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By John Pelley and Maggie Pelley
Originally settled by the Calussa Indians, the Spanish conquistadors tried to take over this prime real estate in the Southwestern Keys. The beaches became the burial grounds for many of the natives, thus giving the Island the name of Bone Island; Cayo Hueso in Spanish. The English Anglicized this name to Key West.
John Simonton, and American businessman, purchased the island from Juan Pablo Salas and developed the island with the help of Greene, Whitehead, and Fleming. They encouraged the Navy to open a base to combat piracy in the area.
The island prospered because the coral reefs brought many ships to Davy Jones Locker. Many became millionaires from salvaging the numerous shipwrecks. At one point the people of Key West became the richest city per capita in the United States.
Henry Morrison Flager, against all odds and better judgment, built a railroad from Homestead to Key West. The first train arrived on January 22, 1912. This connected the mainland with Key West. From Key West, Havana Cuba was only ninety miles away. Considered the Eighth Wonder of the Modern world, the Overseas Railroad spanned 42 stretches of sea with causeways and bridges, the longest being seven miles. From 1912 to 1935 Key West exploded as a tourist and business center. A major Class five hurricane destroyed much of the tracks in 1935. Once again Key West had been cut off from the mainland.
The State of Florida purchased the Overseas Railroad right-of way and turned it into the Overseas Highway in 1938, using the roadbed and bridges Henry Flager built.
World War II brought new prosperity to the island with the Naval Base. Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams resided and visited the island. Cuban tobacco became hand rolled cigars.
In 1981 the Us Government set up road blocks near Key Largo, cutting off the tourist trade to Key West. Not too sure why this happened. The citizens of Key West decided to secede. They formed the Conch (Pronounced conk) Republic. Many still fly the flag today. They demanded billions in reparation and foreign aide. The US Government ignored their wishes; but they did remove the roadblocks.
Today Key West thrives primarily on tourism. Arrive by driving the 128 miles along the Overseas Highway on the old railroad bed, or fly into Key West Airport, or take the Key West Express ferry from Marco Island or Ft. Myers Beach. To acquaint yourself to the island take the 1½ to 2 hour Conch Tour Train. Tickets can be purchased at the booth at the Flager Train station or at The Old Town ticket booth near Mallory Square. The guided tour travels just about every street in Key West: a great orientation to the island. Other forms of transportation on the island are electric cars, bicycles, mopeds, taxicabs, and bicycle carriages for two. Walking the streets, perhaps, is the best way of seeing the island, which is four miles long and one mile wide. Traffic can be a real challenge, especially along US 1, which has its terminus at mile marker 0.
Looking for action? Duval Street is your goal. Stop and have a beer at Hemingway's watering hole, Sloppy Joe's bar and restaurant (the original bar is ½ block away at Capt. Tony's Saloon). If your interests lean toward Jimmy Buffet, go to Margaritaville, only four short blocks down the street. Up and down Duval restaurants, bars, souvenir shops, and people watching beckon everyone to the narrow sidewalks. You might even come across one of Key West famous chickens strolling the street.
Other highlights include Hemingway's home, with guided tours running $12.00 at this time. Views from the exterior are free. Across Whitehead Street stands the old lighthouse and keepers quarters. The lighthouse was moved inland to protect it from hurricanes. A couple more blocks down the street is the Truman White House. President Truman used this resident and the many outbuildings during his time in office. Other dignitaries also followed his lead: John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Colin Powell. Talking about President Truman, not to be missed is the Margaret Truman Laundromat. Rumor has it that it was named for Margaret Truman, the president's daughter. Its location is at the corner of Margaret and Truman Streets. Thus its named.
Along Truman Street sits the convent of Our Lady of the Sea. Many survivors of the hurricane of 1935 were treated there. The nuns erected a grotto next to the church in honor of Our Lady of Lourdes. When hurricane season approaches many candles light the grotto as a prayer to keep Key West free and safe. A marker designates the Southernmost spot in the Continental USA. Tourists love to have their picture taken by it.
We ate lunch at Pepe's Restaurant on Caroline Street, near Flager Station. This eatery, established in 1909, features American food in abundance. I had a hard time finishing my open faced meatloaf sandwich.
A trip to Key West is taking in the numerous water sports: para sailing, jet skis, snorkeling, riding glass bottom boats, deep sea fishing, or just relaxing on the beaches on the Atlantic Ocean side. A day trip to The Dry Tortuga National Park (Fort Jefferson) leaves daily from Key West.
Above all people-watching, the climate, and the laid back atmosphere draws people, young and old, to the Conch Republic. It beckons you too.
John and Maggie Pelley are Geriatric Gypsies. During our travels we have found many different and exciting places. Each town has a story to tell. Both of us enjoy good listening music as we go. John has a CD he has recorded.
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