Mitzi landed the starring role as Flipper in 1963, then Flipper's New Adventure in 1964, went on to star on TV and for many people, put Grassy Key on the map.

Jean-Paul Gouin purchased the property in 1977 as the "Institute for Delphinid Research." Jean-Paul finished his porpoise language and reasoning research in 1984 and turned the facility over to his general manager, Jayne Shannon and head trainer, Mandy Rodriquez. Today, Santini's Porpoise Training School is the "Dolphin Research Center" at MM-59.

For many in the Keys, the Grassy Key Egg Farm was better known than Santini's as they delivered fresh eggs from from Jewfish Creek to Key West. J. P. Hollingworth opened the chicken farm in 1955 at about MM 57.5, oceanside. The Fowler's of Islamorada purchased it in 1964 and listed it in the phone book as the "Grassy Key Poultry & Supls." The business was sold in 1976 to Bill Plank who operated it a few years and converted it to "Wild Bills." It is an outdoor dry storage facility today. One thing that may have made the egg farm so well known could have been the use of its name in describing the location of a secluded "clothing optional" beach near by.

Another small but interesting bit of Grassy Key history was a tornado that touched down on February 2, 1998 at the end of Morton Street. First it is rather unusual to experience tornados in the Keys, but rare during the winter months.

Today, Grassy Key is part of the City of Marathon, which has acquired a sizable piece of property for a future wastewater plant.

- The End -

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