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Guide to Key West, Part II

A Guide to KEY WEST; Monroe Co, FL
Contributor: Joy R. Fisher <sdgenweb AT>
Date Contributed: 18 Jun 2010
A Guide to KEY WEST
Compiled by workers of the
Writers' Program of the Work Projects Administration
in the State of Florida

Sponsored by the Florida State Planning Board

HOWARD O. HUNTER, Acting Commissioner
FLORENCE KERR, Assistant Commissioner
ROY SCHRODER, State Administrator
All rights are reserved, including the rights to reproduce this hook or parts thereof in any form
Copyright 1941 by the Florida State Planning Board


Part Two
  1. MUNICIPAL SPONGE DOCK (auction sales 9 a.m. Mon., Wed., Fri.), N. end of Grinnel St., in years past one of the busiest spots on the island, still remains a place of interest. The present dock was built with funds of the Civil Works Administration during the winter of 1933-34, but sponge fishing and trading has been going on for nearly a century in Key West. The trading reached its peak shortly before the turn of the century, and the auction today is still worth seeing. Sponge dealers come here from New York and other cities, and the revenue derived by Key West spongers once played an important part in the economic life of the community. At one time the yield had a value of more than $375,000 annually, but in 1940 the crop was worth little.
  In the spring of 1939 a sponge blight affected the beds of the Bahama Islands to such an extent that sponging in that area was stopped completely. The United States Bureau of Fisheries assigned Dr. Paul S. Galtsoff to study the nature of the blight in the Bahamas. Springing from east to west, the blight appeared in Key West waters. Experiments at first indicated that there were several causes for the blight, such as excessive rains, underground rivers of fresh water, "black water" draining from the Everglades, and a mysterious slime which was extremely prevalent in Key West waters at that time. Dr. Galtsoff was hurried to Key West. In a few months the blight had destroyed, Dr. Galtsoff found, 90 per cent of the wool sponges, 80 per cent of the yellow, and 70 per cent of the grass varieties. The investigation revealed that the blight was caused by a microscopic fungus organism. Various civic and governmental agencies sought to help the WPA establish a Rehabilitation Project, which would give employment to the spongers and at the same time survey the extent of the blight and to conduct experiments in artificial sponge propagation by means of cutting. The WPA plans did not mature and the United States Bureau of Fisheries then sought an appropriation for that purpose. This fund, however, was denied by Congress. A report by the Florida Department of Conservation in the Tarpon Springs area indicated that the blight had affected many sponges there: but whereas sponging had declined in Key West, Tarpon Springs sales remained unaffected. By 1940 experimental Key West sponging trips revealed that the blight had diminished considerably, and the Key West operations have improved steadily since that time. The catches are still small, however.
  The method of selling is unique. The auction is carried on in comparative silence, as the buyers are men of experience and require no advice as to the value of the various lots of sponges. The hour before the sale is spent by the buyers in examining the merchandise and making note of the highest price they will pay per bunch for each of the various lots. During the sale the auctioneer announces the number of bunches in the lot being offered and receives the offer of each bidder written on a small piece of folded paper. The highest bidder is awarded the sponges without argument, provided the owner considers the amount suflBcient. No more ceremony enters into a $6,000 sale than one of $5. The prices paid for any one variety of sponge may vary considerably according to quality and size.
  2. The TURTLE CRAWLS AND CANNERY (open weekdays; adm. 15c), N. end of Margaret St., consists of underwater pens where hundreds of giant sea turtles are kept alive until ready for canning, and  a long, single-story, wooden factory built beside the crawls. The inclosures are made of evenly spaced concrete pillars, extending from the ocean bottom to a point above high water level. The pillars do not impede the free flow of water, but prevent the turtles from escaping. The turtles are caught principally off the Central American coast and brought here at intervals by schooners manned by natives of Grand Cayman. Of the varieties captured by fishermen, the green sea turtle is considered the most desirable. From it come the famous Key West turtle steaks and the clear turtle soup manufactured by the cannery. The hawksbill, or tortoise, sea turtle is valuable for its shell, which serves in the manufacture of tortoise-shell spectacle frames, brooches, and combs. Other types, of no value as food, are the loggerheads and trunk-backs. The turtles range in weight from 50 to 500 pounds. Cannery employees butcher several turtles each afternoon about 3:30.
  3. The FISH MARKETS, N. end of Elizabeth St., line the water front. Here, tied to the docks, are "fish cars" containing live fish. The buyer selects his fish; it is taken out of the car with a dip net, killed and dressed immediately. Tied to the dock are the boats of the petty fishermen, and the fish are sold directly from the boat wells. The boats usually reach port at four in the afternoon.
  4. The AQUARIUM (open 7-6:80 daily; adults 15$, children 5$), N. end of Whitehead St., built with CWA and FERA funds, exhibits many varieties of marine life. Brilliantly colored tropical fish play in the tanks, the atmosphere of which is as nearly natural as possible. The sun-warmed water pulses through the tanks, and no artificial heat is needed. Mr. Robert O. Van Duesen, Director of Philadelphia's Fairmount Park Aquarium, on one of his visits to Key West, suggested the idea of the open-air exhibit.
  5. The UNITED STATES NAVAL STATION (not open), Greene and Whitehead Streets, is noted for the beauty of its tropical foliage. The radio station, established in 1908, still retains much of its importance as a link in the Navy's communication system, and the first sight which meets the eye of a tourist upon approaching Key West is its group of tall graceful towers. The machine shops, foundries, storehouses and other buildings are filled with great activity. The Key West station is playing an important part in the national defense program. The buildings are well-preserved and painted and the grounds are well-kept. Many naval officers during the past years have had trees and shrubs brought in from other naval stations at Panama, Guam, Honolulu and Manila, to add to the already numerous varieties native to the Florida Keys. Opposite the entrance gates of the Naval Station in a triangle is a monument erected to the officers and men of the Federal forces who lost their lives in the Civil War. A Romanesque building just outside the naval station gates houses the radio station. It was formerly the post office, customhouse and Federal courthouse.
  6. KEY WEST LIGHTHOUSE (open daily), Whitehead and Division Sts., a 100-foot conical stuccoed brick tower, with a lantern of 11,000 candle power, has a light visible for 15 miles. The first lighthouse, built in 1825 on Whitehead Street, where Fort Taylor now stands, was washed away in the 1846 storm. The present lighthouse was put into operation that year. Views of the city and environs are obtained from the railed balcony.
  7. The ERNEST HEMINGWAY HOUSE (private), SE. corner Olivia and Whitehead Sts., is a two-story white stucco residence with a flat roof and one of the few chimneys in Key West. Double porches have iron grillwork around three sides, and an outside staircase ascends to the second-story porch. A high wall encloses the beautifully landscaped premises. Built shortly after the War between the States it is one of the older houses in the city. Hemingway's novel To Have and Have Not (1937) has a Key West background, as have many of his short stories and articles on fishing.
  8. FORT TAYLOR (not open), entrance W. end of United St., is a Coast Guard base with artillery mounted. Construction, begun in 1845, and delayed by hurricanes, was partly completed the following year. Unfinished, it was occupied by Union forces at the beginning of the War between the States, and the finest armament of the period was mounted. Reduced from three tiers in 1899, it now has modern equipment, and each summer the 265th Coast Artillery, Florida National Guard, encamps here.
  9. The HARRIS HOUSE (private), S. end of Duval St., an ornate red brick structure with a tower, veranda, and second-story balcony, surrounded by landscaped grounds, is the southernmost home in the United States.
  10. The PUBLIC LIBRARY (open 3-6 daily), Duval between Division and Virginia Sts., is housed in a white frame building and maintained by the Key West Woman's Club.
  11. SAN CARLOS INSTITUTE, Duval St. between Fleming and Southard Sts., a two-story stucco structure, was erected by the Cuban Government in 1924 in honor of Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, Cuban patriot. The Palace Theater occupying the ground floor was formerly the Cuban Opera House. On the second floor, interesting for its majolica tiles, are the offices of the Cuban consul, and a grade school maintained by the Cuban Government as part of the Cuban school system.
  12. The WATLINGTON HOUSE (private), Duval St. between Eaton and Caroline Sts., is a weathered and shuttered story-and-a-half house with a porch across the front and three dormers, each of different size. Built in 1825, it is said to be the oldest house in Kev West= The wood used in its construction is cedar, probably from Cuba. It was built by Captain Cousins, who sold it to Francis Watlington, captain of the schooner Activa, which ran between Dry Tortugas, Key West, and Cuba. In about 1832 the house was moved on rollers from its original site on Whitehead Street to its present location, and anchored to stone and cement piers. Mrs. Watlington brought her furniture and accessories from the Bahamas, and most of them are still in the house, ownership of which remains in the family. There is an old red-brick oven in the backyard.
  13. The BAHAMA HOUSES {private), SW. corner Eaton and William Sts., stand side by side, the Bartlum residence on Eaton Street and the Roberts home on William Street. The first was built on Green Turtle Key, Bahama Islands, by Captain Joe Bartlum in the early part of the nineteenth century, and when the family moved to Key West, the house was taken apart, loaded aboard a schooner and rebuilt on its present site. The Roberts place was also brought from the Bahamas by Captain Dick Roberts, the owner.
  The Bahama houses are reputedly constructed of white pine. Unpretentious, they have a simple dignity and possess the provincial Georgian characteristic of comfort. Different from most Key West buildings are the low ceilings, but typical of the city are the delicate balustrades on the porches, the large shuttered openings, and the roof with twin gables.
  14. The KEY WEST CEMETERY, main entrance Margaret St., near Passover Lane, oldest of city's burial grounds, has one section devoted to soldiers and sailors who lost their lives on the U. S. S. Maine. Another section is devoted to Cuban patriots who lost their lives during the Spanish-American War.
  15. The WEST MARTELLO TOWER {not open), water front between Reynold and White Sts., is all that remains of a U. S. Army Coast Defense, one of two forts of this kind begun in 1861. This type of structure—usually a small circular fort with very thick walls—is built chiefly on seacoasts to prevent enemy landings. Authorities differ as to the origin of the name martello. Some say it is derived from the hammer (Italian, martello) used to strike an alarm. Another says the type derived its name from a Corsican who constructed one on the coast of his native land, which was used in resisting an invasion of the English in 1794. This type of fort was used as early as 1541.
  16. The EAST MARTELLO TOWER, S. Roosevelt Blvd., most imposing of Key West's old forts, is one of the finest examples of an old fortification in the country. It was built in 1861, and some of the Irish bricklayers who worked on the masonry settled in the town.
  17. RAUL'S CLUB, S. Roosevelt Blvd., is the source of a tall fish story. Ripley in "Believe it or not" and Lowell Thomas, radio news commentator, have told the story of the domesticated fish which come when called to the side of the pool in the rear of the club, and take food from the owner's hands. An interesting part of the demonstration is the "side scratching." Without other persuasion than the promise of a morsel, a snapper, grouper, or muttonnsh swims obediently to a submerged rock, stretches itself upon it, while the demonstrator strokes its side. The reward is a morsel of food which the demonstrator holds an inch or so above the fish's head. From its reclining position the fish flops into the air to snatch the food from the hand of the demonstrator.
  The club's ballroom has a series of murals by Avery Johnson depicting native dances of Africa, China, Cuba, and other nations.
  18. The U. S. ARMY BARRACKS (not open), Leon St. between White St, and Palm Ave., was established in the 1860's. A few years later the government constructed a road leading from the barracks to Fort Taylor. Within the spacious, walled reservation are fine specimens of cacti.
  19. REST BEACH, water front, E. of White St., with its palm-thatched cabanas and acres of glittering white sand, is a popular playground.
  20. The 7th DISTRICT LIGHTHOUSE HEADQUARTERS, adjoining the aquarium, contains an exhibit showing the evolution of the lighthouse service during the past century. Lighthouse models of the present and past are displayed. Three vessels, moored here, are kept in service to make near-by channels safe for shipping. The establishment of lighthouses, lighted buoys, stakes, and other aids to navigation brought to an end the city's lucrative occupations of salvaging wrecked ships and their cargoes.
  21. The PAN-AMERICAN AIR FIELD, N. of East Martello Tower, was the scene of the take off of the first international flight from the United States when a Pan-American plane departed for Havana. The field is now abandoned, and fliers land at their own risk.
  22. The ICE PLANT, near the turtle crawls, is one of the few in the country manufacturing ice from distilled sea water. The process is similar to that used on ships.
  23. The MARINE HOSPITAL, Emma St., established in 1844, is maintained by the Department of the Treasury's Public Health Service for treatment of ill and injured officers and men of the merchant marine service. Nationals of all countries are treated. When passing vessels wireless for assistance, coast guard cutters and sometimes planes, are sent out to bring in patients.
  24. The SUBMARINE BASE, rear of the Marine Hospital, with its sea wall and finger piers, was established during the World War, The wooden piers are beinsr replaced with those of steel and concrete. The basin is used during winter to accommodate visiting yachts. A landing barge moored to one of the piers is used by Pan American Airways for planes flying between Key West and Miami. In the grounds surrounding the basin is a grove of 300 mahogany trees planted by citizens.
  25. RADIO STATION, Roosevelt Blvd. and County Rd., originally owned and operated by the U. S. Navy, is now used as part of the intra-communication system of the lighthouse service of the Department of Commerce.
  26. BAYVIEW PARK, Roosevelt Blvd., and Leon St., is the city's principal recreational center. Baseball, diamond ball, and tennis are played on lighted grounds. Public meetings and band concerts are held here. Prominent is a monument to the New York Volunteers stationed here during the War between the States.
  27. The OLD ISLAND TRADING POST, N. end of Duval St., occupies the site of an Indian trading post. Auctions were held here in later days, for Key West was at the point of a triangle in the courses of coastwise ships. A curio shop and library is maintained in the building today.
  28. TRUMBO ISLAND, N. end of Caroline St., a tract of marl pumped in by Henry Flagler for a terminal of the Florida East Coast Railway, is also site of the docks of the Peninsular & Occidental Steamship Company. Before rail service was suspended in 1935, passengers stepped from train to steamer for the short voyage to Havana. Ferries carried 28 loaded freight cars to Cuban ports during this period.
  29. A TRAVELER'S PALM stands near the corner of Whitehead and Virginia Sts. The large fronds of this species almost invariably point north and south, and in desert countries travelers often tap the trunk to obtain cool water.
  30. The CONVENT OF THE MARY IMMACULATE, Division St. between Simonton and Margaret Sts., was built in 1878 by the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, a Canadian organization that had established a school in Key West 10 years before. The building was enlarged in 1904. Many of the Sisters perished while on duty as nurses during the yellow fever epidemic of 1898. Throughout the Spanish-American War the Convent, school buildings, and personal services of the Sisters as nurses were placed at the disposal of the U. S. Navy.
  31. KEY WEST COMMUNITY WPA ART CENTER (open 9-4 weekdays), NE. corner Whitehead and Front Sts., occupies a two-story, white frame building. The center holds classes for art students whose work, and that of others, is exhibited in the gallery on the second floor. Lectures by prominent artists visiting the city are given during the winter.
  KEY WEST BOTANICAL GARDEN, Stock Island, adjoining Key West on the east, established as part of the Key West rehabilitation program, is planted with thousands of exotic trees and shrubs furnished by the U. S. Plant Introduction Station. A narrow blazed trail winds through an original hammock growth where trees and plants indigenous to the keys have not been disturbed.
  FORT JEFFERSON NATIONAL MONUMENT, on Dry Tortugas, 65 miles west of Key West, can be visited by chartered or private vessels and planes. Dry Tortugas is the name given to a group of seven keys or small islands, the principal ones being Loggerhead, Bush, and Garden Keys, each with its points of interest. Tidal action constantly changes their contour; some islands are disappearing, and new ones forming.
  The islands were visited in 1513 by Ponce de Leon whose men captured 160 tortoises in one night. He named the islands Tortugas, the Spanish word for tortoises.
  The Fort Jefferson National Monument comprises all the islands and is under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service, Department of the Interior. A custodian is in immediate charge and visitors should register in the Monument Visitors' Book on arrival. There is excellent anchorage and docking space for yachts.
  DRY TORTUGAS LIGHTHOUSE was originally built in 1825 on Garden Key, and reduced to a harbor light in 1858, when the present 150-foot lighthouse on Loggerhead Key was erected. Its 1,500,000 candlepower light flashes white every 20 seconds.
  THE ROOKERIES, on Bush Key, were visited in 1832 by John James Audubon, the ornithologist, who described the bird life on Bird Key. Due to tidal action the island has been submerged and the terns have transferred their breeding grounds to Bush Key. Thousands of terns, chiefly noddies, sooties, and least terns lay their eggs here from April to October. Formerly, the Dry Tortugas rookeries were pillaged by eggers from Cuba and Florida, who took away bushels of eggs for marketing. This destruction has been discontinued since the proclamation of the Tortugas as a National Monument. Visitors interested in birdlore are permitted to visit Bush Key and take photographs under the supervision of the Custodian.
  FORT JEFFERSON, on Garden Key was reserved by the United States for military purposes on December 17, 1845. Preliminary steps toward the construction of the fort were taken in 1846. Lieutenant Horatio G. Wright, U. S. C. E., was assigned the task of constructing the mammoth six-sixed, three-tiered, casemated fortress. Many difficulties were encountered in building—settlement, hardships in living conditions due to bad food, loss of cargo in ships wrecked on their way to the site. Until 1863 much slave labor was used, slaves from Key West and St. Augustine being hired out by their owners. Periodically hurricanes destroyed thousands of dollars worth of property, and fever broke out among the workers every few years.
  By the beginning of the War between the States the curtains and casemates of the fort were carried to the height of the second floor arches; by the end of the war the fort was almost as it stands today.
  In 1861 the fort was garrisoned under the command of Major L. G. Arnold, USA, who four days after arrival mounted six eight-inch columbiads and six field pieces. Now obsolete, the columbiad was a muzzle-loading, heavy, long-chambered gun, used for shooting at angles of high elevation. More guns were added later, and a supplementary battery mounted on Bird Key. Arnold's activities are said to be responsible for keeping the fort in the hands of Union forces, A Confederate vessel arrived in the harbor and the captain sent a messenger to the fort to demand its surrender to the State of Florida. The guns were not mounted, yet Major Arnold's reply was, "Tell your captain I will blow his ship out of the water if he is not gone away from here in ten minutes." The bluff worked and the ship sailed away.
  The major role played by the fort was that of a prison. The most famous prisoner incarcerated here was Dr. Samuel A. Mudd, a Maryland physician who gave medical attention to Booth, President Lincoln's slayer, unaware of the identity of his patient. Dr. Mudd, together with several others tried by military commission for conspiracy in the assassination plot, was sentenced to life imprisonment at hard labor. He was brought to Fort Jefferson, and confined here, sometimes in irons, for four years. He suffered many hardships at the hands of his jailors, had to do the most menial work, and once made a fruitless attempt to escape to a place where the writ of habeas corpus might be active. Prisoners sometimes escaped from the fort, despite the report that the moat swarmed with man-eating sharks.
  An epidemic of yellow fever ravaged the fort in 1867, and claimed many victims, among them the post surgeon, Brevet Major Joseph Sim Smith. Dr. Mudd offered his services as physician and his offer was accepted by the commanding officer. Dr. Mudd's services were praised by the garrison, and a petition was made for his release. Major Valentine Stone, the commanding officer, promised to see that the petition reached the proper officials in Washington, but contracted the disease en route to Key West and died. Dr. Mudd's letters, published in The Life of Dr. Samuel A. Mudd, by his daughter Nettie Mudd, give harrowing accounts of the terror-stricken population of the fort and the hasty burials of victims of the disease* After the epidemic Dr= Mudd was again placed in confinement until March 11, 1869, when he was released and pardoned by President Johnson. Dr. Mudd died at his Maryland home in 1883.
  In 1873, another epidemic as well as a hurricane swept the fort, which was abandoned for thorough disinfection and the garrison removed. Only a caretaker and lighthouse keepers remained.
  When war with Spain seemed imminent in 1898, the Navy Department took over the fort. It was from Dry Tortugas that the ill-fated U.S.S. Maine sailed to Havana on her last voyage. The Navy abandoned the fort in 1906, and since then hurricanes and fire have wrecked some of the buildings. A salvaging company partly demolished the coal rigs in 1934, and later the same year a group of World War Veterans was sent to clean up and partially rehabilitate the fort.
  On January 4, 1935, the Dry Tortugas Islands were proclaimed "The Fort Jefferson National Monument" by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
  The only entrance to the fort is by the sally-port on the southeast side. On the right and left are narrow slits in the wall that ventilated the guard room cells. The southeast side of the fort has been wired and electric lights made available for inspection of the magazines, sometimes used as confinement cells. In the bastion towers are magazine chambers. The remains of some of the gun carriages are seen on the first tier. Each of the casemates was designed for a gun. Of interest are the perfectly aligned rows of arches separating the casemates, and the great thickness of the walls. Underneath the casemates are cisterns for the storage of rain water conducted from the terreplein or roof of the fort. Each of the six bastions contains a circular granite stairway leading to the terreplein. The structures on the top of the fort are magazines from which the terreplein guns were to be supplied with ammunition. Some of the 15-inch smooth bore and 10-inch rifled guns are still in place.
  Directly opposite the sally-port across the parade ground are the officers' quarters, wrecked by hurricane and fire. Right of the sally-port are the ruins of the soldiers' barracks. Two uncompleted magazines are seen, their enormous arches intended to carry a bomb proof roof. There is a hot-shot furnace, used for heating shot in the hope of its setting fire to wooden ships. On the parade ground is a monument erected to the memory of Brevet Major Joseph Sim Smith and his small son. Dr. Smith, post surgeon, died during the epidemic in 1867. Along the walls inside the fort are trenches, part of the sewerage system, designed to be flooded by the tide twice a day. Outside the fort are the gaunt ruins of two coaling stations erected by the Navy Department, their structural steel twisted and bent by hurricane shortly after erection.