by Jerry Wilkinson

The Spanish American War
      In December of 1891 Jose Marti arrived from Tampa in Key West for his first visit to continue the work he had started in New York - organizing a Cuban revolution in earnest. He also visited and worked until he had the expatriated Cubans from all parts taking an active role. On February 25, 1895, the "Liberator of Cuba" gave the word for the revolution to start. Marti himself went to Cuba and was killed in the battle of Dos Rios in May 1895.

     Attempts were made to draw America into the confrontation. U.S. owned participants such as the ships Three Friends and Dauntless participated as filibusters. In an attempt to avoid neutrality laws, arms were taken on one ship and troops on another taking different routes. Covert actions became overt when The USS Maine left Key West, met with the Atlantic Fleet on training maneuvers in the Tortugas, and sailed into Havana Harbor on a peaceful mission. After 21 days at anchor, on February 15, 1898 at 9:40 P.M. she exploded sinking with a crew of 355. Only 94 survived.  Key West citizens dedicated a monument in the city cemetery on March 15, 1900 to the heroes who died in the harbor of Havana on that February 15, 1898.

     "Remember the Maine" became the rallying cry and Spanish - U.S. negotiations were in motion. Formal fighting began on April 22, 1898 and ended August 12, 1898. Key West became a focus of activities and drinking the supply of drinking water became a problem. A lemon aid was 20 cents and a beer 25 cents. Tampa was the primary support city but Key West was the center of activity. The U.S. Navy at Key West was again beefed up and played a significant role during the Spanish American War. After the war ended the navy facilities were downsized again.  Years of Cuban revolutionary activity was over. Key West returned to some degree of normalcy but she began to loose some of the sponge market to Tarpon Springs.

   Nearing the close of the 19th century, Key West found its primary economic force of wrecking dwindling. Almost 10,000 Cubans had made Key West their home which was almost half of its population. The cigar industry dominated Key West. An example was Pohalski village which was almost a town in itself including the cigar manufacturing buildings. Its center would be today in the area of White Street and Truman Avenue. (The Germans did much of the art work for the cigar labels.) Cigar making would continue to dominate Key West until the 1920s when cigarette use brought it to its knees. After the Great Fire, public buildings were mostly of brick construction. Many of those constructed of wood added tin roofs to protect from blowing sparks from other houses on fire. This practice continues. Examples of brick structures are the US Customs House (1891), the Old City Hall (1891) and Old Monroe County Courthouse (1890). 

     The military continued in Key West as the US took more of an active interest in the Caribbean. Winter training was conducted in the Caribbean area and in 1906 a wireless communication system was started. Key West was a major center and continued to grow. The Key West Electric Street Railway Company operated its first street car on Duval Street on February 13, 1899. It transported nearly 500 passengers its first day. The same year the county constructed a road through the eastern portion of Key West - now Flagler Avenue.

The Iron Horse Arrives

     Henry Morrison Flagler gave Key West its next shot in the arm. In 1905 men and material began spanning the Keys for a railroad to Key West. With this expectation, a new Chamber of Commerce met and elected W.D. Cash as president. Since land was scarce in Key West, Flagler dredged in new land for his railroad yard and docks. He thought on a large scale and had 1,700 foot docks for ocean liners plus for his future train ferries to Cuba. Miami was the headquarters for construction, but its destination with the huge land and sea terminal was Key West.

    When Flagler was told there was not enough land for his massive rail terminal, he instructed his  work force the "build some." Key West was enlarged with 134 acres of land fill pumped up the bottoms of the Gulf now called Trumbo. Trumbo was the dredging contractor. During the railroad construction period, Key West and the other Keys experienced three hurricanes - 1906, 1909 and 1910. As a result of building the railroad, Key West and Stock Island was connected the first time by a road in February 1906. The October 1909 hurricane did considerable damage to downtown Key West. In May 12, 1910 the first spike was driven for the railroad from the Key West end and the first train arrived with pomp and ceremony on January 22, 1912. (The railroad is covered on a separate web page. To access the page of Flagler and the Key West Extension Click Here and then the back arrow to return to this spot.)

     Mr. Flagler died in 1913 and the Florida East Coast Railway was just getting its operation going when WW-I brought in more military to Key West again. On July 13, 1917, ground was broken for a coastal air patrol station on land rented from the F.E.C. Rwy. On September 22 the first naval  flight was logged in - A Curtis N-9 seaplane piloted by Lt. Stanley Parker. Seaplane training and 'lighter-than-air' craft facilities were constructed for submarine patrol. On December 18, 1917, the Naval Air Base Key West was commissioned with Lt. Parker as its commanding officer. Naval Air Facility planes flew from rented land of the railroad yard at Trumbo Point. On January 8, 1918, the first flight of naval flight students arrived for seaplane training. The downtown Naval Station was expanded for destroyers and submarines. This marked the beginning of Key West as a naval training facility. The submarine base was not completed until 1932. Key West was abuzz with military once again. Much of the activity subsided when the war ended. 

     The Florida Land Boom during the 1920s brought increased tourist activity to Key West. One new addition was the F.E.C. Casa Marina hotel. In February 1918, the F.E.C. Railway purchased the property for $1,000. Construction began in the spring and the formal opening was New Years Eve, December 31, 1921. Louis Schutt was moved from the Long Key Fishing Camp to be the manager. It closed indefinitely in the spring of 1932 - the Great Depression had arrived in Key West. Afterwards it opened for a few months each winter until leased to support the US Navy in World War-II. John Spottswood purchased the Casa Marina in June 1966 to begin operation by others than the F.E.C. The hotel was completely renovated in 1978.

     While construction for the Casa Marina had just gotten underway, Key West experienced the severe Hurricane of 1919 on September 9. More than $2 million of damages were incurred by the category 4 hurricane.

     Through out Florida a land boom was just awakening and land sales and building flourished. The Keys had a lot of vacant land but was available only by the railroad. The need for a vehicular highway was seen and in 1923 Monroe County approved $300,000 as a beginning. Also in 1923, Key West experienced another severe fire destroying about 43 houses in the White Street area. The estimate was $125,000 of damage and 40 families homeless.
     In 1924 the La Concha hotel was created on Duval Street. After the 1926 hurricane more funds were needed for the highway so an additional $2,500,000 was approved. This would include three ferry boats to span a 40-mile open water space. The stock market crash of 1929 delivered the final blow to the 'Boom', but for south Florida the hurricane of 1926 signaled the end. Miami was the hub to support new development, was devastated by the hurricane and could not support the building process.  In July of 1926, Key West replaced its aging electric street cars with buses. The Overseas Highway was completed and officially opened in 1928 for two-way traffic to and from Key West via three ferry boats serving about 40 miles of the trip. In May 1929 the overland bus company, Florida Motor Lines began an extensive campaign to promote Key West as the tourist Mecca of Florida. Signs that Key West was really moving into the twentieth century was dozed in 1929 when Miss Lena Johnson, was the first woman to be elected to its city commission, was defeated for reelection, but it was only by 40 votes.

      More transportation news was made in Key West at this time. In June 1927 the highway from Big Pine Key to Key West was opened. On October 28, 1927, Pan American Airline (PAA) pilots Huey Wells and Eddie Musick delivered 772 pounds of air-mail from Key West to Havana in a Fokker trimotor. The dream of pioneer Juan Terry Trippe and his airline Pan American was in operation and it began in Key West. Trippe was born in Seabright, N. J. in 1899, graduated Yale University after serving in the Naval Air Service in WW I and joined a firm of investment bankers. With his financial support of those such as the Whitneys, Vanderbuilts and Rockefellows, he gained the Key West to Havana U.S. mail contract on June 16, 1927 for PAA and the rest is history. Monroe County entered into the air transportation mode when it purchased the Key West International Airport in November 1952. The Navy made its last flight of an airship and all blimps were moved out in March 1959. In April 1968, National Air Lines made its first landing on extended runways using a Boeing 727. To see more Key West airport photos Click Here and then use the back arrow to return to this spot.

Lean Times

     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 (the Navy ordered it in August 1930). 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 1935 state census showed the population of Key West as 13,118 and the remainder of the Keys as 865. In 1945 the population was 19,755.

     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 such as the CWA, WPA, PWA, CCC, and FERA. Julius Stone headed the Florida division of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) in Jacksonville, but he found special favor in Key West. It appears that he spent more time in Key West than the rest of Florida and Key West realized the benefits. Many programs were started and continued through the Works Progress Administration (WPA) period. One project was the Key West Aquarium besides Mallory Dock which was started in 1933. 

      As if things were not bad enough, the Hurricane of 1935 cut Key West off from the mainland. Forty miles of railroad were destroyed in the Upper Keys and Key West was back to depending on maritime transportation. Some degree of help was provided by the new industry of air transportation. Temporary vehicle ferry landings were provided and two Mississippi River stern-wheelers were converted to link Key West to the mainland. Fortunately, Key West possessed a great harbor and was accustomed to living by the sea. For the more fortunate, Pan American Airways had just established regular service between Miami and Key West. On a smaller scale, in November 1935 the Thompson Fish Company purchased the Overseas Transportation Company as a freight service since the railroad was destroyed.

     The damaged railroad right-of-way and bridges were converted to what I call the second Overseas Highway. The narrow railroad bridges were widened to 20-foot two-lane vehicle bridges. It was completed in 1938 and one could for the first time drive all the way to and from Key West without the use of car ferries. A gala highway celebration took place of the weekend of July 2-4 and Bernice Brantlt, Miss Key West, served as the queen, Visitors, delivery trucks and buses frequented all the principal Keys. 

    The new highway opening Key West to and from the nation was brought to national attention when on February 18, 1939, President Franklin Roosevelt passed through the Upper Keys in route to Key West to board the cruiser Houston to observe war games in the Caribbean.  Poor Ole Craig waved to the entourage when in passed through Craig Key in an open convertible at about 2 p.m. Key West mayor, Willard Albury, met the president at the west end of the Bahia Honda bridge on West Summerland Key. From there, Mayor Albury accompanied the president to tour much of the then inactive naval facilities. Former Florida F.E.R.A./W.P.A. director Julius Stone's 1934 exhortation to Key West of its tourist potential was now a reality. The Gibraltar of the South had a usable vehicle artery to and from the mainland

     The Overseas Highway is covered on a separate web site page at (Click here and then the back arrow to return to this spot.)

World War II

    In early 1941 Paramount Studios had photographers in Key West filming scenes for the future movie "Reap the Wild Wind."  As with most of the nation, WW-II lifted Key West out of its sagging economy. President Roosevelt had driven the converted Overseas Highway and visited Key West in 1939. On October 14, 1939, Navy Headquarters announced the closed Navy Station would reopen November 1. The same year the Navy signed a contract for Trumbo Point for use as a Naval Air Station. The first spade full of dirt was turned on March 12, 1940. The base served as an training and operating base for the U.S. Navy's fleet aircraft squadrons. The Navy was back in Key West and no one knew what would happen a little more than a year later.

     One such valuable military resources at Key West was the Fleet Sonar School at the naval station in 1940. The school was invaluable for training sonar operators for the country's struggle against German U-boats a few years later. Pearl Harbor occurred almost two years later. The country was at war again. The sonar school closed in the early 1970s. The Key West economy was damaged when a mysterious blight attacked the sponges. The sponges disintegrated when touched by the retrieving hook. 

   In summary, once again Key West was on a military economy. Without all the details, World War II expanded the naval operations from around 50 acres to over 3,000 acres, including Boca Chica. It took over the old F.E.C. Trumbo Point railroad yard and improved Sigsbee Park. In March 1945 one naval operational entity was established - U.S. Naval Air Station, Key West. The Fleet Sonar School was in full operation. About 15,000 military personnel supported these operations. After WW-II the navy retained its training facilities.

     The needs of the Navy in Key West helped all the Keys. To support its wartime mission the Navy needed fresh water, so it paid for an 18-inch pipeline the length of the Keys. Equipment was larger and heavier so an improved highway was made. A total of 17 miles was cutoff by eliminating the out-of-the-way route via Pirates Cove and up to present day Ocean Reef. Since federal funds were used, Highway US-1 was born. Its route is the one we drive today. (Public water and electricity are on separate web pages.) 

      After WW-II, the whole country increased in mobility. New churches and schools sprang into life. Things were not all peaches and ice cream as in the summer of 1946 Key West suffered it worst polio epidemic ever. Twenty cases were reported with two deaths. Restrictions barred children under 16 from public places. 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 were used. All the elements for growth were present. But the economy of Key West was once again on the wane. The free-spirited sailors that were on liberty went back to their homes to regain their lost time. The US Navy was again down sizing. 1951 was not a dull year for Key West as as the 1000-unit Navy housing project on former Dredger's Island was renamed Sigsbee Park. Navy Captain Sigsbee was the captain of the USS Maine sank in the harbor of of Havana in 1898. The old Army barracks on Palm Avenue was named Peary Court after the discoverer of the North Pole. Incidentally, at this time tourism was ranked fourth. 

       Here is something for some one to check out for a "first." In January 1953 the Key West Citizen reported that Edmond Albury acquired a building permit to construct on Eaton Street a CBS house - just wondering? Another marker of growth in March of 1953 the 6,000th telephone was installed on the switchboard to the home of Lt. F. E. Mitschke. The same year the county's population was reported as 29,975. I do not have the exact numbers, but Key West would have been about 26,500. Both Key West and the remainder of the county was growing fast. A strange weather event occurred on October 12 when the Key West Weather Bureau reported a record low of 64 degrees.

      However, in September of 1955 the lack of summer tourists prompted a "motel price war" and eight motels offered free rooms to tourists. In November of 1955 the U.S. Navy presented a breakdown of its Key West population: 936 officers, 9,000 enlisted personnel, 6,661 dependents and 1,725 civil service for a total of 18,322. The civilian population was 26,433. Things were not that bad as Stock Island had it first stock car race. There 17 local and 19 Miami car drivers. 


Pink Gold

     The economy of Key West was saved again when 'pink gold' was found in the Marquesas and Tortugas areas in 1949. This was a new commercial variety of shrimp considered delicious, large and pink with fine flavoring. As with once popular Key West cigars, now there were the 'Key West Pinks.' Shrimp boats numbered around 500 in the winters which was the best season for shrimp. In 1953 the tradition of today's Mallory Square was innocently started when the Key West Motor Court Association  petitioned the city for use as a public fishing pier. The 1960 census showed Key West's population at 33,956, more that two time the remainder of the county at 13,965 - a total of 47,921. 

      In 1962 John Spottswood arranged for the movie PT-109 to be filmed on nearby Munson Island which he owned.   (Click here ) for additional information.

     The Key West NAS responded to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis when on October 22, 1962 reconnaissance flight began to support the Cuban blockade. After the short burst of activity caused by the Cuban Missile Crisis, the military in Key West continued to down size. Destroyer Squadron 12 and Submarine Squadron 12 were decommissioned at a joint ceremony on June 29, 1973 signaling the beginning of the end. On March 29, 1974, Admiral John Maurer ordered his flag lowered terminating 151 years of naval operations at the Key West Naval Station. Navy Lt. Mathew Perry had raised the American flag on March 24, 1822. Naval air operations continued however, and U. S. Coast Guard operations were expanding.

     When the military down sizes there is a related loss of civilian jobs. To some, the 1970s correlated with the rum running days of the 1920s and 30s. Even though rum running and drug running are similar in actions, the reaction were quite different. Key West had to look back to Julius Stone who in 1934 told them that they were missing a gold mine as the the "Gibraltar of the US." A century earlier Commodore Porter compared Key West to Gibraltar. The city fathers and businessmen made historic Key West into a thriving tourist center to their credit without destroying their tangible legacy. Not to be forgotten is that the county seat's local government's economy provides some stability to Key West's economy. 

      Tourism is fickle as in May 1880 the Chamber of Commerce asked the governor to declare the city an economic disaster because of the adverse impact of the Cuban boat lift mainly from bad media coverage. Intelligence reported up to 100,000 Muriel refugees awaiting to come to Florida. The U.S. Coast Guard began its largest peacetime operation by ordering additional cutters for the area. To add to the problem a 73 mph squall line passed through the straits killing an estimated 12 refugees. The same year Governor Bob Graham concluded that hurricane sheltering in the Keys was "clearly insufficient" and residents should be evacuated in case of hurricanes. Tourism was now firmly entrenched. Even the old small "southernmost sign" (often stolen by collectors) was replaced with a new and larger concrete marker in 1983.

      The U.S. Border Patrol established a road block near Florida City to check the citizenship of everyone leaving the Keys on April 18, 1982. Traffic was being backed for 15 miles or more and legitimate visitors were reluctant to come. On April 22, 1982 Key West took the lead by forming the Conch Republic and symbolically seceding from the Union. Symbolic border passes and visas were issued. Wooden Conch currency was sold, the pelican was declared the Republic's bird and then hibiscus the flower. The Conch Republic went as far as applying for foreign aid. 



     Like a military economy, a tourist economy is unpredictable, something that Florida well knows, but of which it often looses sight. Almost weekly the city debates the dichotomy of huge cruise ships docked near groups of homeless sleeping in the neighborhoods. A knee-jerk in the world economy can be a blow to the head for tourism, but fortunately these blips are usually short lived. An example was the 1974 gasoline shortage. A political knee-jerk can likewise bring prosperity. Key West, as well as the other Keys, have survived about every kind of calamity except earthquakes and avalanches. They will survive others in the future, that is unless global warming becomes a reality with rising sea levels.  

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