The Florida Keys stretch for some 200 miles from Biscayne Bay near Miami to the Dry Tortugas. About 1,700 individual islands make up the archipelago. Looking on the bright side, that’s a lot of breathtaking Florida scenery to explore. On the other hand, that’s also an awful lot of islands to have to name and chart on a map!
Tough as it may have been to give each of the Florida Keys a unique and memorable name (and indeed there are still a few without names), explorers and locals have generally been up to the challenge over the years. Moreover, many of the names contain a little gem of history about the islands they’re identifying. Today’s blog explores a few of the more unusual place names in the Florida Keys, along with the history they represent.
First off, here’s a map showing the places we plan to discuss (click the map to enlarge it):
The Florida Keys might not seem much like the place to have a plantation, but that’s exactly how this island got its name. Plantation Key is located between Tavernier and Islamorada. Spanish charts generally do not give it a name, but by the 18th century it appeared on some maps as Long Island. The “Plantation” appellation likely stems from its use for coconut and pineapple production in the late 19th century by Captain Benjamin Baker. Baker was widely known as “King of the Wreckers,” engaged as he was in the business of salvaging the cargoes of ships that had foundered on the Florida Straits. An 1871 account in Harper’s Monthly Magazine claimed Baker had realized a profit of seven thousand dollars from a single year’s crop of pineapples. Not a bad haul for a second job!
No, this place name has nothing to do with foreign automobiles. Bahia Honda (pronounced Bah-EE-ah OWN-dah in Spanish) is a key located just southwest of the Seven Mile Bridge and northeast of Big Pine Key. The name, which means “deep bay” in Spanish, has appeared on maps and nautical charts at least as far back as the late 16th century. When Henry Flagler began building his Over-the-Sea Railroad through the Keys in the 1900s, Bahia Honda became home to two large dormitory-style buildings for the crews building the Bahia Honda Bridge connecting the island with West Summerland Key.
Ramrod Key is located about 25 miles northeast of Key West between Summerland and Big Pine keys. Despite the name, the island is shaped nothing like a ramrod. Evidence pointing to the origin of this unusual name is a bit hazy, but local experts generally agree the name hails from a British ship called Ramrod that wrecked nearby in the early 19th century. The name was well enough known by the 1850s that it began appearing on government surveys. A post office operated at Ramrod Key from 1917 to 1951, whereupon mail service was transferred to neighboring Summerland Key.
Lake Surprise is one of the first bodies of water crossed by the Overseas Highway after it leaves the Florida Mainland. As strange as it might seem, this is indeed a true lake contained entirely within Key Largo, and its discovery was truly a surprise, and not a pleasant one. The lake was unexpectedly encountered by the construction crews building Henry Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway across Key Largo. The water had not appeared on preliminary surveys of the island, and it presented one of the earliest major obstacles for the project. When the crews attempted to fill in a causeway for the railroad rather than build a bridge, the fill material simply disappeared. Lake Surprise was eventually conquered, but only after 15 months of fill work.
These are, of course, only a sample of the many unusual names found throughout the Florida Keys, but hopefully it will inspire you to pull out a map and explore further. Who knows? You may get some ideas for a future Florida vacation!