A Very Brief History of the Florida Keys

Now known as The Florida Keys, this chain of limestone islands are remnants the exposed portions of an ancient coral reef resulting from a dramatic decrease in sea levels during the last ice age.

Early Florida Keys Inhabitants

Archaeologist believe the first inhabitants, most likely the Calusa and Tequesta, began vacationing here and establishing small second family homes between 5000 and 3000 B.C.  Without the assistance of Realtors, these hunter-gatherers, including other tribal groupings, grew in numbers until Ponce de Leon and other Europeans began arriving in the early 1500s.  Not without resistance, these Native Americans eventually gave way to new settlers and profiteers, who created a storied history of pirating, farming, shark processing, wreck salvaging, sponging, charcoal burning and cigar making.

Henry Flagler Railroad and Overseas Highway Opens up Keys to Tourism

Facilitated by the completion of the privately built Henry Flagler Railroad connecting Miami to Key West in 1912, and the Overseas Highway in 1928 (although ferry services were required for several gaps in the road), the Florida Keys and Key West became accessible to the world.  Authors, artists, presidents, real estate agents, and tourists were attracted to the tropical environment, abundance of resources, and productive crystal-clear sporting waters.  Tourist oriented businesses including fishing camps, lodges, and service stations soon sprung up along the length of the island chain, facilitating a shift from farming to a thriving tourism industry.

Great Labor Day Hurricane of 1935

The Labor Day hurricane of 1935 was one of the most powerful storms to ever hit the United States with winds in excess of 200 miles per hour and 15-foot-high walls of water.  Over 400 died in the Keys, many World War I veterans who were working on completing the Overseas Highway as part of President Roosevelt’s new WPA infrastructure program.  Large sections of the Flagler Railroad, and the existing highway were washed away.  Although many believed the railroad could have been rebuilt, the bankruptcy court of the Flagler railroad system decided no one was willing to cover the costs to repair it, and the land with its structures, were sold to the State of Florida.  The Overseas Highway was rebuilt, using some of the salvageable portions of the railroad structures, and beginning in 1938 one could drive on a very narrow road trans versing 42 bridges, all the way to Key West, less the previously required ferry services.  The road traveled today was opened in 1980, and runs alongside much of the original railway ruins, many being used as fishing piers and the walking trails for the Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail.

Florida Keys Secedes and Declares War on United States

On April 23rd, 1982, in response to United States Border Patrol’s establishment of north bound roadblocks on US 1, roadblocks looking for illegal drugs and undocumented immigrants, roadblocks deemed detrimental to the thriving tourist industry, the Mayor of Key West, supported by the city council, declared the independence of the Florida Keys from the United States, calling itself the Conch Republic.  With Key West as its capitol, Mayor Dennis Wardlow, now Prime Minister of the new republic, immediately declared war on the United States, surrendering after only one minute of secession to a naval officer at the Key West Naval Air Station.  With the surrender, Prime Minister Wardlow promptly requested a billion dollars in US foreign aid.  Although losing the war, the Conch Republic was successful in that the roadblock and inspection stations were soon removed, initiating a new wave of tourism sparked by the worldwide media coverage of the secession.

Today’s Environmental Concerns

The popularity of Keys to tourist from the mainland thrived, but its Caribbean style tropical weather, unique culture and storied past also made it a popular international destination.  In the 1950s concerns about the Florida Keys ecosystem began in earnest, in part due to the pressure of increased tourism on its reefs and fisheries. Key Largo’s John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, the first underseas park in the United States, was designated in 1959.  Other marine sanctuary areas were established throughout the end of the 20th century with the intent of protecting the fragile environment.  Many addition efforts to mitigate past environmentally harmful policies and practices, including attempts to restore freshwater flows to the Florida Bay and the establishment of central sewers in the Keys, have become priorities to environmentalists and politicians, as well as nearly 80,000 who call the Keys home, including what must be at least thousands of real estate professionals.