The Best Historical Sites To Visit In Key West

Key West: A Journey Through History

Key West, the southernmost point of the continental United States, is not only famous for its pristine beaches and vibrant nightlife but also boasts a rich and diverse history that spans centuries. From its roots as a Spanish colony to its strategic importance during the Civil War, Key West has been a witness to many historical events. This comprehensive travel guide will take you on a journey through time, exploring some of the most historical sites on this beautiful island.

Key West is small island located at the southern tip of Florida, is a place where history and paradise collide. The island’s unique geographical location, once considered remote, made it an important outpost throughout American history. Today, it’s a popular destination for tourists looking to explore the island’s historical sites, beautiful beaches, and unique culture.

In this travel guide, we will delve into the history of Key West, starting with its early days as a Spanish colony, its role during the Civil War, the legacy of Ernest Hemingway, and much more. Key West is not just a beach destination; it’s a place where history comes to life, and every corner has a story to tell.

Early History

The Spanish Colonial Era

Key West’s history dates back to the early 16th century when Spanish explorers arrived in the region. In 1513, Ponce de Leon is believed to have been the first European to set foot on the island. The name “Key West” is derived from the Spanish name “Cayo Hueso,” meaning “Bone Island,” due to the large number of bones found on the island, believed to be from the native Calusa people.

One of the most significant historical sites from this era is San Carlos Fort, located at 530 Greene St. It was built in 1809 during the Spanish occupation and played a vital role in protecting the island from pirates and foreign invaders. Today, you can visit the reconstructed fort and explore its well-preserved interior.

The Wrecking Industry

During the 19th century, Key West was known for its lucrative wrecking industry. Due to its treacherous coral reefs, the waters around Key West were a graveyard for many ships. Local wreckers made a living salvaging cargo from these shipwrecks. To get a sense of this industry’s history, visit the Key West Shipwreck Treasure Museum at 1 Whitehead St. This interactive museum offers a glimpse into the dangerous and profitable world of wrecking during the 19th century.

Key West in the Civil War

Key West played a crucial role during the American Civil War, serving as a Union stronghold in the South. The island’s strategic location made it a valuable base for the Union Navy’s blockade of Confederate ports.

Fort Zachary Taylor

Fort Zachary Taylor, located within Fort Zachary Taylor State Park at Southard St & Eisenhower Dr, is one of the most significant Civil War-era historical sites. Construction of the fort began in 1845 and continued throughout the Civil War. The fort served as a Union outpost, protecting Key West and the Florida Straits. Today, you can take a guided tour of the fort and explore its well-preserved artillery pieces and underground tunnels.

East Martello Tower

Another Civil War-era site is the East Martello Tower, situated at 3501 S Roosevelt Blvd. This coastal defense tower was never completed, but it now houses the Key West Art and Historical Society. Visitors can explore the museum’s collections, which include Civil War artifacts, shipwreck treasures, and exhibits on the island’s history.

The Hemingway Legacy

One of Key West’s most famous historical figures is the renowned author, Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway lived on the island during the 1930s and 1940s, and his legacy is still alive today.

Ernest Hemingway House

The Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum, located at 907 Whitehead St, is where the famous author lived and wrote some of his most celebrated works. The house is also known for its resident population of polydactyl (six-toed) cats, descendants of Hemingway’s own beloved feline companions. Tour the beautiful Spanish colonial-style house and gardens while learning about Hemingway’s life and works.

Hemingway Days Festival

If you’re visiting in July, don’t miss the annual Hemingway Days Festival, a week-long celebration of the author’s life and work. The festival features events like the “Papa” Hemingway Look-Alike Contest, literary readings, and the famous Running of the Bulls, a lighthearted event featuring participants dressed as Hemingway and fake bulls.

Shipwrecks and Salvage

As mentioned earlier, Key West’s coral reefs made it a perilous place for ships, leading to many shipwrecks over the centuries. The island’s maritime history is a fascinating aspect of its heritage.

Mel Fisher Maritime Museum

The Mel Fisher Maritime Museum, located at 200 Greene St, is a treasure trove of shipwreck artifacts. Mel Fisher and his team discovered the shipwreck of the Spanish galleon Nuestra Señora de Atocha, which had been lost at sea for over 350 years. The museum showcases the incredible treasures they found, making it a must-visit for history enthusiasts.

Shipwreck Treasure Museum

Another great place to explore the world of shipwrecks is the Key West Shipwreck Treasure Museum, located at 1 Whitehead St. This museum offers a hands-on experience, allowing visitors to see how wrecks were salvaged and the valuable cargo recovered. You can even climb the observation tower for panoramic views of Key West.

Key West’s Cuban Connection

Key West has a strong historical connection with Cuba, particularly during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

San Carlos Institute

The San Carlos Institute, at 516 Duval St, is a historic Cuban heritage and cultural center. It played a significant role in the Cuban independence movement and is a symbol of the deep ties between Key West and Cuba. The institute’s museum and events celebrate Cuban culture and history.

Jose Marti Park

Adjacent to the San Carlos Institute is José Martí Park, a memorial to the Cuban patriot and journalist. This tranquil park is a place of reflection and a testament to the enduring connection between Key West and Cuba.

The Historic Waterfront

Key West’s historic waterfront is a vibrant and bustling area that has played a central role in the island’s history.

Mallory Square

Mallory Square, located at the northern end of Duval St, is a lively hub for tourists and locals alike. It’s famous for its nightly sunset celebration, where street performers, vendors, and visitors gather to watch the sun dip below the horizon. The square has a long history and is named after Stephen Mallory, the Confederate Secretary of the Navy during the Civil War.

Key West Historic Seaport

The Key West Historic Seaport, situated at the north end of Duval St, is another vital historical area. It has been a bustling port since the mid-1800s, supporting the island’s shipwrecking and fishing industries. Today, you can stroll along the harbor, dine at waterfront restaurants, and even take boat tours to explore the surrounding waters.

Historical Houses and Museums

Key West is home to several beautifully preserved historic houses and museums that provide insights into the island’s past.

Audubon House and Tropical Gardens

The Audubon House and Tropical Gardens, at 205 Whitehead St, is a meticulously restored 19th-century home. It is named after the famous naturalist and painter John James Audubon, who visited Key West in the 1830s. The house is a testament to the island’s history and the way of life of its early residents.

Key West Lighthouse and Keeper’s Quarters Museum

The Key West Lighthouse, at 938 Whitehead St, has guided ships through the waters surrounding Key West since 1847. Visitors can climb the 88 steps to the top for panoramic views of the island and the ocean. The adjacent Keeper’s Quarters Museum provides a glimpse into the lives of the lighthouse keepers and their families.

African American History

Key West has a rich African American history, with significant contributions to the island’s culture and heritage.

Key West African Cemetery

The Key West African Cemetery, located at Higgs Beach on Atlantic Blvd, is a solemn reminder of the island’s African American history. It is the final resting place for African refugees who were brought to Key West on the ship “Wildfire” in 1860. A monument at the site commemorates their struggle for freedom.

Frederick Douglass Gymnasium

Named after the prominent African American abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass, the Frederick Douglass Gymnasium, at 111 Olivia St, is a historic building that once served as a gathering place for the African American community. Today, it is a community center that continues to honor Douglass’s legacy.

Truman’s Little White House

Truman’s Little White House, located at 111 Front St, is a historical gem in Key West. It served as a winter retreat for several U.S. presidents, including Harry S. Truman. The house’s history is closely tied to Truman’s presidency and the Cold War era.

History of Truman’s Little White House

Built in 1890, the house became a naval station during World War I and World War II. It was also used by President Truman during his time in office and has hosted other U.S. presidents and foreign dignitaries. The house is preserved as it was during Truman’s time, with his personal belongings and memorabilia on display.

Tours and Visitor Information

Truman’s Little White House is open to the public, and guided tours are available. Visitors can explore the rooms where decisions that shaped the world were made, and gain insight into the life of a U.S. president in a tropical paradise.

Historic Tours and Activities

When exploring Key West’s historical sites, consider taking one of the following tours to enhance your experience:

Conch Tour Train

The Conch Tour Train is a popular way to explore the island’s history and landmarks. The train takes you on a narrated tour through Key West, passing by many of the historical sites mentioned in this guide. It’s a great way to get an overview of the island’s history and architecture.

Old Town Trolley Tours

The Old Town Trolley Tours offer a hop-on-hop-off experience, allowing you to explore Key West at your own pace. The trolley stops at various historical sites and attractions, making it a convenient way to see the island’s history unfold.

Key West’s historical sites offer a fascinating journey through time, from the Spanish colonial era to its role in the Civil War, its connection to Ernest Hemingway, the wrecking industry, and more. This island paradise is not just about beaches and nightlife; it’s also a place where history comes alive at every corner.

As you explore Key West’s historical sites, you’ll gain a deeper appreciation for the island’s rich heritage and the diverse influences that have shaped it. Whether you’re interested in maritime history, the legacy of famous authors, or the cultural ties to Cuba, Key West has something for every history enthusiast.

So, as you enjoy the sun and surf, take the time to delve into the past and discover the remarkable history of Key West. It’s a journey that will leave you with a deeper understanding of this beautiful island and its enduring legacy. Enjoy your historical adventure in Key West!

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