Key West

We’ve been to Key West before… on a one day stop scheduled on a cruise. I’ve always wanted to drive the Overseas Highway all the way from mainland Florida to the very end – Key West. A series of very long bridges between the keys, or islands, stretching 113 miles across the ocean. Large portions of the roadway are left over from the Overseas Railroad, completed in 1912. It was badly damaged by a hurricane in 1935, and the railroad went bankrupt. They sold the bridges to the state of Florida, who by 1950’s had refurbished it as a highway for cars and trucks.

I had pictured it as below – a long narrow roadway across the ocean. In reality, it seems most of the road is just driving through towns on islands. There are some stretches like I had imagined… Here you see someone crazy enough to drive his motorhome over a hundred miles out to sea! (Shot from ours on a similar mission)

Here is a pretty awesome suspension bridge…

All the suspension cables run down the middle of the bridge, making some interesting views.

All campgrounds in the Keys are expensive. Even for a empty dry parking lot… But we lucked out… we stayed at the El Mar campground, mile marker 5, (everyplace is referenced by how many miles from the end of the road in Key West), and the hostess kindly assigned us the very best spot! This small park has 11 sites, only about 5 on the water, and only 1 on the corner with water all around! We are so blessed!

We could launch our kayak right next to our motorhome. The site was quiet and peaceful, and such a sweet view! Sitting in the motorhome, you’d see nothing but water out the windows… like we were living on a boat!

The far end of Key West is the start of highway 1: mile marker 0.

Who knew the southernmost point of the continental U.S. was really a point? Rather blunt, but still a point.


A museum dedicated to Wreckers: those who salvaged the ships who crashed on the keys and all the goods they carried. There were quite a lot of these wreckers about, because there were plenty of wrecks almost regularly. While many were strong and seemingly fearless, saving many sailor’s lives, others are reputed to have lit bonfires on beaches to lure ships and expensive cargo onto the rocks. Wrecking was very lucrative, and many of the homes in Key West were built with the spoils, and decorated with trimmings from unlucky ships.

In 1856 the Isaac Allerton was caught in a hurricane, lost her rudder, and sunk on Saddlebunch Keys, 15 miles from Key West. She was in deep water, so the wreckers salvaged only a small part of her cargo, but it amounted to $50,000 – the biggest take of any wreck in the Florida Keys. Over 130 years later, in 1985, the wreck was discovered, and is the basis for most of the artifacts in the museum.

I was interested to see many toothbrushes brought up from sunken ships.

The museum has a tower you can climb up to scan for wrecks at sea, or to see an almost arial view of the town.


We have been enjoying the birds in Florida… finding exotic (to us, at least) species, identifying and listing them. So obviously we needed to check out the Audubon House. We had the the idea he spent a long time here, painting all the fabulous Florida birds for his famous book, The Birds of America. With 430 some beautifully painted, life sized portrayals of American Birds, this book is an extremely valuable classic.

Well, there is a house here, called the Audubon house. But John James Audubon, did NOT sit on the porch painting. He did visit the area for a few weeks in the 1820’s, but the house was built after he’d been gone some years. He is said to have used a tree that grew on this site as a background for one of his paintings, but that’s about all the claim this nice house has on Audubon.

It is, however, a beautiful house and garden, built by a wealthy wrecker. It is furnished as a nice home in mid 1800’s Key West would be. It also has many Audubon original paintings, and a whole museum worth of prints and other Audubon memorabilia.

The beds are all equipped with mosquito nets. I was intrigued to see several roller skates… in-line skates with impressive ankle support systems! I don’t remember seeing this style in Lincoln Nebraska’s famous National Roller Skate Museum! (See info on the Roller Skate museum here)

Dinner is ready!

The harp could use a little TLC.

As with most large homes of the period, the kitchen was in an outbuilding, to prevent the home from fire. Servants/Slaves would have done the cooking and serving. I’d never seen cubical butter churn, which was spun with a hand crank.

The East Martello Museum is in a fort by the U.S. Army in 1862, to prevent Confederate ships from transiting the area. Ships from Southern ports, like New Orleans, would have to pass relatively close to the Keys en route to Europe or other destinations east. If the Union controlled the passage, they could help strangle the Confederacy.

This museum has very little about the overall strategy and implementation (at least that I found), but was still interesting and had a nice view from a tower on the roof!

Gotta love the spiral stairs!

In the fort’s basement, is a collection of “Junk Art” by Stanley Papio, who apparently was an early adopter of the art of transforming junk into sculptures. I’ll admit I wasn’t around in the 1940’s, to see who else was doing this stuff.

The most exciting thing about our time in the Keys was a trip to the Dry Tortugas. Ponce de Leon discovered the islands in 1513, naming them Las Tortugas, in reference to the abundance of large sea turtles. Later maps referred to them as the DRY Tortugas, to warn captains that there was no fresh water anywhere on the islands.

The highway stops in Key West, so the remaining 70 miles to the Dry Tortugas are traversed by boat or seaplane. The islands are now a National Park, and can be reached in about 2.5 hours by the Park service endorsed Ferry. We did see a few flights by the seaplanes, and there were several personal boats. Anchoring sites are highly regulated, and must be within one mile of Fort Jefferson. A lot of the area surrounding that is designated as research only.

I read one flippant review of Fort Jefferson, where the author said it was an example of governmental waste. He asked “why would you build such a huge fort out in the middle of nowhere”, noted that it was never really completed, and of all things, had sand on top for a roof!

So I have to fill him in on a few things…

If the little fort on Key West was so important in protecting U.S. interests, this location was far more important. There are many little islands, or “Keys” scattered between Key West and the Dry Tortugas. Passing between them would have been very risky for ships in the 1800’s. In the Dry Tortugas, the rocky keys are arranged so as to provide a safe deep water harbor – the only such harbor in the entire gulf. Controlling this “Key” location could be vital in protecting our country from any invasion and monitoring shipping traffic. A fort here could only work if it was very heavily armed… so it was designed for over 400 long range cannon. The point was to be able to shoot farther and more accurately than any ship could hope to do. It remains the most powerful fort ever built by the U.S.

One major difficulty to be overcome was the lack of fresh water. There were over 2,000 people on the island building the fort (and they reputedly used over 19,000,000 bricks!) The fort is arranged as a huge hollow hexagon, the casements, or walls, having two levels and a roof. The casements are wide, with placements for cannon inside them, all along the perimeter. There were 119 cisterns placed under the fort walls. The roof was fitted with drains along the centerline of the walls. The idea was for the sand on the roof to filter out the rainwater, and then guide it down ducts into the cisterns below. The implementation didn’t go quite as planned, however. As they were building the fort, with much of the walls over the cisterns, they noticed the foundations would settle, or sink, almost a foot. All but 6 of the cisterns cracked, and when the tide would come in, they would fill with seawater.

Seawater distilling furnaces were brought in, and worked somewhat well, but they required massive amounts of fuel to boil the seawater. Finally, they just settled for shipping in fresh water and conserving as well as they could.

Huge cannon were mounted in the second level and on the roof. The floors were made with extra heavy, thick slate, to withstand the forces of the huge guns. Eventually they had 430 cannon in the fort!

At the start of the Civil War, a northern Major anticipated that Florida would join the Confederates, and he wisely decided to hurry down to the uncompleted fort to be sure it stayed under Union control. Five days after Florida joined the war, he arrived at the fort. He and his men were exploring the fort, when a Confederate ship approached. He marched in uniform down to meet the ship, and the Confederates asked him to surrender. The Rebels had thought there would be nobody at the fort except the construction crews, and it would be easy to take control. The Union officer told them the only reason he hadn’t blasted their ship out of the water, was to give it a mission: they were to return to the south and inform their navy that any other Confederate ship passing by would be summarily sunk. He said “You have 10 minutes to leave, if you do not, you will be sunk, and I’ll ask the next Confederate ship to relay my message.” The ship left, and no other confederate ship ever approached. The “Paul Harvey Rest of the Story” is that the Union soldier had only a few men, and almost no weapons. All his supplies would arrive a day later! The Confederate ship could have easily taken the fort and the islands, if they had not fallen for the gutsy bluff! It was an amazing coup for the Union to control the Keys, when the local citizens were basically in favor of the Confederacy.

The construction was started with bricks made in Florida, but obviously that source was not available during the Civil War, so they were shipped down from the northern states. (Imagine how many ships needed to bring innumerable tons of bricks all down the eastern coastline!) You can see some of the stages of construction by the color of the bricks, as the northern bricks were slightly different shades.

I’m not really sure of the reason behind the “Moats”, except that maybe they kept waves from eroding the fortress walls.

Now the fort is home to a few Park Rangers, and a bazillion birds. We (and a few others) had great fun trying to identify unique birds!

A couple million Sooty Terns:

Plenty of Brown Noddies, and possibly a rare Black Noddy or two in the group:

Barn Swallow:

Ruddy Turnstone:

Magnificent Frigate Birds:

Cattle Egret:

American Pelican:

Turbine powered seaplanes (with a few Sooty Terns in the background):

As we were leaving, I spotted this beautiful boat… I’m positive it’s a Selene 53, just like we used to have. Our antenna arch rose quite a bit higher, and our davit (crane) was chrome, but the boat is the same! Fun!

A nice Ketch…

And we bid farewell to an interesting bit of history, and amazing bird life.


  1. Great pics and history!! I reaally enjoyed. We have a sister-in-law and husband that lived out there for several years, enjoying their time there. Thanks for the history lesson!!

  2. Hi Doc and Sheryl, loved the pictures. We loved Key West. Hope your doing good…We did the Fisher Sunken treasure museum when we were there. …Take care.
    Keith & Carol

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