The Southernmost Point in Key West
Located 150 miles south of Miami, Key West is the last of the inhabited Florida Keys and the southernmost point in the continental United States. It is literally "the end of the road".
Key West is a small island, only 2 miles by 4 miles, where the waters of the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean meet. The world's third largest Coral Reef is just seven miles offshore.
Throughout history Key West has had many "faces". Due to the lucrative ship wrecking "industry" Key West was once the richest city in Florida. There are many historic homes which still today have a "widow's walk"on the roof. This was a great lookout for ship's which had wrecked on the coral reef. The first "rescue" ship to reach the wreck became the lucky possesor of the wrecked ships cargo.
As many Cubans fled their homeland, they came to Key West and practiced their cigar making trade. There are still many places in the historic district where you can watch cigars being made and, of course, purchase them.
Today, of course, Key West is a popular tourist destination. Whether you enjoy water activities such as fishing, scuba diving or sailing or just want to relax in the sunshine and stroll the historic district - Key West has it all.
In Pre-Columbian times Key West was inhabited by the Calusa people. The first European to visit was Juan Ponce de León in 1521. As Florida became a Spanish colony, a fishing and salvage village with a small garrison was established here.
Cayo Hueso is the original Spanish name for the island of Key West. It literally means bone key. It's said that the island was littered with the remains (bones) from an Indian battlefield or burial ground. The most widely accepted theory of how the name changed to Key West is that it is a false friend anglicisation of the word, being that the word hueso (pronounced way-so) sounds like it could mean west in English. Other theories of how the island was named are that the name indicated that it was the westernmost Key, or that the island was the westernmost key with a reliable supply of water.
Many businesses on the island use the name, such as Casa Cayo Hueso, Cayo Hueso Resorts, Cayo Hueso Consultants, Cayo Hueso y Habana Historeum, etc.
In 1763 when Great Britain took control of Florida, the community of Spaniards and Native Americans were moved to Havana. Florida returned to Spanish control 20 years later, but there was no official resettlement of the island. Informally the island was used by fishermen from Cuba and from the British Bahamas, who were later joined by others from the United States after the latter nation's independence. While claimed by Spain, no nation exercised de facto control over the community there for some time.
Many of the residents of Key West were immigrants from the Bahamas, known as Conchs who arrived in increasing numbers after 1830. Many were sons and daughters of Loyalists who fled to the nearest crown soil during the American Revolution. In the 20th Century many residents of Key West started referring to themselves as "Conchs", and the term is now generally applied to all residents of Key West. Some residents use the term "Conch" to refer to a person born in Key West, while the term "Fresh Water Conch" refers to a resident not born in Key West but who has lived in Key West for seven years or more. However, the true original meaning of Conch applies only to someone with European ancestory that immigrated from the Bahamas. It is said that when a baby was born, the family would put a conch shell on a pole in front of their home.
Many of the Bahama immigrants live in an area of Old Town next to the Truman Annex called "Bahama Village."
Major industries in Key West in the early 19th century included fishing, salt production, and most famously salvage. In 1860 wrecking made Key West the largest and richest city in Florida and the wealthiest town per capita in the U.S. A number of the inhabitants worked salvaging shipwrecks from nearby Florida reefs, and the town was noted for the unusually high concentration of fine furniture and chandeliers which the locals used in their own homes after salvaging them from wrecks.
Winter White House
Several Presidents have visited Key West. Harry Truman visited for 175 days on 11 visits during his Presidency and visited several times after he left office. Key West was in a down cycle when Franklin D. Roosevelt visited in 1939. The build up of military bases on the island occurred shortly thereafter.
In addition to Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower stayed in Key West following a heart attack. In November of 1962, John F. Kennedy visited Key West a month after the resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Jimmy Carter held a family reunion in Key West after leaving office.
Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams
Numerous artists and writers have passed through Key West but the two most associated with the island are Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams.
Legend has it that Ernest Hemingway wrote A Farewell to Arms while living above the show room of a Key West Ford dealership at 314 Simonton Street while awaiting delivery of a Ford Roadster purchased by the uncle of his wife Pauline in 1928.
Hardware store owner Charles Thompson introduced him to deep sea fishing. Among the group that went fishing was Joe Russell (also known as Sloppy Joe). Russell was reportedly the model for Freddy in To Have and Have Not. Portions of the original manuscript were found at Sloppy Joe’s Bar after his death. The group had nicknames for each other and Hemingway wound up with "Papa".
Pauline's rich uncle Gus Pfeiffer bought the 907 Whitehead Street house in 1931 as a wedding present. Legend says the Hemingways installed a swimming pool for $20,000 in the late 1930s (equivalent in 2006 to $250,000). It was such a high price that Hemingway is said to have put a penny in the concrete saying "Here, take the last penny I've got!" The penny is still there.
During his stay he wrote or worked on: Death in the Afternoon, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Snows of Kilimanjaro, and The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber. He used Depression-era Key West as the locale for To Have and Have Not — his only novel set in the United States.
Pauline and Hemingway divorced in 1939 and Hemingway only occasionally visited while returning from Havana until his suicide in 1961.
The six-toed polydactyl cats from Hemingway's days still roam his Whitehead Street neighborhood.
Tennessee Williams first became a regular visitor to Key West in 1941, and is said to have written the first draft of A Streetcar Named Desire while staying in 1947 at the La Concha Hotel. He bought a permanent house in 1949 and listed Key West as his primary residence until his death in 1983. In contrast to Hemingway's grand house in Old Town, Williams home at 1431 Duncan Street in the "unfashionable" New Town neighborhood is a very modest bungalow. The house is privately owned and not open to the public. The Academy Award–winning film version of his “The Rose Tattoo” was shot on the island in 1956. The Tennessee Williams Theatre is located on the campus of Florida Keys Community College on Stock Island.
Williams had a series of rentals all over the U.S. but the only home he owned was in Key West.
Even though Hemingway and Williams were in Key West at the same time, they reportedly only met once -- at Hemingway's Cuba home Finca Vigia.
Key West is much closer to Havana than it is to Miami, about half the distance.
In 1890 Key West had a population of nearly 18,800 and was the biggest and richest city in Florida. Half the residents were said to be of Cuban origin and Key West regularly had Cuban mayors. Cubans were actively involved in reportedly 200 factories in town producing 100 million cigars annually. José Martí made several visits to seek recruits for Cuban independence starting in 1891.
The Battleship USS Maine sailed from Key West on its fateful visit to Havana where it blew up igniting the Spanish-American War. Crew men from the ship are buried in Key West and the Navy investigation into the blast occurred at the Key West Customs House.
Pan American Airlines was founded in Key West originally to fly visitors to Havana in 1926.
John F. Kennedy was to use "90 miles from Cuba" extensively in his speeches against Fidel Castro. Kennedy himself visited Key West a month after the resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Prior to the Cuban revolution of 1959, there were regular ferry and airplane services between Key West and Havana.
In 1982 Key West, and the rest of the Florida Keys, briefly declared its "independence" as the Conch Republic in a protest over a United States Border Patrol blockade. This blockade was set up on U.S. 1 where the Northern end of the Overseas Highway meets the mainland at Florida City. This blockade was in response to the Mariel Boatlift. A seventeen mile traffic jam ensued while the Border Patrol stopped every car leaving the Keys supposedly searching for illegal aliens attempting to enter the mainland United States. This paralyzed the Florida Keys, which rely heavily on the tourism industry. Flags, T-shirts and other merchandise representing the Conch Republic are still popular souvenirs for visitors to Key West.