National Geographic : 1950 Jan
From Indian Canoes to Submarines at Key West BY FREDERICK SIMPICII Illustrations by National Geographic Photographer J. Baylor Roberts WALK the length of Duval Street in this odd island city of Key West and you've passed from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. If you'd been here during a certain hurricane, you could have seen giant turtles swimming along this same street, cast up from their pens on the city's water front by big waves. There's not another city under the Ameri can flag just like Key West. It's a part of Florida, built on a tiny island 60 miles off the southernmost mainland tip of that sunshiny State, and set on the edge of the mighty Gulf Stream.* It's so far from Tallahassee, Florida's capital, that its mem ber of the State Legislature has been humor ously called the "Ambassador from Key West." On the map, the city lies 375 miles south of the latitude of Cairo, Egypt, and only 100 miles across the Gulf Stream from Habana (page 43). "For 50 years Key West has held its supremacy as the most populous city of the State," wrote Jefferson B. Browne in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE of June, 1896. It was a rich city then, with busy ocean trade. That was through the middle 1800's, before any road linked it with the mainland. Then it had horse-drawn streetcars, ice plants, banks, salt-evaporation works, sponge fisheries, and, above all, big cigar factories built by wealthy Cubans, which made world famous brands of clear Habana cigars such as Optimo, Cortez, and El Principe de Gales. But when railroads from the north began to spread deep into Florida with the rise of such seaports as Jacksonville, Tampa, and Miami, Key West's sea trade faded away. Its cigar factories moved upstate to Tampa, and thousands of Cuban workers followed. A "Seagoing" Railway When Henry M. Flagler extended his spec tacular "seagoing" Florida East Coast Rail way south from Miami and sent it island hopping along the keys all the way to Key West, it looked like the dawn of a new day for the town. Business began to revive. Car ferry service was started with Habana, and heavy tourist traffic began. Then came that terrifying Labor Day hurri- cane of 1935. It killed some 400 people, washed out about 40 miles of the "overseas" railroad, and the costly, unique overseas line was abandoned. Some people felt that might be the end for Key West. It seemed on its way to join such vanished cities as Nineveh and Tyre. But today, boasting more lives than a cat, it's on its feet again because of two important events. Fisherman's Choice First of these is, of course, the advent of that high-speed scenic automobile, bus, and truck highway which now hops the keys along the line of the vanished railway (page 49). Over this route, into Key West, annually come thousands of visitors. They pack the hotels, crowd the cafes and curio stores, and pay top rents for "party boats" to go fishing. A fisherman's choice indeed, for both the waters of the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico are at hand (pages 60, 67, and 70). Second source of abundant prosperity is the training station which Uncle Sam has set up here for his busy Atlantic Fleet Submarine Force, with a naval air station, a Sonar school, and other mysterious shore installations. Fat pay rolls spent here by all this Navy personnel and Navy wives adds to the cheerful jingle of the local cash registers! t So again the stagehands of history have shifted scenery in life's melodrama for stub born, never-say-die Key West. It lacks the swanky night clubs of Miami Beach. No ponies nose under the wire here, and no yelp ing hounds reach for that artificial rabbit. But here may be found some of the world's finest fishing, savory sea foods, and peppery Cuban dishes for those who like them; and, best of all, a friendly people whose rich, ro mantic past endears them to playwrights and tellers of adventure tales-tales of pirates, wreckers, buccaneers, Cuban gunrunners, and the heroic exploits of our Navy when it was young. Ernest Hemingway owns a house here; * See, in the NATIONAL G:O((RA.IIn I MAGAZINE: "Florida-The Fountain of Youth," by John Oliver La Gorce, January, 1930. i See, in the NATIONAL (;G(RAPIIHIC MA(;AZIN.: "How We Use the Gulf of Mexico," by Frederick Simpich, January, 1944.