Key West’s colorful history includes shipwreck treasures and artifacts, artists and eccentrics, a cigar-making heyday, a vibrant past as a bustling seaport and even an eerie haunted doll. So it’s no surprise to find that cultural and historic richness preserved, spotlighted and celebrated in the island city’s many museums.
For example, Key West is home to the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum, founded by the legendary shipwreck salvor who died in 1998. The museum holds the richest single collection of 17th-century maritime and shipwreck antiquities in the Western Hemisphere. And most of them, remarkably, were recovered from nearby waters.
There you can view gold, silver, emeralds and priceless artifacts from the shipwrecked Spanish galleons Nuestra Señora de Atocha — wrecked off Key West in 1622 and discovered by Mel in 1985 — and Santa Margarita. Plus there are artifacts from the English merchant slave vessel Henrietta Marie, which sank in 1700 near the Marquesas Keys.
The museum’s other highlights include a poignant exhibit titled “With Little More Than the Shirts on Their Backs.” It features displays of personal items that Cuban balseros, or rafters, brought to the Florida Keys on chugs — handmade boats — on their treacherous ocean journeys to freedom. The Mariana, a 21-foot makeshift vessel that carried 24 Cubans from their homeland to Key West in 2015, stands in the museum’s courtyard. 200 Greene St.
Not far away, at Flagler Station in the Key West Historic Seaport, is the recently opened Sails to Rails Museum. Step inside, and you can follow an interactive timeline of the island city’s history to learn about the industries of sponge fishing, turtle harvesting, shipwreck salvage (also called wrecking) and cigar making.
The fascinating museum features hands-on exhibits, video presentations, rare artifacts and an outstanding scale model of Fort Jefferson. (FYI, the massive Civil War–era fort is the centerpiece of remote Dry Tortugas National Park, lying about 70 miles west of Key West in the Gulf of Mexico.)
You’ll also learn about Henry Flagler, the visionary who conceived the Florida Keys Over-Sea Railroad. Completed in 1912, the railroad connected the previously isolated Keys with the mainland and each other for the first time — forever changing the history of the island chain. 901 Caroline St.
Other unique elements of the city’s seafaring heritage are spotlighted at the Key West Lighthouse and Keeper’s Quarters Museum. Opened in 1848 with a woman as its keeper, the lighthouse guided mariners through the region’s treacherous waters until it was decommissioned in 1969. It stands beside the keepers’ quarters building, where you can explore the stories of the men and women who kept the light burning.
Now restored to an early 1900s appearance, the keepers’ quarters contains original artifacts, photographs and other items relating to generations of lighthouse keepers. Climb the 88 steps to the top of the lighthouse and get a fabulous view of Key West. 938 Whitehead St.
Fort East Martello Museum, located in a brick fortress that dates back to 1862, provides another window into the island’s heritage and character.
The museum contains exhibits highlighting the eclectic and haunted aspects of the Keys. Particularly notable is “Stanley Papio — Junkyard Rebel,” commemorating the late metal sculptor whose quirky welded creations incorporate recycled car parts, appliances, pipes, wire and similar items. The museum houses the world’s leading collection of Papio’s art, with more than 100 of the Key Largo artist’s works on display.
Among the artifacts recalling the city’s haunted past is the infamous Robert the Doll — an eerie 41-inch doll who continues to intrigue paranormal investigators, museum visitors and Robert’s nearly 10,000 (!) Facebook followers. 3501 S. Roosevelt Blvd.
This fall, families will find it especially easy to explore museums and historic attractions in Key West and around the Florida Keys. That’s because the Key West Attractions Association is offering a Kids Free Florida Keys program with free admission to attractions and tours for youngsters. Kids 12 and under can enjoy free experiences from Sept. 3 through Oct. 13 when accompanied by an adult.
Participating Kids Free attractions and museums include the Key West Lighthouse & Keeper’s Quarters, Fort East Martello Museum, Old Town Trolley, Conch Tour Train, Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory, Key West Aquarium and Harry S. Truman Little White House Museum.
In the Middle and Upper Keys, participants include Dolphin Research Center, the Turtle Hospital, Florida Keys Aquarium Encounters and oTHErside Boardsports’ paddle or kayak eco-tours.
For Kids Free coupons, just visit kidsfreefloridakeys.com.