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Key West History

Key West

During Pre-Columbian years, Key West was settled by the Calusa people. The very first European to visit Key West was Juan Ponce de León in 1521. As Florida became an important Spanish colony, a fishing and salvage village with a small garrison was established here.
Cayo Hueso
Cayo Hueso (pronounced [káh-yo gue-so]) is the original Spanish name given to the island of Key West. Spanish-speaking people of today also use the term Cayo Hueso when referring to Key West. It literally means “bone key”. It is alledged that the island was littered with the remains (bones) from an Indian battlefield or burial ground. The most widely accepted belief of how the name changed to Key West is that it is a false friend anglicization of the word, being that the word “hueso” (pronounced [weso]) sounds like it could mean “west” in English. Other theories of how the island was named are that the name indicated that it was the westernmost Key, or simply that the island was the westernmost key with a reliable supply of drinking water.

Many businesses on the island use the name, such as Casa Cayo Hueso, Cayo Hueso Resorts, Cayo Hueso Consultants, Cayo Hueso y Habana Historeum, etc.

In 1763, when Great Britain took over control of what is now Florida, the community of Spaniards and Native Americans were moved off island to Havana. Florida returned under Spanish control 20 years later, but there was no official resettlement of the island. Informally the island was used by fishermen from Cuba and from the British Bahamas, who were later joined by others from the United States after the latter nation’s independence. Although claimed by Spain, no nation exercised de facto control over the community there for some time.

Matthew C. Perry and the opening of “Thompson’s Island”
In 1815 the Spanish governor in Havana, Cuba deeded the island of Key West to Juan Pablo Salas, an officer of the Royal Spanish Navy Artillery posted in Saint Augustine, Florida. After Florida was transferred to the United States, Salas was so eager to sell the island that he sold it twice – first for a sloop valued at $575, and then to a U.S. businessman John W. Simonton, during a meeting in a Havana cafe, for the equivalent of $2,000 in pesos in 1821. The sloop trader quickly sold the island to a General John Geddes, a former governor of South Carolina, who tried in vain to secure his rights to the property before Simonton, with the aid of some influential friends in Washington, was able to gain clear title to the island. Simonton had wide-ranging business interest in Mobile, Alabama. He bought the island because a friend, John Whitehead, had drawn his attention on the opportunities presented by the island’s strategic location. John Whitehead had been stranded in Key West after a shipwreck in 1819 and he had been impressed by the potential offered by the deep harbor of the island. The island was indeed considered the “Gibraltar of the West” because of its strategic location on the 90-mile (140 km) wide deep shipping lane Straits of Florida between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf Of Mexico. On March 25, 1822, Matthew C. Perry sailed the schooner Shark to Key West and planted the U.S. flag, physically claiming the Keys as United States property. Perry reported on piracy problems in the Caribbean. Perry renamed Cayo Hueso (Key West) to “Thompson’s Island” for the Secretary of the Navy Smith Thompson and the harbor “Port Rodgers” for War of 1812 hero John Rodgers. Neither name was to stick. In 1823 Commodore David Porter of the United States Navy West Indies Anti-Pirate Squadron took charge of Key West, which he ruled (but, according to some, exceeding his authority) as military dictator under martial law.

First Developers

The names of the 4 “founding fathers” of modern Key West were given to main arteries of the island when it was first platted in 1829 by William Adee Whitehead, John Whitehead’s younger brother. That first plat and the names used remained mostly intact and is still in use today. Duval street, the island’s main street is named after Florida’s first territorial Governor who served between 1822 and 1834, the longest serving Governor in Florida’s U.S. history.

William Whitehead became chief editorial writer for the “Enquirer” a local newspaper in 1834. He had the genius of preserving copies of his newspaper as well as copies from the “Key West Gazette”, its predecessor. He later sent those copies to the Monroe County Clerk for preservation which gives us a precious view on life in Key West in the early days (1820-1840).

Most of the inhabitants of Key West were immigrants from the Bahamas, known as Conchs (pronounced ‘conks’) who arrived in increasing amounts after 1830. Many were sons and daughters of Loyalists who fled to the nearby crown soil during the American Revolution. During the 20th century many residents of Key West started calling themselves “Conchs”, and the term is now widely applied to all residents of Key West. Some residents use the term “Conch” to refer to a person who was born in Key West and the Florida Keys, while the term “Fresh Water Conch” refers to a resident who was not born in Key West but who has lived in Key West for seven years or more. The true original meaning of Conch applies only to someone with European ancestry that immigrated from the Bahamas. Hence, it is said that when a baby was born, the family would put a conch shell in front of their home.
Many of the Bahamian immigrants live in an area of “Old Town” located next to the Truman Annex which is called “Bahama Village.”

Major industries in Key West in the early 19th century included fishing, salt production, and salvage. In 1860 wrecking madethe small town of Key West the largest and most wealthy city in Florida and the richest town per capita in the United States. A number of the residents worked salvaging shipwrecks from nearby Florida reefs, and the town was noted for the unusually high concentration of fine furniture and chandeliers which the locals used in their own homes after salvaging them from wrecks.
Fort Zachary Taylor in Key West, popular during the Civil War, contains the largest known collection of Civil War cannons ever discovered at a single location.

U.S. Civil War
During the American Civil War, the state of Florida seceded and joined the Confederate States of America, Key West remained in U.S. Union hands because of the important Naval base. Most of the locals were sympathetic to the South and many flew Confederate flags over their “Conch” homes. Fort Zachary Taylor, constructed from 1845 to 1866, was a very important Key West outpost during the Civil War. Construction began in 1861 on two other important forts, East and West Martello Towers, that served as sidearms and batteries for the larger fort. When finished, they were connected to Ft. Taylor by railroad tracks for movement of military munitions. Fort Jefferson, located about 68 miles (109 km) from Key West on Garden Key in the Dry Tortugas, served, after the Civil War, as the jail for Dr. Samuel A. Mudd convicted of conspiracy for setting the broken leg bone of John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of President Abraham Lincoln.
In the late 19th century, salt and salvage declined as industries, but Key West gained a thriving cigar making industry.

By 1889 Key West was the largest and wealthiest city in Florida.
Many Cubans moved to Key West during Cuba’s unsuccessful war for independence in the 1860s and 1870s.

Geography and climate
Key West Cemetery near Solares Hill, the highest point of land on the island. The cemetery was moved to the high spot in 1847 after an 1846 hurricane washed corpses out of the beach cemetery.
Key West from space, October 2002

Key West is located at 24°33′33″N, 81°47′03″W (24.559166, -81.784031).[17] The maximum elevation above sea level is about 18 feet (6 m), a one acre area known as Solares Hill.[18] Key West Island is about 4 miles (6 km) long and 2 miles (3 km) wide; since the late 20th century it has been artificially expanded to the east. According to the United States Census Bureau, the city has a total area of 19.2 km² (7.4 mi²). 15.4 km² (5.9 mi²) of it is land and 3.8 km² (1.5 mi²) of it (19.73%) is water.

Old Town and New Town

Old Town
The original Key West neighborhood in the west (although perceived as south) is called “Old Town” and comprises the Key West Historic District. It includes the major tourist destinations of the island including Mallory Square, Duval Street, the Truman Annex and Fort Zachary Taylor. It is where you find the classic Key West bungalows and guest mansions.
Generally, the wooden structures date from 1886 to 1912. The basic features that distinguish the local architecture include wood frame construction of one to two-and-a-half story structures set on foundation piers about three feet above the ground. Noteworthy exterior characteristics of the buildings are peaked “metal” roofs, horizontal wood siding, gingerbread trim, pastel shades of paint, side-hinged louvered shutters, covered porches (or balconies, galleries, or verandas) along the fronts of the structures, and wood lattice screens covering the area elevated by the piers.

New Town
The island has more than doubled in size via man made landfill. The new section on the east (perceived as north) is called “New Town.” It contains modern shopping centers, retail malls, residential areas, schools, ball parksand the Key West International Airport.

Gulf of Mexico/Atlantic
Key West (and most of the rest of the keys) are on the dividing line between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. The two saltwater bodies have different currents with the calmer and warmer Gulf of Mexico being characterized by huge clumps of sea grass. The area where the two bodies merge between Key West and Cuba is called the Straits of Florida.

Southernmost City
The Key West monument marking the southernmost point in the continental United States that is accessible
by civilians, is located in Key West, Florida, at the corner of South Street and Whitehead Street. One of the biggest attractions on the island is a concrete replica of a buoy at the corner of South and Whitehead Streets that claims to be the southernmost point in the contiguous 48 states. The point was originally simply marked with a small sign, which was often stolen. In response to this, the city of Key West erected the now world-famous monument in 1983. Brightly painted and labeled “SOUTHERNMOST POINT CONTINENTAL U.S.A.”, it is one of the most visited and photographed attractions in all of Key West. Property on the Truman Annex site just to the west of the buoy is the true southernmost point, but it has no clear marker since it is U.S. Navy land and cannot be entered by civilian tourists. The private yards located directly to the east of the buoy and the beach areas of The Truman Annex and Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park also lie farther south than the famous buoy. The farthest southern location that the public can visit is at the end of the White St. Pier, located off the intersection of White St. and Atlantic Boulevard. The pier was severely impacted by the 2005 Hurricane Wilma, resulting in damage to the handrails, wall, and undermining, and sidewalk collapse. As of 2006, the pier was closed for repairs but reopened again in 2007. Florida’s southernmost point is Ballast Key, a privately owned island just south and west of Key West. Signs on the island strictly prohibit unauthorized visitors. The claim “90 Miles to Cuba” on the Key West monument isn’t completely accurate either, because Cuba at its closest point is 94 statute miles from the island of Key West.

Frost free zone
Key West claims to be the only city in the lower 48 states never to have had a frost. Due to the proximity of the Gulf Stream in the Straits of Florida, about 12 miles (19 km) south and southeast, and the softening effects of the Gulf of Mexico to the west and north, Key West has a notably mild, tropical climate,(Koppen climate classification Aw, similar to the Caribbean islands), where the average temperatures during winter are about 14 degrees (lower than in summer). Cold fronts are heavily modified by the warm tropical water as they move in from northerly quadrants in winter. The average low and high temperatures in January are 67 °F/ 75 °F. There is no known record of frost, ice, sleet, or snow in Key West. The coldest temperature ever recorded in Key West was 41 °F (5 °C) on January 12, 1886, and on January 13, 1981. Prevailing easterly tradewinds and sea breezes suppress the usual summertime heating. The average low and high temperatures in July are 81 °F/ 90 °F. The hottest temperature ever recorded in Key West was 97 °F (36.1 °C) on July 19, 1880, and on August 26, 1956.

Rainy and dry seasons
Precipitation is characterized by dry and wet seasons. The time of November through April receives abundant sunshine and slightly less than 25 percent of the annual rainfall. This rainfall usually happens in advance of cold fronts in a few light or heavy showers. May through October is normally the wet season, receiving approximately 53 percent of the yearly total in numerous tropical showers and thunderstorms. Rain falls on most days during the wet season. Early morning is the popular time for these showers, which is different from mainland Florida, where showers and thunderstorms usually occur in the late afternoon. Easterly (tropical) waves during this season occasionally bring excessive rainfall, while infrequent hurricanes may be accompanied by unusually heavy amounts. At any rate, Key West is the driest city in Florida.

Hurricanes rarely hit Key West and the little island has been relatively lucky. Locals say that Hurricane Wilma on October 24, 2005, was the worst storm in recent memory. The entire island was told to evacuate and business owners were forced to close their shops. After the hurricane had passed, a storm surge sent 8′ of sea water inland, completely inundating a large portion of the lower Keys. Low-lying areas of Key West and the lower Keys, including major tourist destinations were under up to 3′ of water. Sixty percent of the homes in Key West were flooded. The higher parts of Old Town, such as the Solares Hill and cemetery areas, did not flood due to their higher elevations of 12-18′. The surge destroyed tens of thousands of cars throughout the lower Keys, and many houses were flooded with 1-2 feet of sea water. A local newspaper referred to Key West and the lower Keys as a “car graveyard.” The peak of the storm surge occurred when the eye of Wilma had already passed over the Naples, area, and the sustained winds during the surge were less than 40 mph (64 km/h). The storm destroyed the piers at the clothing optional Atlantic Shores Motel and breached the shark tank at the Key West Aquarium, freeing its sharks. Damage postponed the island’s famous Halloween Fantasy Fest until the following December. MTV’s The Real World: Key West was filming during the hurricane and deals with the storm.

In March 2006, the NOAA opened its National Weather Forecasting building on White Street. The building is designed to withstand a Category 5 hurricane and its storm surge.

The most intense previous hurricane was Hurricane Georges, a Category 2, in September 1998. The storm damaged many of the houseboats along Houseboat Row in the Cow Key channel on the northwest corner.

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