Key West Florida

Key West FL is the southernmost city in the Continental United States. Key West is a city and an island by the same name near the southernmost tip of the Florida Keys and encompasses the namesake island, the part of Stock Island north of US 1, Sigsbee Park and Sunset Key.

Many passenger cruise ships utilize Key West as a seaport. Key West International Airport also serves the area. Naval Air Station Key West offers a training site for Naval Aviation.

Key West is officially known for having the nation’s first and oldest continuous gay and lesbian chamber of commerce. Thus the city’s motto “One Human Family”

Kay West was inhabited by ancient peoples known as the Calusa People in Pre-Columbian times. Juan Ponce De Leon was the first European to visit the area and the island was known as Cayo Hueso. It was established as a fishing and salvage village with a small fort to protect the Spanish colony.

Cayo Hueso literally means “bone key” as it is said that the island is littered with the bones from an Indian battlefield or burial ground. It is thought that the name changed to Key West is an Anglicization of the word “Hueso” that could mean west in English. Many businesses on the island use the name.

Great Britain took control of Florida in the late 1700’s and relocated the Spaniards and Indians to Havana. Florida passed back to the Spanish 20 years later but they did not formally resettle. The island was used by fishermen from Cuba and joined by fishermen from the United States.

The island was deeded to Juan Pablo Salis in 1815 but when Florida was transferred to the United States Salas was eager to sell the island. First he sold it for a sloop valued at $575 and then to a US businessman named Simonton for about $2,000. The sloop trader sold it to a man named Geddes who could not secure rights to the property because Simonton had help from influential friends in Washington and gained clear title. Simonton bought the island because he had learned of the opportunities presented by the strategic location. Simonton’s friend John Whitehead, once stranded on the islands by a shipwreck had seen the deep harbor.

Lying 90 in a strategic location on the deep shipping lane Straits of Florida the harbor was considered the “Gibraltar of the West”. Matthew Perry said into the harbor in 1822 and physically planted the US flag to claim it as US property. He reported on the piracy problems and renamed it “Thompson’s Island” and named the harbor “Port Rodgers”. Neither name stuck. In 1823 Commodore David Porter took charge and tried to rule the island as a military dictator under martial law.

Simonton soon subdivided the island into plots and sold 3 undivided quarters of each plot to private individuals. Simonton spent the winter in Key West and then the summer in Washington to lobby for development of the island and for the establishment of a naval base. Among other first founders are Pardon Green who moved there permanently and became a prominent businessman. John Whitehead lived there for 8 years and partnered with Greene in the firm of “P.C. Greene and Company”. He left the island for good in 1832 returning only once during the Civil War. John Fleeming, active in the mercantile business in Alabama was a friend of Simonton. He spent only a few months in Key West before leaving to marry in Massachusetts. He returned to Key West intending to develop the slat manufacturing of the island but died soon after. The names of these founding fathers of modern Key West used as names for the main arteries of the island.

Many residents of Key West emigrated from the Bahamas. They were known as Counch. They arrived in ever increasing numbers after 1830. Sons and daughters of Loyalists fled to the nearest British soil during the American Revelation. Many of residents of Key West refer to themselves as Conchs and the term is now generally applied to all residents of Key West. The term “Fresh Water Counch” refers to a resident not “native born” but who has lived there for more than seven years. The name is derived from the tradition of placing a conch shell on a pole at the home of a new born baby.

“Bahama Village” is an area of Old town next to the Truman Annex largely inhabited by Bahaman immigrants.

Fishing, salt production and ocean salvage were major industries in the early 19th century. The salvage operations made Key West the largest and richest city in Florida and residents had a high concentration of fine furniture and fancy chandeliers which the locals used in their homes after taking them from shipwrecks on the Florida reefs.

During the Civil War Fort Zachary Taylor was established in Key West after Florida seceded and joined the confederate States of America. It was an important outpost and now contains the largest collection of Civil War cannons ever discovered in a single location.

In 1912 Key West was connected to the Florida mainland via the Overseas Railway extension. The railway created a landfill at Trumbon Point for rail yards. In 1935 the Labor Day Hurricane destroyed much of the railroad and hilled hundreds. About 400 World War I veterans living in camps there working on federal road projects and mosquito control projects in the Middle Keys were also killed. It was too expensive to restore the railroad. In 1938 The Federal Government rebuilt the rail lines as an automobile highway. Completed in 1938 it became an extension of the US Highway 1. The portion of US 1 running though the Keys is called the Overseas Highway.

Numerous artists and writers have come to the Keys but the two most associated with the island are Ernest Hemmingway and Tennessee Williams. Hemmingway reportedly wrote 2 novels “A Farewell to Arms” and “To Have and Have Not” while living in the Keys. The Ernest Hemingway House and Sloppy Joes Bar have become important tourist’s attractions. The Hemingway House is currently inhabited by six or seven toed polydactyl cats descended form Hemingway’s original pert named “Snowball”. The cats live on the grounds and are cared for by the Hemingway House even though the USDA complains about the number of them housed there. The Key West City Commission exempted the house from a law prohibiting more than four domestic animals per household.

Tennessee Williams is said to have written the first draft of “A Streetcar Named Desire” while staying at the La Concha Hotel. He bought a permanent house and listed Key West as his permanent residence. Williams’ home in the “unfashionable” New Town neighborhood is quite the contrast to the elegant Hemingway house. It is a very modest bungalow. The house is privately owned and is not open to the public. The Tenn4essee Williams Theatre is located on the campus of Florida Keys Community College on Stock Island.

Key West is much closer to Havana than to Miami. In 1890 it had a population of nearly 18,800 which made it the richest and biggest city in Florida. The population was nearly half Cuban descent and the city had a succession of Cuban mayors. Cubans were reportedly active in nearly 200 factories in town producing cigars.

The Battleship Maine was blown up after sailing from Key West to Havana which ignited the Spanish American War.

Pan American Airlines was founded in Key West to fly visitors to Havana.

John Kennedy used the phrase “90 miles to Cuba” in his speeches against Fidel Castro.

There were regular ferry and airplane services between Key West and Havana until the revelation in 1959. Refugees flooded into Key West during the Mariel Boatlift and continue to come across the dangerous stretch of waters.

In 1982 Key West and the rest of the Keys tried to declare independence and become the “Conch Republic” in a protest over US Border Patrol blockades. The blockade was set up in response to the Mariel Boatlift. This blockade created a 17 mile traffic jam when the Border Patrol stopped every car to search for illegal immigrants. The Florida Keys were virtually paralyzed as tourism nearly ground to a halt. Couch Republic flags and T shirts are still popular souvenirs for visitors. The Counch Republic Independence Celebration is celebrated each April 23.

Key West was always an important military post. At the beginning of World War II the Navy built the first water line extending the length of the Keys to serve the Naval Air Station. The main facility on Boca Chica is where the navy trains pilots. There are 3400 civilians and 16oo active duty military personnel along with family members. The area next to the old For Taylor became a submarine pen and was used for the Fleet Sonar School.

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