Twenty-five years ago, on May 18, 1991, two queens met on a remote island 70 miles west of Key West. And I was there.
Okay, so there was only one genuine queen present at Fort Jefferson in Dry Tortugas National Park. But the other was certainly a queen to me, and to the citizens of the Conch Republic (a/k/a the Florida Keys & Key West).
The Brittania, Britain’s royal yacht, carrying Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, arrives at Fort Jefferson in Dry Tortugas National Park.
Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip visited the Florida Keys as a brief stopover on the way to New Orleans after spending several days in Miami. Believe me, the pomp and circumstance at Fort Jefferson was significantly more low-key than in Miami.
Queen Elizabeth and her party arrived via tenders from the magnificent Royal Yacht Britannia that had anchored just off the fort.
The Keys’ “queen” was Monroe County Mayor Wilhelmina Harvey, the island chain’s first woman county mayor (who passed away in May 2005 at age 93).
Wilhelmina, who was born in the Southernmost City in the continental U.S., made the 70-mile trip from Key West via helicopter. It was the first time the then 79-year-old had ever flown in a helicopter.
About an hour before Queen Elizabeth’s arrival, Wilhelmina and the small contingent of assembled media — including me — were given a rather strict briefing about how the royal couple must be greeted.
We media types were absolutely forbidden to shout or ask the queen to turn one way or another for a better photo or video angle. And we couldn’t move an inch from our designated spots!
The late Florida Keys Mayor Wilhelmina Harvey is flanked by media representatives (including Florida Keys tourism council publicist Andy Newman in the pink shirt) as they wait for the arrival of Queen Elizabeth II.
And so the moment arrived. Tenders carrying the queen and her party tied up to the Fort Jefferson dock. The royal couple exited the boat.
Wilhelmina was dressed in a tropical white dress with a red shawl and a wide-brimmed hat to help fend off the subtropical sun. She welcomed Her Majesty to the Keys by presenting her with a conch shell and an Honorary Conch certificate.
My goal was to get a picture of the two of them together with the shell so we could see both faces. But alas, the queen faced Wilhelmina during the entire presentation and never turned.
National Park Service ranger Matt Fagan spent about 45 minutes escorting Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip around Fort Jefferson. He hit all the highlights including the fort’s distinction that, despite its massive size and role as a critical defense point in controlling access to the Gulf of Mexico, it had never been fired upon.
The royal party also saw the cell where an American physician was imprisoned for conspiring with John Wilkes Booth to assassinate U.S. President Abraham Lincoln in 1865.
Four years afterward, Dr. Samuel Mudd was pardoned by President Andrew Johnson — but despite repeated efforts by Mudd’s descendants, his conviction was never expunged. His exact role in Lincoln’s murder, if any, is still officially unknown.
National Park Service ranger Matt Fagan (left) shows Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip around Fort Jefferson.
As Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip made their way back to the tenders to return to the Britannia, a group of campers gathered on the Fort Jefferson beach. They quietly gave the “royal wave” as the tenders departed for the Britannia.
But the story doesn’t quite end there.
In November 1992, Windsor Castle suffered a major fire. The castle is one of three principal residences of the British monarch.
Veteran Florida Keys radio news director Bill Becker remembers talking to Wilhelmina a few days after the fire.
“She told me that she regretted not telling the queen that it’s bad luck to keep a conch shell inside a house,” said Becker, who has been at the helm of U.S. 1 Radio News for more than 35 years. “She was very concerned the conch shell she gave the queen had made its way into Windsor Castle.”
Of course, nobody in the Keys really knows whether or not the conch shell was taken inside Windsor Castle.
And whenever I saw the queen of the Florida Keys, she told me that the opportunity to meet Queen Elizabeth was “one of the most beautiful things that ever happened in my life.”