Cedar Key is a city in Levy County, Florida, United States. The population was 790 at the 2000 census. According to the U.S Census estimates of 2005, the city had a population of 958. The Cedar Keys are a cluster of islands close to the mainland. Most of the developed area of the city has been on Way Key since the end of the 19th century. The Cedar Keys are named for the Eastern Red Cedar, Juniperus virginiana, which once grew abundantly in the area.
Followers of William Augustus Bowles, self-declared "Director General of the State of Muskogee," built a watchtower in the vicinity of Cedar Key in 1801. The tower was destroyed by a Spanish force in 1802.
Cedar Key quickly became an important port, shipping lumber and naval stores harvested on the mainland. By 1860 two mills on Atsena Otie Key were producing 'cedar' slats for shipment to northern pencil factories. As a result of the growth, the U.S. Congress appropriated money for a lighthouse on Seahorse Key in 1850. The Cedar Key Light was completed in 1854. The lighthouse lantern is 28 feet above the ground, but the lighthouse sits on a 47 foot high hill, putting the light 75 feet above sea level. The light was visible for 16 miles. Wood-frame residences were added to each side of the lighthouse several years later. In 1860 Cedar Key became the western terminus of the Florida Railroad, connecting it to Fernandina on the east coast of Florida. David Levy Yulee, U.S. Senator and President of the Florida Railroad, had acquired most of Way Key to house the railroad's terminal facilities. A town was platted on Way Key in 1859, and Parsons and Hale's General Store, which is now the Island Hotel, was built there in the same year. On March 1, 1861, the first train arrived in Cedar Key, just weeks before the beginning of the Civil War.
In 1865 the Eberhard Faber mill was built on Atsena Otie Key. The Eagle Pencil Company mill was built on Way Key, and Way Key, with its railroad terminal, passed Atsena Otie Key in population. Repairs to the Florida Railroad were completed in 1868 and freight and passenger traffic again flowed into Cedar Key. The "Town of Cedar Keys" was incorporated in 1869, and had a population of 400 in 1870.
Early in his career as a naturalist, John Muir walked from Louisville, Kentucky to Cedar Key in just two months in 1867. Muir contracted malaria while working in a sawmill in Cedar Key, and was nursed back to health in the house of the mill's superintendent. Muir recovered enough to sail from Cedar Key to Cuba in January 1868. He recorded his impressions of Cedar Key in his memoir, A thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf, which was published in 1916, after his death.
After the war, Henry Plant considered extending the Charleston and Savannah Railroad to Cedar Key, but he couldn’t reach an acceptable agreement with the town and decided to use Tampa as his Florida terminus. This sealed the fate of Cedar Key. When Plant's railroad to Tampa began service in 1886, the larger, deep-water port took shipping away from Cedar Key and the city began to decline. The once-thriving lumber industry had already begun to falter because most of the trees had been harvested. By 1890, timber and seafood resources in the Cedar Key area were depleted.
The fourth storm of the 1896 Atlantic hurricane season was the final blow. At approximately 4 a.m. on September 29, 1896, a 10-foot storm surge swept over the town, killing more than 100 people. Winds north of town were estimated at 125 mph, which would classify it as a category 3. The hurricane wiped out the juniper trees still standing and destroyed all the mills. The factories were never rebuilt and twenty-five hundred jobs were lost. As if that wasn't enough, a fire on December 2, 1896 destroyed half of the business district. Over the next 10-15 years, the island of Atsena Otie Key was abandoned and structures were rebuilt on Way Key, a more protected island inland, but the damage was done. Today, there are a few remnants of the original town on Atsena Otie Key, including stone water cisterns, and a graveyard whose headstones conspicuously date prior to 1896. There are also many of the juniper (Juniperus virginiana subsp. silicicola) trees that originally attracted the pencil company. These were misidentified as cedars by early settlers, hence the name 'Cedar Key'.
At the start of the twentieth century, fishing, sponge hooking and oystering had become the major industries, but around 1909, the oyster beds were exhausted. By 1913, ships ceased to use the port at Cedar Key, and the town never recovered, either as a port or as an industrial area. President Herbert Hoover established the Cedar Key National Wildlife Refuge in 1929 by naming three of the islands as a breeding ground for colonial birds. The lighthouse was abandoned in 1952, just as the tourism industry began to grow as a result of interest in the historic community. Today, the University of Florida in Gainesville operates the lighthouse facility as a center for marine biology research. It is the oldest lighthouse still standing on Florida’s west coast.
In 1950, Hurricane Easy, a category 3 storm with 125 mph winds, looped around Cedar Key 3 times before finally making landfall, dumping 38 inches of rain and destroying two thirds of the homes. Luckily, the storm came ashore at low tide, so the surge was only 5 feet.
Hurricane Elena followed a similar path in 1985, but did not make landfall. Packing 115 mph winds, the storm churned for two days in the Gulf, 50 miles to the west, battering the waterfront. All the businesses and restaurants on Dock Street were either damaged or destroyed and a section of the seawall collapsed.
After a statewide ban on large scale net fishing went into effect July 1, 1995 a government retraining program helped many local fishermen begin farming clams in the muddy waters. Today Cedar Key's clam-based aquaculture is a multi-million dollar industry. A local museum exhibit displays a reproduction of one of the first air conditioning installations. The system, with compressor and fans, was used in Cedar Key to ease the lot of malaria patients. It is certainly hot and humid in the summer.
The Cedar Key Museum State Park contains exhibits that depict the town's colorful history as a thriving port city and railroad connection during the 19th century. Many of the sea shells and Indian artifacts on display were collected by Saint Clair Whitman, who began the first museum in Cedar Key. Whitman's house is located within the park and has been restored to reflect life on the island in the 1920s. Tours are available during museum hours. As the museum photo indicates, the building was constructed to withstand the hurricane conditions that the town is subjected to periodically. The museum property includes a short nature trail which gives visitors the opportunity to see local wildlife and native vegetation.
There were 411 households out of which 14.4% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 48.7% were married couples living together, 8.3% had a female householder with no husband present, and 40.4% were non-families. 34.8% of all households were made up of individuals and 14.8% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 1.92 and the average family size was 2.42.
In the city the population was spread out with 13.2% under the age of 18, 4.8% from 18 to 24, 15.6% from 25 to 44, 40.1% from 45 to 64, and 26.3% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 54 years. For every 100 females there were 91.7 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 92.2 males.
The median income for a household in the city was $32,232, and the median income for a family was $41,190. Males had a median income of $27,375 versus $31,806 for females. The per capita income for the city was $22,568. About 6.6% of families and 11.1% of the population were below the poverty line, including 10.5% of those under age 18 and 9.9% of those age 65 or over.