The Upper Keys
Key Largo to Long Key
The Spanish first found the Keys during Ponce de León's 1513 expedition and promptly called them, with inquisitional flair, Los Martires-the martyrs-because they seemed twisted and tortured. They logged out the mahogany that grew here early on, and probably enslaved the native Caloosa Indians, but they were indifferent to exploring or settling these stony islands. There was no gold, no fresh water, and many, many bugs. They mapped and named the Keys principally as an aid to their ships, which, laden with gold and silver, used the Florida Straits as their route from the New World back to the Old.
The first settlement in the Keys was at Cayo Hueso, or Key West, in 1822, more than two decades before Florida became a state. The other keys remained pretty much deserted until 1874, when the government surveyed them and plotted land for homesteading. The early homes were primitive, built from the local "coastal store"?the beach?with wood and materials washed up from shipwrecks. The biggest plague of the settlers was mosquitoes. The mosquito was king of the Keys. Mosquitoes blackened the sides of houses and obscured the shapes of animals. Mosquitoes blackened the cheesecloth which people swathed their heads in as they slept. If you swung a pint cup, the saying went, you'd come up with a quart full of mosquitoes. Smudge pots burned constantly inside and outside the driftwood houses. Burlap bags filled with wood chips soaked in old engine oil were hung to drip over stagnant water holes in an attempt to kill mosquito larvae. With mosquitoes gnawing on them day and night, a few pioneering families nevertheless managed to claw a living from what one writer of the time referred to as "worthless, chaotic fragments of coral reef, limestone and mangrove swamp."
The people who first made their homes in the Upper Keys were hardworking Methodist fishermen and farmers. They spoke with a Cockney accent, were closely interrelated, and bore the names Albury, Pinder, Johnson, Russell, and Lowe. Their more flamboyant wrecking neighbors were in Key West, but life in the "outside keys" was earnestly drab, farming rock being somewhat Sisyphean in nature. But farm the rock they did, burning and clearing the land and planting coconuts, citrus, pineapple, and melons in the ashy interstices between the coral. They homesteaded on the Atlantic, and transportation between the scattered houses was by shallow-draft boat. These boats also took the produce out to deeper waters, where it was off-loaded onto schooners which sailed to Key West as well as to northern ports.
In 1905 Henry Flagler, a former partner of John D. Rockefeller in Standard Oil and president of the Florida East Coast Railroad, began extending the train track from Homestead, through the Everglades, to Key Largo. Flagler was always pushing southward, legend has it, because his wives were forever wanting to be warmer. (Flagler had three wives. The middle one, Ida Alice, went mad after finding too much solace in her Ouija board. The planchette kept telling her she was destined to marry the czar of Russia. The strict divorce laws of Florida were changed for Flagler. Sailing through the legislature and signed by the governor in a swift two and a half weeks, a new provision made incurable insanity grounds for divorce. Flagler disposed of Ida Alice and quickly wed a bubbly lady named Mary Lily who liked bourbon and laudanum but avoided the Ouija board.) Other railroad tycoons thought Flagler's interest in Florida absurd, considering it a worthless country, save for its climate. Flagler had the great field of Florida to himself. He pushed down from St. Augustine to Palm Beach, and then to Miami (then known as Fort Dallas), but shipping out from that point was limited by the 12-foot depth of Biscayne Bay. Key West, with its fine deepwater port, was the perfect terminus for the Florida East Coast Railway. With the Panama Canal being built, Flagler saw a rosy future for commerce, with rail and ferry lines extending to South America. Flagler was 75 years old when construction began on his oversea railway and died only a few months after the project was completed in 1912.
For seven years the track and train, freighted with peril and mishap, inched their way down the Keys to Key West. Settlers in the Upper Keys longed for the railroad to be completed, believing that it would put them in closer touch with their markets and make them wealthy. But eventually the railroad meant the end of their little coastal communities and their large fruit farms. Key West became a receiving center for produce from all over the Caribbean and South America, and cheaper fruit was introduced to the mainland. Too, the few inches of Keys topsoil that had supported such exotics as Porto Rico, Abbakka Queen, and Sugar Loaf pineapples was soon robbed of all nutrients, and the plantations failed. Towns like Planter, which once shipped out a million crates of limes, pineapples, tomatoes, and melons a year by schooner, simply disappeared, a victim of sporadic hurricanes and the railroad. Other communities that sprang up along the track vanished too, when the 1935 hurricane blew the train away.
It was this hurricane?the hurricane, the nameless one?that made the history of the Upper Keys. It swept across the Matecumbe Keys on September 2, 1935, with an 18-foot tidal wave and 200-mph winds. Matecumbe is a name of obscure origins, but it may be a corruption of the Spanish mata hombre?"kill man"?which was also the meaning of Cuchiyaga, the Indian name for the island. In any case, it was a fated place. More than 800 people died in the hurricane, many of them members of the second "Bonus Army" of World War I veterans who, seeking early military benefits, had been hired instead by the Federal Emergency Relief Administration for work projects across the country. In this instance they were building a road from Lower Matecumbe to Grassy Key so that the ferry route could be eliminated. Most of them died when the train sent down to rescue them was blown off the tracks in Islamorada. Of the 11 cars, only the 106-ton locomotive, Old 447, remained upright, saving the lives of the engineer and the fireman. Many of the dead were burned in funeral pyres overseen by the National Guard in the sunny days after the storm, while others were buried in a common crypt marked by a monument in Islamorada.
Besides winds, the history here is in the waters?in the wrecks and reefs. The waters off the Upper Keys conceal a remarkable number of wrecks, from Spanish galleons to British frigates to World War II freighters. Cannon from the HMS Winchester, a 60-gun British frigate which went down in a hurricane in 1695, are displayed on dry ground at Pennecamp Park, and the adventurous diver can frequently see less restored and considerably wetter and blurrier artifacts. A wreck that is not present but that has left its contemporary and eternal mark is that of the Wellwood, a 400-foot Turkish freighter which ran aground within the park's boundaries in the fall of 1984. The Wellwood, filled with chicken feed and captained, it would certainly seem, with some incompetence by a C. H. Vickers, ignored the 45-foot flashing light that marks Molasses Reef on the southernmost boundary of the park and plowed into the reef, annihilating four acres of living coral. It made a portion of that fabulous tract?all the peaks and valleys and colorful caves bright with life?as flat and as gray as a parking lot.
The reef that runs along the Atlantic coast of the Keys, close to the great Gulf Stream, is fantastically fragile. All reefs are complex and highly particular life-forms, requiring lots of sunlight and clear, warm water. The Florida Keys tract (the only reef in the continental United States) exists at the northernmost limit of tropical reef development. It is threatened by this potentially chilly location. It is threatened by its own wonderful accessibility. It is threatened by development on land, by boat bilge, by silt dredged up from marinas, by the effluent and rainwater runoff from condo complexes and parking lots. It is threatened by overuse and misuse. With all this close at hand, it seems cruel and unnecessary for fate to bring tons of chicken feed blundering out of the darkness for the singular purpose of extinguishing part of beautiful Molasses Reef, but blunder out of the darkness the chicken feed did. (More recently, a 147-foot freighter carrying candy and cigarettes deliberately grounded on Western Sambo Reef in the Lower Keys during a winter storm, demolishing that.) The Park Service has marked off the damaged tract with yellow cone-shaped buoys and they are monitoring it for signs of regeneration, which they do not expect to occur. The part of the reef visited by the wayward Wellwood has ceased to exist. It has become part of Keys history, as gone as the Caloosa Indians, the railroad, and the green turtle.
By car there are two approaches to the Keys. The most commonly traveled is Route 1, the stretch that skirts the savannah of the Everglades, crosses Jewfish Creek (which is part of the Intracoastal Waterway) and broad Lake Surprise, so named by the first railroad survey party in 1902, who apparently had not anticipated its existence. The Card Sound Road is eight miles longer and has a modest toll but it is a much more pleasant ride past mangrove fringed creeks. It also provides you with the opportunity to stop at Alabama Jack's just before the bridge. A ramshackle, easygoing place, there are good sandwiches, soups, and seafood plates, as well as sides of Hoppin' John, the good luck New Year's Day dish that's served every day here. Open 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Bands Saturday and Sunday afternoons.
Sometimes it's nice to contemplate things that aren't there. The 11-mile strip between the wealthy and very private Ocean Reef Club (once considered by the FBI to be one of the most secure resorts in the country before it was battered by Hurricane Andrew in 1992) and Card Sound Road's convergence with Route 1 is empty, but grandiose projects have long been planned for this area. In 1955 speculators bought up 1,500 acres of virgin land here and incorporated it as the city of North Key Largo Beach. It was a phantom city with a phantom government but with very large intentions. It would be a city of 100,000 people to begin with, which would have increased the population of the Keys by 150 percent. It would be a supercity, of course, with much modern gadgetry, like monorails. The land was rescued from this ghastly inspiration when the Nature Conservancy and the Fish and Wildlife Service purchased it for their Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge. Construction of the notorious "Port Bougainvillea"?described by its developers as "an imitation Mediterranean coastal village" of almost 3,000 units, pocked with "baylets" and man-made lakes?was halted because the very enormity of the project bankrupted its backers. Many other condos and hotels have been planned for Card Sound Road, but so far three homely beasts have prevented them from being built?the alligator, the wood rat, and the cotton mouse. Modest and much maligned but all federally protected endangered species, these three have kept bulldozers from overrunning the Keys.
County Road 905 intersects Route 1 just as you begin to enter Key Largo. One half mile before this juncture is the entrance to Key Largo Hammocks State Botanical Site. At 2,000 acres it is one of the largest contiguous tracts of subtropical West Indian hardwood hammock found in the United States. It is right where Port Bougainvillea was going to be built. There's a short nature trail (less than a mile) where you can marvel at the complexity and vegetative variety of a Keys "jungle." Off-limits and behind a tall fence is the ruin of the development's model villas. Some of Key Largo's youths like to access this ruin and practice spray-painting the symbol for anarchy on the rose-colored walls.
There used to be a sign just beyond the one welcoming travelers to the Florida Keys. It said, hell is truth seen too
late. But it was taken down, probably by a realtor.
Key Largo Key was once a series of barely connected keys with a few high ridges. Railroad construction filled in the channels between the islets, leaving us with what we now experience as a single long key which stretches all the way down to Tavernier. A four-lane road runs the length of the key, divided from MM #100 down to MM #92 by a wooded median.
The town of Key Largo was originally known as Rock Harbor. Real estate promoters sought to cash in on the publicity given the 1948 Bogart-Bacall movie and circulated a petition to have the name changed. The request was granted by postal authorities in 1952, and Rock Harbor became Key Largo.
The movie Key Largo, with the exception of a few interior set scenes shot inside the bar the Caribbean Club, was filmed entirely on a soundstage in Hollywood. The film itself may be drenched with Bogart charisma, but it certainly is counterfeit Keys; director John Huston ornamented the script with California touches such as fog and kelp. However, the fact that the actors never came to Key Largo, and that the film was not shot here, did not faze the town's boosters. Key West had Hemingway, why shouldn't Largo have Bogie? To compound matters, the owner of the Holiday Inn, maintaining that "Key Largo is laden with memories of the great actor," bought the riverboat used in the Bogart movie The African Queen (which was filmed mostly in England) and now offers "excursions" in it, when the engine's working, from his dock. As a random touch, he has the original Chris-Craft boat that was used in the movie On Golden Pond there as well?although there's a suspicion that it's really a double of the boat that was used in the movie, thereby rendering any experience you might have seeing it possibly doubly meaningless.
What Key Largo is far more justifiably known for is the reef, for here is the beautiful and unique John Pennecamp Coral Reef State Park. The coral reef is one of the world's most ancient and involved life-forms, and the easy availability of this spectacular other world is what makes a trip to the Florida Keys so special. The reef, lying between four and seven miles offshore, runs parallel to the Keys from Largo to the Dry Tortugas. It protects the Keys from storms and is also the reason why there are no sandy beaches on these islands?the reef absorbs the roll of waves which, if they came ashore, would gradually wear away rock to sand. The depths at which the most variety of life and geological relief occur is between 15 and 35 feet of water. At greater depths there is not as much diversity, but the corals, sponges, and fish are larger.
Excerpted from The Florida Keys by Joy Williams. Copyright © 2003 by Joy Williams. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.