At the Edge

They’re small, they’re remote and many folks aren’t even aware they’re part of Florida.

They’re the Dry Tortugas, a group of islands located about 65 miles west of Key West, making them the last of the Keys as you follow them from the tip of the Florida peninsula. Juan Ponce de Leon encountered these islands during his 1513 voyage to Florida, making him the first European to make a record of them. He called them Tortugas, the Spanish word for “turtles,” because he and his crew saw plenty of them when they approached. The term “dry” was applied later by sailors because the islands had no springs or other sources of fresh water.

Gardner Key as seen from Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas (1986).

Bush Key as seen from Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas (1986).

In the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, the Dry Tortugas were an important landmark for ships carrying silver from Spain’s colonial possessions in North America back to Europe, because they marked the entrance to the Florida Straits. Catching a boost from the powerful Gulf Stream, these ships would typically sail across the Gulf of Mexico, through the Florida Straits, up the Bahama Channel and into the Atlantic Ocean. This was a fast-lane route that sped up the voyage, but it was also dangerous. Pirates frequently harassed ships that passed through the Florida Straits, and violent storms could easily cause a ship to run aground on hidden reefs and shoals.

Excerpt of a map from around 1680 showing the Dry Tortugas at the western entrance to the Straits of Florida. Click on the image to view a zoomable version of the complete map.

Excerpt of a map from around 1680 showing the Dry Tortugas at the western entrance to the Straits of Florida. Click or tap the image to view a zoomable version of the complete map.

The Dry Tortugas got their first real survey during the brief period when Florida was a British colony (1763-1783). Surveyor George Gauld painstakingly measured the shape and area of the islands and the depth of the water at various points around them. His 1773 nautical chart, A Plan of the Tortugas and Part of the Florida Kays, became the standard guide for navigating in that neighborhood for more than half a century.

Even with Gauld’s maps, the waters around the Tortugas were still a difficult place for sailing by the time the United States acquired Florida in 1821. Pirates still looted passing ships that weren’t adequately armed, and wreckers descended upon shipwrecked boats to carry their cargo off to the British Bahamas to be sold. There were laws regulating this practice, but enforcing those laws was next to impossible in this remote, undeveloped section of the Florida territory. In 1822, the United States government purchased Key West to establish a military and civil government presence in the area. The U.S. Navy began patrolling the Florida Keys to combat piracy and unlawful wrecking, and by 1828 there was a federal court in operation at Key West.

Illustration from Harper's New Monthly Magazine depicting survivors of a shipwreck aboard a raft (1859).

Illustration from Harper’s New Monthly Magazine depicting survivors of a shipwreck aboard a raft off the Dry Tortugas (1859).

Several lighthouses were also established by 1826 to help mariners keep their bearings and avoid wrecking, including one on Garden Key in the Tortugas. This first lighthouse was a 65-foot brick tower with a fixed light. Shippers complained almost immediately that it was poorly located and too small to see. In 1856, Congress appropriated $35,000 to build a new lighthouse, but this time it would be taller–150 feet–and it would be located on Loggerhead Key where ships approaching from the west would be able to see it sooner and better. It would also have a first-order Fresnel lens, manufactured by L. Sautter and Company in Paris, France, a big improvement over the old light. The new lighthouse went into operation on July 1, 1858.

Excerpt of a nautical chart by the U.S. Coastal Survey showing the Dry Tortugas, including the original lighthouse on Garden Key (1851). Click or tap the image to view a zoomable version of the complete chart.

Excerpt of a nautical chart by the U.S. Coastal Survey showing the Dry Tortugas, including the original lighthouse on Garden Key (1851). Click or tap the image to view a zoomable version of the complete chart.

Another federal project got underway in the Dry Tortugas in 1846–a new fort from which to monitor shipping and commerce in the Gulf of Mexico and prevent potential enemies from seizing the Florida Keys in the event of a war. This would eventually be called Fort Jefferson, named in honor of President Thomas Jefferson. The fort, which still stands, is hexagonal in shape with outer walls 10 feet thick at the base, tapering to 8 feet at the top. The bricks were sourced from northern Florida; the granite blocks came from Maine.

Fort Jefferson was only half completed in 1861 when the American Civil War broke out, but Union troops rushed to occupy it anyway. Portions of the Florida Keys (including Key West) remained Union territory throughout the war, and the U.S. Army even raised a cavalry unit that included Floridians from the area.

Aerial view of Fort Jefferson (1984).

Aerial view of Fort Jefferson on Garden Key (1984).

Far removed as it was, Fort Jefferson didn’t see much military action during the Civil War, although it did serve as a prison both during and after the conflict. Prisoners of war and Union soldiers serving sentences for desertion and misconduct made up most of the prison population. Perhaps the most famous prisoners ever to occupy the fort were four of the individuals found guilty of conspiring to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln in 1865. One of the four, Dr. Samuel Alexander Mudd, was the physician who splinted John Wilkes Booth’s leg after he broke it jumping from the theater box where he had shot the president. While at Fort Jefferson, Dr. Mudd put his medical skills to work in the post hospital, although he lost that job for a time after he attempted to escape by stowing away on a departing ship, the Thomas A. Scott. When yellow fever broke out at the fort in 1867 and the prison doctor died, Mudd again filled in at the hospital. Some 300 soldiers at the fort, crediting Mudd as a lifesaver, petitioned President Andrew Johnson to pardon him. Johnson ended up pardoning all of the imprisoned conspirators except one, Michael O’Laughlen, who had died during the yellow fever outbreak.

Portrait of Dr. Samuel Alexander Mudd (1860).

Portrait of Dr. Samuel Alexander Mudd (1860).

Yellow fever, hurricanes and the obsolescence of Fort Jefferson’s walls led the Army to abandon the Dry Tortugas in 1874, although the Navy continued to store coal there for its ships to use. In fact, the Dry Tortugas were the last stop for the U.S.S. Maine before its fateful trip to Havana Harbor in 1898. The ship exploded and sank on February 15 of that year, killing most of the people aboard. American newspapers played up the idea that Spain had had something to do with the incident, which helped precipitate the Spanish-American War.

Wreckage from the U.S.S. Maine after it exploded and sank in Havana Harbor on February 15, 1898.

Wreckage from the U.S.S. Maine after it exploded and sank in Havana Harbor on February 15, 1898.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared Fort Jefferson a national monument in 1935, and Congress expanded the designation to include all of the Dry Tortugas in 1992. Despite its remote location, the park is open to the public and receives thousands of visitors annually. Visit the Dry Tortugas National Park website to learn more about how to reach this fascinating group of islands at the edge of Florida.

View of the Fort Jefferson lighthouse and Bush Key (1980s).

View of the Fort Jefferson lighthouse and Bush Key (1980s).

What’s a Bahia Honda?

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):

Excerpt of the Florida Department of Transportation's official 2014 Florida Highway Map showing the Florida Keys, highlighting the four unique place names we discuss in this post. Click the map to enlarge it.

Excerpt of the Florida Department of Transportation’s official 2014 Florida Highway Map showing the Florida Keys, highlighting the four unique place names we discuss in this post. Click the map to enlarge it.

Plantation Key

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!

Two men wearing leis made from sponges - Plantation Key (circa 1910).

Two men wearing leis made from sponges – Plantation Key (circa 1910).

Bahia Honda

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.

Excerpt of a 1763 British map of Florida showing the Florida Keys, including Bahia Honda. Map Collection, State Library of Florida. Click the map to enlarge it.

Excerpt of a 1763 British map of Florida showing the Florida Keys, including Bahia Honda. Map Collection, State Library of Florida. Click the map to enlarge it.

Original Bahia Honda Bridge under construction (circa 1908).

Original Bahia Honda Bridge under construction (circa 1908).

Ramrod 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.

Ramrod Key Post Office (ca. 1950).

Ramrod Key Post Office (ca. 1950).

Lake Surprise

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.

Florida East Coast Railway engine #10 crossing Lake Surprise on a barge. The engine was used by railroad work crews during construction to transport workers, supplies, and building materials (1906).

Florida East Coast Railway engine #10 crossing Lake Surprise on a barge. The engine was used by railroad work crews during construction to transport workers, supplies, and building materials (1906).

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!

Sand Key Lighthouse

Lighthouses in the Florida Keys have a tough task to manage. The area is not only strewn with coral reefs and shoals, but is also a favorite highway for destructive hurricanes and other storms. The lighthouse at Sand Key, the southernmost lighthouse in the United States, has been in operation since 1827, and has borne witness to much of this action over the years.

Aerial view of Sand Key (1968).

Aerial view of Sand Key (1968).

Sand Key is little more than a wisp of sand peeking out above the waves in the Florida Straits. It is located about six nautical miles southwest of Key West, with an excellent view of major shipping lanes through the vicinity. Congress originally passed up Sand Key for a lighthouse station when it began appropriating money for new lights in the region. Acts in 1822 and 1824 funded lighthouses at Cape Florida, Carysford Reef, the Dry Tortugas, and one of the Sambo Keys, but nothing for Sand Key.

Naval authorities still favored a light here, and Congress finally appropriated $16,000 in 1826 for a brick lighthouse and buildings for a resident light keeper and supplies. The light was completed and lit the following year, with John and Rebecca Flaherty as the keepers.

Map of the Florida Keys, from a report by Louis Agassiz (1880).

Map of the Florida Keys, from a report by Louis Agassiz. Sand Key is shown just southwest of Key West at the bottom-left (1880).

The Flaherty family kept the Sand Key Lighthouse into the mid-1830s. John died in 1830, but Rebecca continued as the lighthouse keeper until she remarried and eventually moved back north.

Hurricanes did extensive damage to the island and the lighthouse in the 1830s and 1840s. In October 1846, one storm completely demolished the lighthouse and swept away much of the island itself. Six people, including two children, perished in the tempest.

Congress appropriated money in 1847 for a replacement lighthouse. Meanwhile, the 140-ton ship Honey was employed as a “lightship,” a floating beacon anchored near where the lighthouse would normally have been.

A steamer delivers newspapers to the crew aboard a lightship in the Gulf of Mexico. Notice the two lamps attached to the masts (1867).

A steamer delivers newspapers to the crew aboard a lightship in the Gulf of Mexico. Notice the two lamps attached to the masts (1867).

The new lighthouse was completed in 1853, and featured Florida’s first Fresnel lens. The lens had been displayed at the Crystal Palace Exhibition in New York before it was shipped to Florida for installation. It was lit for the first time on July 20, 1853.

The new Sand Key lighthouse was much stronger than the traditional conical brick building it replaced. The shaft of the lighthouse was a cast-iron pile, supported by a frame of iron beams. Over 450 tons of iron went into its construction.

The post-1853 Sand Key Lighthouse (photo circa 1920s).

The post-1853 Sand Key Lighthouse (photo circa 1920s).

A series of hurricanes in the ensuing decades made every attempt to undo this new feat of engineering. In October 1865, a storm destroyed every building on the island except the lighthouse itself. In October 1870, a pair of hurricanes delivered enough damage to require $20,000 worth of repairs. Additional hurricanes struck the island directly in 1874, 1875, 1909, and 1910.

Sand Key’s exposure to the elements certainly made its keepers cautious, but there were also positive elements to life on the island. Key West was only a day’s sail away, and residents often came over to Sand Key to have picnics. Fishermen also stopped off to visit  and sell their wares.

Men having a picnic at Sand Key Lighthouse (1899).

Men having a picnic at Sand Key Lighthouse (1899).

Although the island was small and offered little shelter from the wind and rain, terns frequently chose Sand Key to lay their eggs. The lighthouse keepers and Key West residents considered these a tasty treat, and collected them often. Plume hunters also came to Sand Key to hunt egrets and herons for their feathers, which were in high demand as decorations for ladies’ hats. The American Orinthological Union attempted to stop these practices by hiring “bird wardens” to watch over the animals. Eventually, the birds took matters into their own hands and stopped visiting Sand Key altogether.

Sooty terns nesting on Bush Key in the Tortugas (1939).

Sooty terns nesting on Bush Key in the Tortugas (1939).

The Coast Guard acquired the lighthouse at Sand Key in 1939, and automated its lamp in 1941 using an acetylene gas system. A live-in keeper was no longer required. Instead, Coast Guard personnel traveled to the island a few times a year to refill the fuel tanks.

With no one keeping watch over the island, the lighthouse suffered a great deal of vandalism over the years. Parts of the old keeper’s quarters fell into disrepair. A major renovation effort in 1989 restored much of the old lighthouse’s former lustre, but in November of that year the project was almost fatally derailed when a fire damaged the structure. Nearly a decade was spent restoring the lighthouse, but it resumed service on August 11, 1999.

Sand Key Lighthouse during its period of inactivity (1993).

Sand Key Lighthouse during its period of inactivity (1993).

For more photos of Florida’s historic lighthouses, search the Florida Photographic Collection.

What lighthouses have you visited in Florida? Tell us about your experiences by leaving a comment below or sharing on Facebook!

 

Funny Business on Pigeon Key

As you drive along the Seven Mile Bridge on U.S. 1 heading south toward Key West, you’ll notice a small island off to the right around Mile Marker 45. The old Overseas Highway, parts of which are still in use for one purpose or another, runs right down to it. Like much of the scenery in that part of Florida, the place looks like it belongs on a postcard. And, well, it is on a number of postcards. None of them, however, mention the shadier episodes in the island’s past.

Postcard depicting Pigeon Key, with the original Overseas Highway running across it. The postmark on the reverse side of the card was from 1940.

Postcard depicting Pigeon Key, with the original Overseas Highway running across it. The postmark on the reverse side of the card was from 1940.

Pigeon Key was a critical center of activity during the construction of Henry Flagler’s Oversea Railroad linking Key West with the Florida mainland. The island served as a camp for hundreds of workers, and was converted to a maintenance base once the railway was completed in 1912.

Construction workers' camp belonging to the Florida East Coast Railway on Pigeon Key (circa 1910).

Construction workers’ camp belonging to the Florida East Coast Railway on Pigeon Key (circa 1910).

The railway was a boon to the Florida Keys, of course, but not long after the road was completed, automobile enthusiasts began clamoring for the freedom to make their own way to Key West in their new machines. In 1933, the State Legislature created the Overseas Road and Toll Bridge District and authorized it to construct a toll road connecting Lower Matecumbe Key and Big Pine Key. This would complete the automobile route from Key West to the Florida mainland. The new commission studied several possibilities for building the route, but the option they selected came about completely by accident.

On September 2, 1935, the infamous Category 5 Labor Day Hurricane struck the Florida Keys, causing widespread destruction. Portions of the Florida East Coast Railway were destroyed, and the railway company ended up choosing to abandon its tracks across the Florida Keys rather than rebuild. The Overseas Road and Toll Bridge District saw an opportunity. Using a $3.6 million loan from the Public Works Administration, the commission purchased the tracks between Big Pine and Lower Matecumbe keys and refitted them with concrete decking and side rails. The newly completed highway opened on July 4, 1938.

Converting the Florida East Coast Railway to the Overseas Highway between Big Pine Key and Lower Matecumbe Key. Note that a few crossties are still visible in the image here (1937).

Converting the Florida East Coast Railway to the Overseas Highway between Big Pine Key and Lower Matecumbe Key. Note that a few crossties are still visible in the image here (1937).

Converting the tracks of the Florida East Coast Railway into a new bridge for automobiles in the Florida Keys (circa 1937).

Converting the tracks of the Florida East Coast Railway into a new bridge for automobiles in the Florida Keys (circa 1937).

Once the road was built, the idea was that the Overseas Road and Toll Bridge District would repay the federal loan using tolls collected for travelers using the new bridges. That’s where Pigeon Key comes in. The District established a headquarters building and maintenance base on the small island, with a small access road connecting it with the highway. Much of the business relating to maintenance, toll collection, and other matters was handled here.

Aerial view of Pigeon Key (1954).

Aerial view of Pigeon Key (1954).

As you might imagine, a gig working for the toll district in this island paradise was a nice assignment. Over time, however, some began to suspect it was a little too nice. In March 1954, the Miami Daily News began publishing a series of stories outlining activities at Pigeon Key that were raising a few eyebrows. The general manager of the toll authority, for example, was in the process of building a new real estate development north of Marathon, including a two-story home with a yacht basin for himself. This seemed awfully opulent for a man making $550 a month. The general manager refused the Miami Daily News reporters access to the District’s files at Pigeon Key, so they conducted research in the public financial records archived at Tallahassee.

What they found suggested something was deeply wrong about how the District’s funds were being spent. Expenses for the island headquarters included rabbit, squab, steaks selling at $1.77 a pound (in 1954, remember), bar supplies, and a variety of other expensive food items. The general manager also had at his disposal a cabin cruiser, a state-paid housekeeper and maid, and a $60,000 swimming pool. There was also evidence that state-owned property was being sold to persons connected with members of the District, and that District officials had tampered with the legal bidding process for contracts. Auditors later determined there were contracts let for work that was never completed, or for which the state was overcharged. Thousands of dollars’ worth of building supplies were unaccounted for. On the recommendation of the State Road Board chairman, Cecil Webb, Acting Governor Charley Johns launched an investigation, and charges were brought against several of the persons connected with the corruption at Pigeon Key. Johns liquidated the Overseas Road and Toll Bridge District later in 1954, and all of its assets were transferred to the State Road Board.

The story has a happy ending, fortunately. In 1964, the University of Miami Marine Laboratory leased the island from the state and began using it as a base for scientific investigations. Today, the island is operated as a historical site and marine science learning center by the Pigeon Key Foundation, a non-profit organization. The Overseas Highway has long since been rebuilt, and now passes south of the island rather than directly over it. The old span, however, still connects the island to the new Seven Mile Bridge and U.S. 1. The old bridge is only open to foot traffic, however. Most visitors reach the island by ferry.

Postcard depicting Pigeon Key, with both the old and new Overseas Highway spans visible. The bridge at right is the currently used span, while the one at left connects Pigeon Key with the main highway (circa 1990s).

Postcard depicting Pigeon Key, with both the old and new Overseas Highway spans visible. The bridge at right is the currently used span, while the one at left connects Pigeon Key with the main highway (circa 1990s).

For more photos of the Florida Keys, search the Florida Photographic Collection!

Shipwreck of the Atocha

It was June 13, 1971. Don Kincaid, who had been diving off the coast of the Florida Keys, made his way to the surface with a handful of something shiny, coiled up like a small snake. He climbed aboard the work boat Virgalona with the aid of a ladder, and excitedly spread his find out for his colleagues to see.
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