History of the Florida Keys and Flagler Railroad


Florida Keys Characterized by Diverse and Colorful Early History


Not long after Christopher Columbus landed in the New World in 1492, adventurer Ponce de Leon and fellow Spanish chronicler Antonio de Herrera were searching for the elusive fountain of youth when they sighted the Florida Keys. The day was Sunday, May 15, 1513.

Herrera described the Keys for posterity: “To all this line of islands and rock islets they gave the name of Los Martires (The Martyrs) because, seen from a distance, the rocks as they rose to view appeared like men who were suffering; and the name remained fitting because of the many that have been lost there since.”

There is no record of anyone on the ship coming ashore, but later, other visitors did. Pirates came and went, chased by a fledgling U.S. Navy Anti-Pirate Squadron established in the 1820s. Settlers followed, while the native American population, the Calusa and mainland tribes, dwindled.

Those early settlers farmed parts of the Keys. In the Upper Keys, pineapple plantations flourished during the late 1800s and early 1900s, and a large pineapple factory in Key West furnished canned pineapple to most of eastern North America. Later, productive groves of Key limes were common.

Photo courtesy of Jerry Wilkinson, Florida Keys historian

In the early 1920s, a thriving shark factory was established on Big Pine Key. It hired workers to catch sharks and ship their hides north to be processed into a tough leather.

Nonfarming settlers in Key West and Islamorada became wreckers, salvaging goods from ships that grounded on the nearby reefs — becoming much like an early Coast Guard through their frequent rescues of crew and passengers. Legislation passed in 1828 by the U.S. Congress requiring salvage from wrecks in U.S. waters to be brought to an American port of entry was a boon to the region’s wrecking industry. Key West became the wealthiest city per capita in the infant United States from the bounty of wrecking.

Land-based industries continued to flourish in the Keys. From the mid-19th century, harvesting high-quality sponges from local waters was a lucrative industry for the region. During the same period, cigar makers from Cuba established factories in Key West. In the late 1800s, the island city was home to nearly 150 cigar factories whose workers produced 100 million hand-rolled cigars annually.

In 1912, railroad tycoon Henry Flagler completed his “railroad that went to sea,” connecting the Keys and Key West with the mainland for the first time and providing a way for wealthy visitors to travel to the region for warm-weather vacations.

A train on site after the 1935 hurricane

In time the island chain’s industries died out, and the railroad’s heyday abruptly ended when a portion of the line was destroyed in a 1935 hurricane. The Keys faced a bleak future during the Depression years, and the city of Key West declared bankruptcy.

Yet local and federal officials decided the Keys still had something to offer — sea, sun and a pleasant year-round climate that would surely attract visitors. After the railroad’s demise, a highway to take its place was conceived, and the famed Florida Keys Overseas Highway opened in 1938.

Only three years later came the beginning of World War II, dashing prospects of tourist gold.

The U.S. Navy came to the rescue when it expanded its Key West base and enlarged the submarine base. Shrimp were discovered — the Keys’ now-vital “pink gold” — and, following the war, visitors finally began to arrive in earnest.

Today, the region welcomes more than 3 million visitors each year. Many, unlike that early voyager Ponce de Leon and his historian shipmate, seem to have discovered their own fountain of youth — and fun — in the Florida Keys.