The Florida Keys' early history is a vibrant tapestry of Upper Keys pineapple plantations and Key lime groves, Key West cigar factories, a Lower Keys shark factory and a thriving community of wreckers who salvaged goods from ships that went down on the nearby reefs - functioning much like an early Coast Guard through their frequent rescues of crews and passengers.
In fact, after legislation was passed in 1828 by the U.S. Congress requiring salvage from wrecks in U.S. waters to be brought to an American port of entry, Key West became the wealthiest city per capita in the infant United States from the bounty of wrecking.
In 1912, railroad tycoon Henry Flagler completed the supposedly impossible "railroad that went to sea," connecting the Keys and Key West with the mainland for the first time and providing a way for wealthy visitors to travel to the Keys for warm-weather vacations.
The railroad operated until 1935, when it was severely damaged in a hurricane. In 1938, it was replaced by the famed Florida Keys Overseas Highway.
Commercial fishing and shrimping became dominant industries in the island chain, followed by the tourism business that flourishes today.
Many sites throughout the Keys recall the region's colorful history, providing visitors enticing glimpses of the heritage that defines the island chain.
The longest island of the Keys chain, and the closest to mainland Florida, is Key Largo. The key gave its name to the 1947 movie classic starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall - portions of which were filmed there. Bogart's Key Largo connection still is evident today as visitors can see the African Queen, the actual boat Bogart skippered in the movie of the same name, at the Holiday Inn Key Largo Resort & Marina, mile marker (MM) 100 oceanside.
Eight miles south at MM 92 oceanside is the centerpiece of the historic community of Tavernier, the Tavernier Hotel. Early in the 1900s it was a drug store, gas station, auto repair shop and even a theater. The property is now an inn whose owners are committed to renovation, enhancement and preserving its history.
A unique Florida Keys cemetery can be found on the beach at Cheeca Lodge & Spa, MM 82 oceanside in Islamorada. Known as the Pioneer Cemetery, this site is the final resting place of early Islamorada settlers and contains a touching statue of an angel.
Also intriguing is Lignumvitae Key Botanical State Park, offshore near MM 78.5 bayside and accessible only by boat. The park features a virgin hardwood hammock containing 1,500-year-old lignum vitae trees, an early Florida Keys pioneer family home and a stone wall believed to have been built by Native Americans.
Venturing into the Middle Keys, Conch Key at MM 63 bayside, is a historic fishing village reminiscent of the early Florida Keys. Small cottages that date back to 1925 are inhabited by commercial trap and line fishermen who work from their backyards.
Marathon is home to Crane Point, a 63.5-acre land tract that is one of the most important historical and archaeological sites in the Keys. Crane Point contains evidence of pre-Columbian and prehistoric Bahamian artifacts, and was once the site of an entire Indian village.
A drive across the Seven Mile Bridge (actually 6.79 miles long), the longest segmental bridge in the world, leads from Marathon to the Lower Keys. But visitors shouldn't pass up the chance to explore Pigeon Key, a small island below the middle of the old Seven Mile Bridge that parallels the current span. Accessible from a visitor center at the west end of Marathon, Pigeon Key once housed the workers who built Henry Flagler's railroad in the early 1900s. While the rest of the Keys have evolved with the years, this tiny key has essentially remained unchanged and is now a national historic treasure complete with a museum chronicling the construction of the old Seven Mile Bridge.
In the Lower Keys, at MM 17 bayside on Sugarloaf Key, visitors can discover an early Florida Keys attempt at mosquito control. In 1929, Lower Keys resort owner Richter Perky erected a wooden structure to house bats to eat the mosquitoes that pestered his guests. Although his plan failed, today his odd-looking, weathered Bat Tower is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Historic sites and structures abound in Key West - including the Little White House where Harry Truman spent 175 days during his 1945-1953 presidency, and the Whitehead Street residence that was home to literary giant Ernest Hemingway throughout the 1930s.
But lesser-known locales in the island city also are well worth visiting.
Among them are the Curry Mansion, 511 Caroline St., an elaborate Victorian residence built on the site of the homestead of Florida's first millionaire that now serves as a historical house museum showcasing an era of elegance. An inn is situated on the property and the structure is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Few sites are more visually appealing than the oceanfront ruins at the historic, never-used Civil War-era fort known as West Martello Tower, surrounded by and containing a beautiful garden featuring indigenous plants, rare palm trees and a butterfly garden. Open for tours and located just past the intersection of Atlantic Boulevard and White Street, the fort is now home to the Key West Garden Club and is called the Joe Allen Garden Center.
More information about the Florida Keys, and their unique historic attractions, can be found by exploring www.fla-keys.com.
Highlights of the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum's collection include artifacts and treasures from two Spanish galleons sunk in Keys waters during a 1622 storm.
The historic boat used in the American movie epic, “African Queen, “ starring Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn. Restored to its original condition, the vessel is on public display at the Holiday Inn Key Largo. Photo by Andy Newman/TDC.
A white picket fence on a palm-shaded section of the lodge's beach surrounds a pioneer cemetery that is a reminder of the determination and vision of the first Anglo-Bahamian settlers (Conchs) that arrived in the area in the 1800s. Descendants of three of Islamorada's first families are buried here.
The old Seven Mile Bridge, also known as the world’s longest fishing pier, is the only road to Pigeon Key which was a base camp used by construction crews building the Florida East Coast Railroad extension to Key West. The five-acre island houses a museum with artifacts and photos chronicling the construction of the bridge. Photo by Andy Newman/TDC.
The Sugarloaf Key Bat Tower is a historic site on Sugarloaf Key, Florida, United States. It is located a mile northwest of U.S. 1 on Lower Sugarloaf Key at mile marker 17. On May 13, 1982, it was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.