Early Spanish sailors called the site Cayo Hueso (Bone Island), because of the human bones they found there. A railroad (completed 1912) linked the Keys with the mainland. It was abandoned after being damaged by a hurricane in 1935 and was replaced by the 123-mi (198-km) Overseas Highway (completed in 1938). After a severe economic decline, the federal government took over (1934) the bankrupt city.
Places of interest include a sponge pier, an aquarium, a lighthouse (1846; replacing one built in 1825), Mallory Square (a daily sunset-viewing point), and two Civil War forts. John James Audubon and Winslow Homer painted in Key West, and the city was used as a setting in the works of Ernest Hemingway, who once lived there. His home (built 1851) was made a museum, as was the Little White House, President Harry S. Truman's personal retreat.
See C. Cox, A Key West Companion (1983).
The city encompasses Key West, the namesake island, the part of Stock Island north of U.S. 1 (the Overseas Highway) (east), Sigsbee Park (north, originally known as Dredgers Key), Fleming Key (north), and Sunset Key (west, originally known as Tank Island). Nearby Key Haven (northeast), the part of Stock Island south of U.S. 1 (east), and Wisteria Island, better known as Christmas Tree Island (northwest), are in unincorporated Monroe County. Both Fleming Key and Sigsbee Park are part of the NAS Key West and are inaccessible by civilians.
Key West is the county seat of Monroe County.
Key West is 129 miles (207 km) southwest (229.9 degrees) of Miami, Florida, (about 160 driving miles) and 106 miles (170 km) north-northeast (21.2 degrees) of Havana, Cuba. Cuba, at its closest point, is 94 statute (81 nautical) miles south.
Naval Air Station Key West is an important year round training site for naval aviation due to the superb weather conditions. It is also a reason the city was chosen as the Winter White House of President Harry S. Truman.
The central business district primarily comprises Duval Street, and includes much of the northwest corner of the island along Whitehead, Simonton, Front, Greene, Caroline, and Eaton Streets and Truman Avenue.
The official city motto is "One Human Family."
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.
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.
John Simonton spent the winter in Key West and the summer in Washington, where he lobbied hard for the development of the island and to establish a naval base on the island, both to take advantage of the island's strategic location and to bring law and order to the town. He died in 1854.
Pardon C. Greene is the only one of the four "founding fathers" to establish himself permanently on the island, where he became quite prominent as head of P.C. Greene and Company. He also served briefly as mayor. He died in 1838 at the age of 57.
John Whitehead lived in Key West for only eight years. He became a partner in the firm of P.C. Greene and Company from 1824 to 1827. A lifelong bachelor, he left the island for good in 1832. He came back only once, during the Civil War in 1861, and died the next year.
John W.C. Fleeming was English-born and was active in mercantile business in Mobile, Alabama, where he befriended John Simonton. Fleeming spent only a few months in Key West in 1822 and left for Massachusetts, where he married. He returned to Key West in 1832 with the intention of developing salt manufacturing on the island but died the same year at the young age of 51.
The names of the four "founding fathers" of modern Key West were given to main arteries of the island when it was first platted in 1829 by William Adee Whitehead, John Whitehead's younger brother. That first plat and the names used remained mostly intact and are still in use today. Duval Street, the island's main street, is named after Florida's first territorial governor, who served between 1822 and 1834 as the longest serving governor in Florida's U.S. history.
William Whitehead became chief editorial writer for the "Enquirer", a local newspaper, in 1834. He had the genius of preserving copies of his newspaper as well as copies from the "Key West Gazette", its predecessor. He later sent those copies to the Monroe County clerk for preservation, which gives us a precious view of life in Key West in the early days (1820-1840).
Major industries in Key West in the early 19th century included fishing, salt production, and 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 that the locals used in their own homes after salvaging them from wrecks.
In the late 19th century, salt and salvage declined as industries, but Key West gained a thriving cigar-making industry.
By 1889 Key West was the largest and wealthiest city in Florida.
The U.S. government then rebuilt the rail route as an automobile highway, completed in 1938, which became an extension of United States Highway 1. The portion of U.S. 1 through the Keys is called the Overseas Highway. Franklin Roosevelt toured the road in 1939.
Key West was in a down cycle when Franklin D. Roosevelt visited in 1939. The buildup 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 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.
Hardware store owner Charles Thompson introduced him to deep-sea fishing. Among the group who 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- or seven-toed polydactyl cats descended from Hemingway's original pet 'Snowball' still live on the grounds and are cared for at the Hemingway House, despite complaints by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that they are not kept free from visitor contact, and the Key West City Commission exempted the house from a law prohibiting more than four domestic animals per household.
Williams had a series of rented homes 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 met only once -- at Hemingway's Cuba home Finca Vigía.
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, including Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, father of the Cuban Republic, who was elected mayor in 1876. 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 and founded the Cuban Revolutionary Party during his visits to Key West.
The Battleship USS Maine sailed from Key West on its fateful visit to Havana, where it blew up, igniting the Spanish-American War. Crewmen 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.
Prior to the Cuban revolution of 1959, there were regular ferry and airplane services between Key West and Havana.
Key West was flooded with refugees during the Mariel Boatlift. Refugees continue to come ashore and, on at least one occasion, most notably in April 2003, flew hijacked Cuban Airlines planes into the city's airport.
Key West was always an important military post, since it sits at the northern edge of the deepwater channel connecting the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico (the southern edge away is Cuba) via the Florida Straits. Because of this, Key West since the 1820s had been dubbed the "Gibraltar of the West." Fort Taylor was initially built on the island. The Navy added a small base from which the USS Maine sailed to its demise in Havana at the beginning of the Spanish-American War.
At the beginning of World War II the Navy increased its presence from 50 acres to 3,000 acres (12 km²), including all of Boca Chica Key's and the construction of Fleming Key from landfill. The Navy built the first water pipeline extending the length of the keys, bringing fresh water from the mainland to supply its bases. At its peak 15,000 military personnel and 3,400 civilians were at the base. Included in the base are:
In 1984 the city opened a pier right on Mallory Square. The decision was met with considerable opposition from people who felt it would disrupt the tradition of watching the sunset at Mallory Square.
Cruise ships now dock at all three piers.
Cruise Ship Statistics for 1994
Generally, the structures date from 1886 to 1912. The basic features that distinguish the local architecture include wood-frame construction of one- to two-and-a-half-story structures set on foundation piers about three feet above the ground. Exterior characteristics of the buildings are peaked "metal" roofs, horizontal wood siding, gingerbread trim, pastel shades of paint, side-hinged louvered shutters, covered porches (or balconies, galleries, or verandas) along the fronts of the structures, and wood lattice screens covering the area elevated by the piers.
According to the Key West Association of Realtors (KWAR), Key West can be divided into four distinct areas: Old Town, Casa Marina, Mid-Town and New Town, with various neighborhoods in each area.
One of the biggest attractions on the island is a concrete replica of a buoy at the corner of South and Whitehead Streets that claims to be the southernmost point in the contiguous 48 states (see Extreme Points for more information.) The point was originally just marked with a sign, which was often stolen. In response to this, the city of Key West erected the now famous monument in 1983. Brightly painted and labeled "SOUTHERNMOST POINT CONTINENTAL U.S.A.", it is one of the most visited and photographed attractions in Key West. Land on the Truman Annex property just west of the buoy is the true southernmost point, but it has no marker since it is U.S. Navy land and cannot be entered by civilian tourists. The private yards directly to the east of the buoy and the beach areas of Truman Annex and Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park also lie farther south than the buoy. The farthest-south location that the public can visit is the beach at the state park for a small entrance fee. Florida's southernmost point is Ballast Key, a privately owned island just south and west of Key West. Signs on the island strictly prohibit unauthorized visitors. The claim "90 Miles to Cuba" on the monument isn't entirely accurate either, since Cuba at its closest point is 94 statute miles from Key West.
Hurricanes rarely hit Key West, and the island has been relatively lucky. Locals say that Hurricane Wilma on October 24, 2005, was the worst storm in memory. The entire island was told to evacuate. Business owners were forced to close their businesses. After the hurricane had passed, a storm surge sent eight feet of water inland, completely inundating a large portion of the lower Keys. Low-lying areas of Key West and the lower Keys, including major tourist destinations, were under as much as three feet of water. Sixty percent of the homes in Key West were flooded. The higher parts of Old Town, such as the Solares Hill and cemetery areas, did not flood, because of their higher elevations of 12 to 18 feet. The surge destroyed tens of thousands of cars throughout the lower Keys, and many houses were flooded with one to two feet of sea water. A local newspaper referred to Key West and the lower Keys as a "car graveyard. The peak of the storm surge occurred when the eye of Wilma had already passed over the Naples area, and the sustained winds during the surge were less than . The storm destroyed the piers at the clothing-optional Atlantic Shores Motel and breached the shark tank at the Key West Aquarium, freeing its sharks. Damage postponed the island's famous Halloween Fantasy Fest until the following December. MTV's The Real World: Key West was filming during the hurricane and deals with the storm.
In March 2006, the NOAA opened its National Weather Forecasting building on White Street. The building is designed to withstand a Category 5 hurricane and its storm surge.
The most intense previous hurricane was Hurricane Georges, a Category 2, in September 1998. The storm damaged many of the houseboats along Houseboat Row on South Roosevelt Boulevard near Cow Key channel on the east side of the island.
Many visitors rent a bicycle and explore the history and architecture of Old Town Key West. Walking tours, including a tour of the unusual Key West Cemetery, are available. The Sunset Celebration at Mallory Square is a daily spectacle for visitors and residents. Boat excursions and tours provide a great way to view Key West from the water.
The Duval Street bar and restaurant district includes many different entertainment options, all within walking distance of each other.
The Studios of Key West, founded in 2006 and based at the island's historic Armory building, was established as a new model for an artist community. It comprises a dozen working studio spaces, a main exhibition hall, a sculpture garden, and several adjoining residences and cottages. Its programming continues to grow and includes an extensive series of creative workshops, free humanities lectures, cultural partnerships, and innovative ideas for artists and audiences.
The Florida Keys Council of the Arts serves as the primary cultural umbrella for Monroe County, from Key Largo to Key West. A non-profit local arts agency, it makes grants, operates the Monroe County Art in Public Places program, sponsors seminars, and manages the on-line cultural calendar for the region. It also manages the County's Tourism Development Council arts marketing grants and serves as a leading advocate for cultural tourism in lower Florida.
The Key West Literary Seminar, a celebration of writers and writing held each January, attracts an international audience to hear such writers as Ian McEwan, Margaret Atwood, Billy Collins, and Joyce Carol Oates.
Nancy Forrester's Secret Garden is a one-acre (4,000 m²) garden resembling a lush, predominantly green rainforest. It is an exhibit of nature's artistry in a woodland garden.
The Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory features a 5,000-square-foot (460 m²) glass-domed tropical butterfly habitat.
A permanent AIDS Memorial is at the White Street Pier.
The Mel Fisher Maritime Museum showcases gold, silver, and treasure recovered from shipwrecks around the world.
Some tourists mingle with the locals, shop, and dine at the Key West Historic Seaport at the Key West Bight.
The Key West Lighthouse and Keeper's Quarters Museum preserves the history of the Key West Lighthouse, built in 1847.
PrideFest is seven days of events, presented by the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Key West during the first week in June. The schedule includes the Pride Follies talent extravaganza; contests to select a Mr., Ms. and Miss PrideFest; parties; a tea dance; and the PrideFest Parade down Duval Street.
In 1979 the Key West Tourist Development Association, Inc., started Fantasy Fest to attract tourists at the traditionally slow time of Halloween, which is at the end of the hurricane season. Fantasy Fest regularly attracts approximately 80,000 people to the island and has become a huge success.
In June 2006 the Key West Gay & Lesbian Museum & Archive opened at the Gay and Lesbian Community Center at 513 Truman Avenue. Featured exhibits include a Tennessee Williams typewriter as well as an extensive collection of memorabilia and papers of Richard A. Heyman, who was one of the nation's first openly gay mayors before dying in 1994 of AIDS.
The Key West area has 11 FM radio stations, 4 FM translators, and 2 AM stations.
The Florida Keys Keynoter and the Key West Citizen are published locally and serve Key West and Monroe County. The Southernmost Flyer, a weekly publication printed in conjunction with the Citizen, is produced by the Public Affairs Department of Naval Air Station Key West and serves the local military community.
There were 11,016 households, out of which 19.9% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 37.7% were married couples living together, 8.2% had a female householder with no husband present, and 50.4% were classified as non-families. Of all households, 31.4% were made up of individuals, and 8.1% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.23 and the average family size was 2.84.
In the city the population was spread out, with 16.0% under the age of 18, 8.4% from 18 to 24, 37.1% from 25 to 44, 26.7% from 45 to 64, and 11.7% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 39 years. For every 100 females there were 122.3 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 126.0 males.
The median income for a household in the city was $43,021, and the median income for those classified as families was $50,895. Males had a median income of $30,967 versus $25,407 for females. The per capita income for the city was $26,316. About 5.8% of families and 10.2% of the population were below the poverty line, including 11.5% of those under age 18 and 11.3% of those age 65 or over.
The ancestries most reported in 2000 were English (12.4%), German (12.2%), Irish (11.3%), Italian (6.8%), United States (6.0%) and French (3.6%).
Population History of Key West (U.S. Census Bureau)
The number of families (as defined by the Census Bureau) declined dramatically in the last four decades of the 20th century. In 1960 there were 13,340 families in Key West, with 42.1% of households having children living in them. By 2000 the population had dwindled to 5,463 families, with only 19.9% of households having children living in them.
District-operated primary schools serving Key West Island include Glynn R. Archer Elementary School and Poinciana Elementary School Gerald Adams Elementary School in the City of Key West serves Stock Island and Sigsbee Elementary School serves Sigsbee Park. Key West Montessori Charter School is a district-sanctioned charter school on Key West Island.