The history of Key West is a riches to rags to riches story featuring a long list of historic names and high-seas adventures. For nearly 300 years after its discovery, the island chain was left mostly to the pirates. Eventually, the pirates were chased away by a fledgling U.S. Navy pirate fleet established in 1822.
Settlers followed while the native Indian population, the Calusa and mainland tribes, died out. The early settlers set up groves of Key limes, tamarind and breadfruit. In the Lower Keys, pineapple farms flourished and a large pineapple factory was built which furnished canned pineapple to most of eastern North America.
In later years, a thriving shark-processing factory was established on Big Pine Key. Other settlers in Key West and in Islamorada became wreckers who salvaged goods from ships that foundered on the nearby reefs. Some say the wreckers deliberately lured ships onto the shoals. Whatever the truth, Key West became the wealthiest city in the United States. Later, sponge harvesters found a good market for the sponges they gathered in the waters of the Keys. Still later, cigar makers from Cuba established factories in Key West. Railroad tycoon Henry Flagler built his impossible railroad "that went to sea,” and wealthy visitors traveled to vacation in the Keys.
All this, in turn, died out, and in the Great Depression the Keys seemed to face a bleak future. The city of Key West went bankrupt. It was then, with federal aid, that Keys officials decided their islands still had something to offer: sea, sun and a good year-round climate. In the weather beaten, shabby era of the 1930s, the railroad was destroyed by a ferocious hurricane and the concept for a highway to take its place was born. The famed Florida Keys Overseas Highway opened in 1938, but the outbreak of World War II dashed prospects of tourist gold.
The U.S. Navy, which had driven off the pirates a century earlier, came to the rescue again by turning Key West into a submarine base. In 1949, shrimp were harvested commercially in the Keys for the first time. They quickly earned the nicknamed pink gold. Tourists finally began to come in earnest.
In 1931, Ernest Hemingway purchased a pre-Civil War mansion in Key West and lived in it for 10 years while writing some of his best-known novels. His legend remains and visitors continue to seek out his home -- now a museum. It has been said that the idiosyncratic architecture -- and the laid back atmosphere -- of Key West probably has nurtured the talents of more writers per capita than any other city in the country. Ten Pulitzer Prizes have been awarded to writers that have lived in Key West and presently more than 100 published authors reside, full- or part-time, in Key West.
For treasure hunters, Key West's own Mel Fisher has recovered more than $400 million in gold and silver from the ship Nuestra Señora de Atocha, a 17th-century Spanish galleon that sank 45 miles west of Key West. Fisher, who spent 16 years of his life searching for the booty, has established the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society Museum, where visitors may view and touch some of the riches of the Atocha and the Santa Margarita.
At day's end, visitors gather at Mallory Square to "call it a day." Hardly a contrived activity, the daily "sunset celebration" is a tradition that Key Westers share with visitors. While musicians, jugglers, mimes, an occasional fire-eater and even the Key West Cookie Lady provide entertainment, the sun sinks slowly below the horizon. Nightlife in the "Southernmost City in the Continental United States" also features a plethora of restaurants and taverns. For theatre buffs, three houses offer locally produced productions featuring talented thespians.
Today, more than three million visitors arrive each year. For most, the Florida Keys are the closest thing they will ever find to the fountain of youth.
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