When the Boom Begins in Florida Keys

During the 1880s the American government poured millions into the economy and Key West became a boom town. By 1890, it was not only the largest city in Florida, but the richest city per capita in the United States.

Although the wrecking industry had died out, it was replaced by other money-making endeavors, which were within the law and far less anti-social and dangerous than wrecking had been, although not without their long-term problems.

Sponging was one of them, and for a while the waters off the Keys provided 90 percent of all the natural sponges used in the US.

Another prosperous industry was cigar-making. 

A group of Cuban settlers, employing over 6,000 Cuban workers, created a virtual gold-mine by manufacturing their world-famous cigars that usually you can find also in Ocean Drive in South Beach from a nice Cuban girls.

At its peak, the Key West Cuban cigar industry produced as many as million cigars a year, and they were more highly regarded than those which came from Havana itself.

In addition to their cigars, the Cubans also brought some intrigue to the Keys. 

Railroad to Florida Keys

It was in Key West that Cuban writer and patriot José Martì plotted the revolution that would lead to Cuba’s independence from Spain in the Spanish-American War of 1898.

Revolutionary supporters smuggled guns and ammunition from Key West to their counterparts in Cuba and gathered at local cafés to discuss their country’s future.

The stately building known as the San Carlos Institute, now a Cuban cultural institute and museum, served as a political club for many of Key West’s Cuban activists as well as being a thriving opera house.

Before the early 1900s, the only link the Keys had to the mainland was by ship. 

But in 1905 that began to change. 

American railroad magnate and retired oil baron Henry M Flagler realized that Key West represented a valuable deep water port, and decided to extend his Florida East Coast Railroad from Miami to the southermost  city.

It took seven years of brutally hard work to build the bridges and lay the tracks that would forever change the landscape of the Keys.

But there is always a price to pay for progress, and this monumental undertaking cost $50 million and at least 700 laborers’ lives to complete.

Plagued by poor health, Henry M Flager died shortly after the railroad was finished in 1912, but lived long enough to have the satisfaction of seeing the first shipment of fresh Caribbean produce make its way up from Key West to the Florida US mainland.

During the early 1920s while the US Prohibition law restricted the manufacture, sale or use of liquor throughout the country, the Keys became a hotbed of activity for the illegal sale of liquor, and a rum-smugglers’ paradise.

In 1927 the Pan American World Airways was born and its regularly scheduled flights from Key West to Havana attracted American tourists who were enticed by Cuba’s exotic nightlife and casinos.

A few years later, writer Ernest Hemingway discovered the charms of the Keys and made Key West his winter home.

Hemingway was among the first of many well-known writers Elizabeth Bishop, Allison Lurie , John Hersey, James Merrill, Tom McGuane and Phil Caputo to name but a few – who set up residence in Key West and helped put the city on the map.

Pulitzer-Prize-winning author Tennessee Williams loved Key West and made it his home for 30 years, until his death in 1983. 

Many other writers have since followed in their footsteps. 

The 1930s were not altogether a good decade for the Keys, despite the flourishing nightlife, prominent incomers and early tourists. Labor troubles forced the cigar industry to move to Tampa during these years, and in 1935 a nameless killer hurricane slammed into the Upper Keys, blowing the Florida East Coast Railroad to shreds.

Packing 200-mph winds and an 18-foot tidal wave, the hurricane left more than 800 people dead. In order to prevent the spread of disease in the sweltering heat, many of the rotting corpses were piled on top of each other and burned in communal funeral pyres.

In an effort to re-link the Keys with the mainland following the hurricane, another impressive piece of engineering got underway.

In 1938 the Florida Keys Overseas Highway opened, enabling locals and – more importantly from the point of view of the Keys’ economy – tourists, to drive the 159 mile distance from Key West to Miami Beach.

Built over the railroad’s old tracks and bridges, the highway soon became a popular and well-traveled route and introduced more commerce to the once-sleepy Upper and Middle Keys.

Hotels in Florida Keys

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