Early Views of Key West

It’s that time of year again…

As cool winter breezes penetrate deeper into the Florida peninsula with each passing cold front, mainlanders begin to yearn for something a little more tropical.

For a lucky few, Key West has become part of the winter routine. Those with the wherewithal to venture down to the southernmost city during the colder months may be unaware of the island’s early history, when Key West was plagued by everything from malaria to water shortages and fire to hurricanes.

The images below are some of the earliest renderings of the island known to the Americans as Key West, long before it became a tourist mecca in the days of Flagler and Hemingway.

Sketch of Key West by William A. Whitehead, ca. 1838, reproduced in Jefferson Browne, Key West: The Old and the New (St. Augustine: The Record Company, 1912)

Sketch of Key West by William A. Whitehead, ca. 1838, reproduced in Jefferson Browne, Key West: The Old and the New (St. Augustine: The Record Company, 1912)

These two sketches (above and below), drawn by William A. Whitehead, portray Key West as it appeared from the cupola atop A. C. Tift’s warehouse in the late 1830s. William and his brother John were prominent citizens in the small island community. William served as customs collector from 1830 to 1838. He left Key West in 1838, never to return, because the town council refused to institute an occupational tax he supported.

Sketch of Key West by William A. Whitehead, ca. 1838, reproduced in Jefferson Browne, Key West: The Old and the New (St. Augustine: The Record Company, 1912)

Sketch of Key West by William A. Whitehead, ca. 1838, reproduced in Jefferson Browne, Key West: The Old and the New (St. Augustine: The Record Company, 1912)

The image below is believed to be one of the oldest landscape daguerreotypes of Florida. It dates to about 1850 and was likely taken from an observation tower in the vicinity of Front and Simonton Streets. Visible near the horizon are First Baptist (left) and St. Paul’s Episcopal (middle) churches.

The steeple of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church helps date this item to circa 1850. St. Paul’s, built in 1839, was destroyed by a hurricane in 1846. It was rebuilt in 1848, but burned along with much of the city in the fire of 1886. In 1909 and 1910, the church again suffered damage from powerful tropical weather. The present Gothic Revival-style structure, constructed of steel and concrete, held its first services in 1914. According to an early historian of Key West, First Baptist Church on Eaton Street (upper left) was built in 1848.

Bird's eye view of Key West, ca. 1850

Bird’s eye view of Key West, ca. 1850

The map below, created by the Monroe County Commissioners in 1874 from city property records, shows Key West as it appeared in the late 19th century. During the 1860s and 1870s, Key West hosted a large contingent of Cubans fleeing from the Ten Years War (1868-1878) in their homeland. This conflict served as a precursor to the Cuban War of Independence (1895-1898), during which Key West again played a vital role for the exile community.

Cuban businessmen in exile, including Vicente Martínez Ybor, transplanted their cigar rolling operations to Key West during the Ten Years War. Ybor later moved his factories to Tampa and started the community that now bears his name.

"Map of the City of Key West, Monroe County Florida..." Compiled and Drawn by Order of the Hon. Board of County Commissioners (July 1874)

“Map of the City of Key West, Monroe County Florida…” Compiled and Drawn by Order of the Hon. Board of County Commissioners (July 1874)

Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961)

Author Ernest Hemingway, born on this day in 1899, is perhaps the most famous former resident of Key West. Only one of his books, To Have and Have Not (1937) was set in the southernmost city, but Hemingway logged many hours perfecting his craft at his Whitehead Street home. An avid fisherman and boater, Hemingway enjoyed all that Key West had to offer.

Ernest Hemingway with bill fish, Key West, 1940s

Ernest Hemingway with bill fish, Key West, 1940s

Cat in front of the Hemingway House, Key West, 1993

Cat in front of the Hemingway House, Key West, 1993

Florida and the Civil War (April 1863)

There Goes the Judge

On April 18, 1863, Judge William Marvin wrote President Abraham Lincoln of his wish to resign his position as “District Judge of the United States for the Southern District of Florida.” Marvin had held his office since 1847, but he now wished to resign to recover his health “in a more northern climate.” Judge Marvin’s resignation may have only received brief notices in the Northern and Southern press, but his official career in Florida had been anything but brief or inconsequential.

William Marvin, 1865

William Marvin, 1865

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First Train to Key West (January 22, 1912)

On this date in 1912 the first passenger train arrived in Key West, marking the completion of Henry Flagler’s East Coast Railroad from Jacksonville to the Southernmost City.

Detail from Rand McNally’s 1912 map of Florida showing Flagler’s East Coast Railroad through southeastern Florida and the Florida Keys

Detail from Rand McNally’s 1912 map of Florida showing Flagler’s East Coast Railroad through southeastern Florida and the Florida Keys

Awaiting the train…

Awaiting the train…

Greeting the train…

Greeting the train…

Henry M. Flagler disembarking the first passenger train to Key West

Henry M. Flagler disembarking the first passenger train to Key West

Parade celebrating the arrival of the East Coast Railroad in Key West

Parade celebrating the arrival of the East Coast Railroad in Key West

Key West Junkanoos

Florida’s close proximity to the Caribbean islands has introduced a variety of rich cultural celebrations to the state. In this podcast we explore some of the music that grew out of the Bahamian Junkanoo parades as we listen to the Key West Junkanoos.

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Employed by the City of Key West, the Junkanoos were led by bassist Bill Butler, pianist Lofton “Coffee” Butler, and featured percussionists Charles Allen, Kenny Rahming, Joe Whyms and Alvin Scott. They appeared often at the Florida Folk Festival from 1977-1991.

Key West Island Junkanoos peforming at the Florida Folk Festival: White Springs, 1983

Key West Island Junkanoos peforming at the Florida Folk Festival: White Springs, 1983

The origin of the name Junkanoo is a matter of debate. Some say it is derived from the name of 18th century African Gold Coast leader John Connu. Others have looked to similar sounding phrases such as the French for “masked people,” gens inconnu. Bahamian Junkanoo parades can be traced back to the 1800s when African slaves would gather, don masks, and celebrate with music and dance on Christmas Day. The parades have evolved to become huge tourist attractions and occur in two stages or rushes: the first on Boxing Day (December 26) and the second on New Year’s Day. This tradition was carried to Key West and Miami by Bahamian immigrants of African descent.

The Key West Junkanoos have distilled the sounds of the parades’ marching bands into their own repertoire of original material, as well as performing classic Calypso tunes such as “The John B. Sails,” “Island in the Sun” and “Yellow Bird.” The recordings in this podcast are from the Junkanoos’ performance at the 1983 Florida Folk Festival’s Main Stage.

 

30th Anniversary of the Conch Republic (April 23, 1982)

Conch Republic Customs Agent identification card

Conch Republic Customs Agent identification card

On April 18, 1982, the United States Border Patrol set up a roadblock just south of Florida City, on U.S. Highway 1, to catch illegal immigrants traveling to and from the Florida Keys. In response, after five days of ensuing traffic congestion and intrusive behavior by the Border Patrol, the people of Key West staged a mock secession from the United States and established the Conch Republic on April 23.

Mayor of Key West, Dennis Wardlow, holding the flag of “ secession” of the Conch Republic (1982)

Mayor of Key West, Dennis Wardlow, holding the flag of “ secession” of the Conch Republic (1982)