By Jerry Wilkinson

   If you are not familiar with the general area, click HERE for a basic area map.

   Big Pine Key, or Big Pine for short, is slightly different from the Middle and Upper Keys. First it is oolitic limestone and not Key Largo Limestone. Fresh water can be found in oolitic formations but rarely in Key Largo Limestone. Its namesake the pine tree is rare in the Middle or Upper Keys. It is generally thought to be fairly large having about 5,816 acres, but small compared to Key Largo with about 22,000 acres. Historically, some permanent settling caught on in the Middle and Upper Keys in the early 1800s, but little in Big Pine until the mid-1800s. Therefore, after World War II, when settling in all the Florida Keys became an interest to outsiders, Big Pine had plenty of space, but no public electricity or water. Bradley Real Estate was the only real estate broker between the Middle Keys and Key West. It is also home of the Key deer. So with this in mind we move back in time. 

   For this web site I have used the 1870 census for my general reference. In 1870, the census enumerator only listed one family on Big Pine. There were however, more on Big Pine’s neighbor - No Name Key - than on Big Pine. No Name Key lists 44 inhabitants which was a large settlement for a Key of its size. Note: A dedicated web page for 'No Name Key" is at: Click Here. Below is an excerpt from the 1870 census: 

Hse # Fam #  Surname Family Name     Age     Sex   Occupation     Prop.    Birthplace
25      23      Wilson,  George               30      m       Charcoal burner          N.Y.

NO  NAME  KEY July 23:
26      24      Thrift,  William                 24      m       Farmer          $200     Bahamas
27      28      Thrift,  Joseph                 60      m       Farmer          $250     Bahamas
                   "     Hannah                    60      f        Keeping house            "
28      26      Carey, William                  27      m       Farmer          $200    "
                    "   Hannah                     21      f        Keeping house           "
                    "   Mary                         2       f                                     Fla.
29      27      Knowles, Thomas              44      m       Farmer          $300    Bahamas
30      28      Sands,   John                   39      m       Seaman        $200    "
                 "       Amelia                   30      f       Keeping house           Bahamas
                "       Amelia                    1       f                                     Fla.
31      29      Lowe,   Joseph                60      m       Farmer          $250     Bahamas
32      30      Knowles, William              23      m       Farmer          $300     Bahamas
                "       Susannah              20      f        Keeping house            "       
33      -       -       -       -       -       -       -       -
34      31     Matcovitch, Nichols          45     m       Farmer           $1,000  La.
                    "       Eliza                    35     f        Keeping house            Bahamas
                   "       George                   1      m                                      Fla.
35      -       -       -       -       -       -       -       -
36      -       -       -       -       -       -       -       -
37      32     Knowles, Alexander            29      m       Seaman          $200    Bahamas
                     "     Mary                     18      f         Keeping house              "
38      -       -       -       -       -       -       -       -
39      33      Cates,  William                 25      m       Seaman          $200    Bahamas
                  "       Margaret              26      f        Keeping house               "
40      34    Thompson, Joseph              79      m       farmer          $300        "
                   "       John                    34      m       farmer                         "
                 Knowles, David                  14      m                                         "
41      -       -       -       -       -       -       -       -
42      35      Sands,  John                 27      m       farmer          $250    Bahamas
                "       Susan                 50      f        Keeping house                 "
                "       John                   21      m       seaman                          "
                "       Susan                   9       f                                           "
43      -       -       -       -       -       -       -       -
44      36      Carey,  Benjamin            28      m       Farmer          $275    Bahamas
                         "       Susan           25      f        Keeping house                "
                         "       Margaret        5       f                                           "
                         "       Emma            1        f                                       Fla.
45      37      Cates,   John                34      m       seaman          $200    Bahamas
                         "       Isabella         27       f        keeping house                "
                         "       Catherine       6       f                                      Fla.
                         "       Mary             1       f                                         "
46      38      Carey,   John               50      m       seaman          $225    Bahamas
                         "       Sarah Ann    40      f                                           "
                         "       Harriet         13      f                                           "
                         "       Sarah           4       f                                       Fla.
48      39      Knowles, James            35       m       farmer          $400      Bahamas
                         "       Frances       35      f         Keeping house               "       
                         "       Mary           12      f                                           "
                         "       James           7      m                                       Fla.
                         "       Louisa           3      f                                         "
                         "       Margaret     2,1/2    f       born  in April                 "
   As with much of the Keys, the relatively late official land surveying made homesteading and patenting of land title impossible. Charles F. Smith and crew surveyed Big Pine Key for the state of Florida on March 21, 1873. Of those listed above, William Cates homesteaded 115.4 acres in 1883. Other homesteaders with the same surname were Sands (William Henry, 1905) and Knowles (Henry {1901} and John T. {1911}) State records show there were 19 homesteaders of federal lands. The first patented land deed was issued to William F. Wood on January 25, 1882 and now is part of the Key Deer Refuge. William Henry Sands was a Bahamian shipbuilder and captain. He had his own sawmill and used local pine for parts of his boats. 

  Big Pine is relatively close to Key West so there was a nearby market for goods and services. Much of Big Pine was still available for homesteading in 1900. There are recorded homesteads on Big Pine as late as 1926. Usually, this type of unused government land could be squatted-on by almost anyone in those days. With warm climate and ground water available, food could be grown for family sustenance. Occupations of farming and seamen were popular throughout the Keys, but charcoal making was not. Key West had a population of 5,675 in the same 1870 census. People needed to cook and this required fuel – charcoal.  Big Pine was the last Key going north that listed a charcoal burner or woodcutter in 1870. 

  A note on the beginning of land ownership on Big Pine Key. When Florida became a state in 1845, the US government gave Florida land for its use such as schools and selling to residents. From 1845 to 1915, the US government gave Florida 3,208 acres for its use. Some was given to railroad companies to build railroad on the mainland. The US kept 2,608 acres for its use, one being homesteading. By the end of the aforementioned 1926 homestead, here is the tally of land distribution: State sold = 1,427 acres; railroad enticements = 1,781; and homesteading = 2,585 acres. From all the  state land sold, Florida collected $2,214.32. Big Pine is probably appraised at over one billion dollars today.

   Charcoal making was labor and time intensive in the Keys. Note the sole inhabitant of Big Pine listed in the 1870 census was George Wilson, charcoal burner. Briefly, the process was wood, usually buttonwood, being cut, hauled and stacked in a pyramid, or tee-pee fashion. The pile was covered with canvas, seaweed, sand and/or marl to contain the heat. A fire was started in the bottom-center and the burn rate controlled by small openings in the top, or sides, plus by the oxygen/air intake openings at the bottom. The process took days and had to be monitored, or the fire would burn the wood, or go out. The finished product was bagged and shipped to Key West. Considerable charcoal was made on Cape Sable also.
Charcoal Kiln
   Ships wrecked off shore and salvaging was an early occupation, although the home base was usually Key West. One may choose to read now or later the general history web pages in this web site of farming and wrecking in the Keys. 

   As with all the Keys, the coming of the railroad affected Big Pine, but not to the extent as the Keys where permanent railroad facilities were built. For one reason, there was not the population on Big Pine as Key Largo, Matecumbe and Key Vacca. 

   Henry Flagler, during the construction phase, built a fresh water resource on Big Pine. I use the word resource as it was not the typical deep well. It was two large open seepage ditches/ponds called “collecting ditches” with a pump and a 100,000 gallon storage tank (The tank was large, but leaked badly over 60,000 gallons). It was started in late 1906 and placed in use in early 1907. It easily pumped 50,000 gallons a day. After the construction of the railroad was completed, the facility was abandoned. See the photo. 

  There is little press about this operation even though photos exist. In fact, Big Pine received little press during railroad construction. One Florida Times-Union article dated April 11, 1907 was, “The extension camp at Big Pine Key, which is the largest now in operation, will be broken up this week and the entire force of nearly 400 men will be moved to Sugarloaf Key where a new camp will be established.”

     The first passenger train ran to/from Key West on January 22, 1912. No other significant quantity of fresh water was found on the other Keys, except at Manatee Creek at Cross Key. This was about the same time that metal windows and door screens began to become common in the Keys. (Before mosquito control, mosquitoes had a limiting effect on population. The lack of schools was also a population factor.) As a point of reference in 1910 the population of Big Pine was 17 and No Name was 22.

   John T. Knowles was Big Pine’s founding postmaster doing so on 9 February 1915. Familiar surnames of early Big Pine residents, such as Sands and Shanahan, were subsequent postmasters. 

   There is little doubt that some viewed Big Pine with investment potential. From 1914 to 1925 there were 10 subdivisions filed on Big Pine property, but few people occupying homes. Silas Knowles filed the first subdivision in 1914. William H. Sands subdivided his 1911 homestead in 1922. There was not a single subdivision platted between 1925 and 1951, but this was a similiar pattern in other Keys. This pattern was also repeated in the Upper Keys which was close to Miami. Sands also worked for the Ocean Leather Company and his brother's family, Potts, worked as the company's mechanic. Mrs. Potts was the postmaster 1925 to 26. The Florida Land Boom of the 1920s started the subdivision process and its burst after the 1929 stock market crash with the resulting depression halted most development. The disastrous hurricane of 1926 halted the land boom for most of southeast Florida as Miami was so damaged it could not supply building materials other than for its own reconstruction. 

     Big Pine almost started a new Keys industry in 1923. Increased uses of shark oil sparked Hydenoil Products to build a shark oil plant on the shoreline just north of the railroad. The plant geared up and employed 25 men and operated 6 fishing boats. By 1930 they caught and processed an average of 100 sharks daily. On December 8, one of its seven boats brought in a 14 long and 10 foot in girth mackerel shark that weighed 1,752 pounds. That day the fleet brought in 111 sharks averaging over 300 pounds each. Little of the shark was wasted, but the odor was quite strong. Shark leathers was sold by the Ocean Leather company. The livers were processed for oil and the fins sold for soup. The plant closed in 1931 after eight years of operation owing employees back paid salaries. WW-II shut off the US supply of cod liver oil and shark oil. Plants were attempted on other Keys, but they too were short lived.

   The opening of the first Overseas Highway in 1928 did little to populate Big Pine. The ferry landing was at No Name Key and a small community grew there under the management of Grace and Carlton Craig, brother of Roland Craig of Craig Key. During the depression, a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was operated on Big Pine. A small airfield was also constructed. The Second Overseas Highway in 1938 followed the railroad right of way and by-passed No Name Key. The hurricane of 1948 isolated No Name Key for auto traffic. While repairing the wooden bridge burned and was not replaced until 1968.

     Sometime along this period the Blue Hole on Key Deer Boulevard came into existence. It is not certain that this oolite quarry was for the first highway, other roads, or just what. Its location is not particular close to any of these. The author is almost certain that it was not for the railroad. It appears to be the only Keys fresh water hole of any consequential size remaining. It is host to a multitude of freshwater flora and fauna from alligators, fish, turtles to many birds.

   Education on Big Pine seems to have always been problematic. Monroe County has always required at least 10 students for a school. Given the tendency for the early Big Pine population to be unstable and unpredictable is the probable cause. The first record requesting a school was by E. E. Morris dated June 16, 1927. The School Board requested the superintendent to investigate the advisability of establishing a school. A report dated November 19, 1927 indicated that "there are now six children in two families and probably another one would come down in the spring." Action was deferred. Please remember that the highway from Key West to Big Pine was completed in about May of 1927 even though the ferry boats did not start operation until 1928.

   At the November 25, 1927 School Board meeting another letter from Mr. Morris had been received "stating that a family with one child had moved to Big Pine recently and one was expected to move from Miami with three children. Mr. Morris also stated that a building owned by C. C. Johnson could be secured as a school and recommended Mrs. Hilda Sands as a teacher." C. C. Johnson was probably Copeland Crizen Johnson who owned the Gospel Hall on Big Pine. 

   The February 9, 1928 School Board meeting indicated that school was in progress with Mrs. Sands as the teacher. From subsequent board minutes, it appears that school was on and off. Transportation became a problem as No Name, Ramrod and Sugarloaf Keys became involved and required buses. Roads were poor and busing expensive for two to four children. The School Board eventually ordered the school closed “…on Wednesday, March 1 [1933].” School did continue, but only after a struggle which continues today [January 2005]. 

   Small farming and fishing establishments continued. Owners and operators appeared to rotate back and forth to Key West and others places. Eventually, many found their way back to Big Pine. 

      Until destroyed by fire on December 18, 1977, the Big Pine Inn was a familiar landmark. See top photo. It is said to have been built in the early 1900s by Mrs. Gussie Zeigner. It had 12 rooms, dining room and bar. Rather than deter guests, prohibition days were an attraction. There never seemed to be a shortage of “spirits.” The original Big Pine Inn survived until 1946 to be reopened in 1954. A. L. Laughlin purchased it for $25,000 in 1954 and did extensive remodeling. The Kyle family owned the the Inn for some time before selling it back to A. L. Laughlin. The TIB Bank of the Keys building stands on the former Big Pine Inn site.

       To discuss the Big Pine Prison camp we must begin with the Civilian Conservation Corps on West Summerland Key. The CCC camp was established in the late 1930 to place rip-rap along the bridge approaches for the new Overseas Highway. The 1935 Hurricane destroyed about 40 miles of the Florida East Coast Railway and the decision was made to purchase the railroad right-of-way and build a highway. Previously, vehicle travel was by ferry boats from Lower Matecumbe Key to No Name Key. The complete highway was completed in 1938 and the need for the CCC work crews was terminated.

       In 1947, the Florida State Division of Corrections  procured the old CCC camp as prison road camp. In 1950, the state prison moved to the former railroad foreman's section house area on Big Pine Key where it has remained. Roy Hazelwood was the warden. To provide additional space, a CCC barracks was moved along side and fenced in as a confine for prison workers. These were the day of "chain gangs' working "under the shotgun." The old section house was later condemned and torn down. People did not believe in renovation and preservation of cultural resources.

     As previously noted the Hurricane of 1948 damaged the wooden bridge between Big Pine Key and the No Name Key, the only vehicle access that No Name Key had.
I understand that they tried to repair it but it burned in 1951. In 1952 Ed Barry built a fishing camp at the west end of the charred remains of the bridge named Old Wooden Bridge Fishing Camp.

   It was thought that Big Pine, and still is by a few, would resist becoming an "asphalt jungle, but the 1950s signaled a change. After WW II the American public was ready to travel, to make changes and to seek new horizons. The gap of 26 years of no new subdividing was bridged when Ed Barry subdivided Punta Brisa in 1951 and this was only the beginning. Electricity and piped drinking water followed shortly. This appears to be the time that all of the Keys were being discovered or rediscovered. A census taken by the Chamber of Commerce in 1966 revealed a year round population of 181 and a winter population of 1,496.

   The new development further threatened the almost extinct Key deer. It was estimated in 1947 that about 50 of the diminutive deer remained. Another report in the Key West Citizen in 1954, stated that not more than 30 key deer were in existence and three years later the number had nearly tripled. In 1949 the Everglades National Park was dedicated by President Harry Truman. In 1954 a U.S. refuge of 915 acres of leased property was established. This was followed by 22 new subdivisions, and followed by Congress passing bill HR1058 in 1957 creating a National Wildlife Refuge for the deer. Jack Watson was the ranger and he became known as Mr. Key Deer. Jack Watson had moved to the Keys in 1946 as an agent for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Tavernier. “No Spearfishing” signs went up in other parts of the Keys. It was being perceived that nothing would be left if we did not begin conservation measures. 

    Watson’s Hammock is a part of the National Key Deer Refuge. The name came from Robert B. Watson (Not to be confused with Jack Watson) who homesteaded government lots 3 and 4 of section 9 in 1905. The story is best told by daughter Mispah Watson (Saunders) as appeared in the Florida Keys magazine, first quarter, 1982. Mrs. Mizpah Saunders was one of the many school bus drivers. 

    The early 1950s saw development resources change. In April 1953, 54 customers connected to public electricity. Public potable water soon followed. In 1954, the tolls were removed from the Overseas Highway. New subdivisions were platted, canals were dredged and rock used as fill for houses and roads. Business was good and the Lower Keys Chamber of Commerce established its office on Big Pine in 1959. Big Pine was becoming self supporting with its own stores and resources. 

    The 1960s brought Hurricane Donna and later many new businesses. Development throughout the Keys also increased the highway traffic. Big Pine had four new subdivisions and an assortment of service providers such as the Big Pine True Value Building Supply in 1961.  1962 introduced the Baltimore Oyster House followed the next year with the Big Pine Coffee house.  Nurseries, dive shops, trailer parks, and other businesses  with a new post office closing the decade. Highway U.S. 1 continued to be two lanes through Big Pine and this stressed everyone, including the effect on the Key Deer.

     Big Pine Key had an industry that was not found at any other Key -  a glass foundry. Les Cunningham and Dwight A. Pettit family, built and operated the Big Pine Key Glass Works on the west end of the Key 1967 to 1970. They made glass bottles, ash trays, paper weights, etc. and operated a gift store. After the Pettit's left Les continued to operate the factory until his death in 1973.

      Glass bottles were manufactured elsewhere for use on other Keys and embossed for the specific client, but to my knowledge, Big Pine Key had the only glass factory ever in the Keys. For more info on bottles found in the Florida Keys CLICK HERE.

    The 1970s saw more development and in 1972 a moratorium was placed on all dredging. Most development in the Keys involves dredge and fill operations. The moratorium has been on and off since. The speed limit was reduced to 45-MPH during the day and 35-MPH at night. Development continued with two banks and a saving and loan company closing the decade. the former sleeping giant was wide awake.   

   The state of Florida made the next major move. As of April 15, 1975, Florida ordered the Florida Keys to be an Area of Critical State Concern (ACSC). This basically placed all development under the final approval process at Tallahassee. Land Use plans and Rate of Growth Ordinances were developed and constantly in a state of change – but only with the approval of Florida State government. 

     In 1999 it was announced that the last remaining historic structure was purchased to be moved to Key West. These were the Maggie Atwell house and the F.E.C. railroad depot. It was obvious to the author that Big Pine Key, like most other Florida Keys other than Key West, have no sense of itself. Too many transplants whose home is someplace else.

   Big Pine now has a traffic light with turn lanes. Highway US 1 recently was elevated and under-highway culverts provided for the Key deer to cross safely. 

   Time moves on. 


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