Key West is a fascinating place to visit today because of its intriguing history. From Ponce de Leon’s discovery of the island during the Age of Exploration to the island’s attempt at seceding from the union in the early 1980s, declaring itself the Conch Republic for the first time, there are a lot of fun facts and stories to tell. Read on for everything you need to know about the Conch Republic’s history and the present day.
The Conch Republic is Born
Perhaps we should skip ahead to that fateful day in 1982 when the Conch Republic was born. The United States border patrol put up roadblocks at the entrance to the Overseas Highway in an attempt to deter drug smuggling. However, it resulted in major traffic congestion into the island causing stress for both residents and tourists.
The city of Key West responded by declaring its independence from the United States and calling itself the Conch Republic for the first time. Their motto: “We seceded where others failed.”
While the Conch Republic rejoined the union rather quickly, the name stuck and has proven an enduring symbol of Key West’s nonconforming, rebellious nature. Conch Republic Independence is still celebrated every April and you can get your passport stamped with a Conch Republic seal anytime you visit.
The Age of Exploration & Cayo Hueso
Now, let’s turn back the clock about 500 years to when Key West was discovered by Ponce de Leon in 1521 during his expedition to Florida in search of the Fountain of Youth. He named the island Cayo Hueso, which means Bone Island in Spanish, for the bleached limestone rock formation of the island. It was only later that the island became known as “Key West,” which sounded like Cayo Hueso to the English-speaking settlers that later appropriated the Spanish territory.
Conch Republic Becomes Part of the United States
The Florida Keys and Key West officially became part of the United States on March 5, 1822 after Lt. Commander Matthew C. Perry sailed the schooner Shark to the island and planted the US flag on it.
The Conch Republic’s main thoroughfare, Duval Street, was named after Florida’s first territorial governor William Pope Duval, who held office from 1822 to 1834, appointed by James Monroe, John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson.
Conch Republic Gets Rich
Thanks to the abundant water surrounding the Conch Republic and the shallow reefs just offshore, industries like wrecking, salvaging, salt manufacturing and turtling made the Conch Republic the richest city in the United States per capita during the mid-1800s.
In 1847, the Key West Lighthouse was built on Whitehead Street in Old Town to mark the island’s shoreline in an effort to curb shipwrecks. Today, you can still scale to the top for a bird’s eye view of the island and visit the lighthouse keeper’s quarters.
Conch Republic & Cuba
The Conch Republic’s link to Cuba was established at the turn of the century as Cuban refugees of the Ten Years War took shelter. A number of historic Cuban-owned businesses and landmarks exist today, including Kino Sandals and the San Carlos Institute on Duval Street. It’s also a haven for Cuban food and bucci with restaurants like El Meson de Pepe, El Siboney, and the Cuban Coffee Queen.
Planes, Trains, Automobiles (& … Cruise Ships)
In 1912, Henry Flagler’s Overseas Railroad was completed connecting Key West to mainland Florida for the first time on 128 miles of track opening up the island to tourism.
Key West’s aviation history began in 1913 with a charter flight to Cuba and Pan American Airlines was later founded in the Conch Republic in 1927 providing regular air service to Havana.
In 1935, Flagler’s railroad was destroyed by a hurricane and ceased operation. But in 1938, the Overseas Highway, which still functions today, introduced the island to road trippers for the first time.
The Key West International Airport officially opened in 1953. Today, the small airport has two terminals and one runway covering about 330 acres.
Fast forward to 1984 when Key West’s cruise ship port opened on Mallory Square, allowing another point of entry for tourism on the island.
Conch Republic’s Famous Residents
Notable writers, musicians and dignitaries were attracted to the Conch Republic through the years. In 1928, Ernest Hemingway and his second wife Pauline first visited. They spent most of the 1930s in a home on Whitehead Street that you can still visit today.
Playwright Tennessee Williams became a regular visitor starting in 1941 and wrote the first draft of A Streetcar Named Desire here while spending his mornings swimming in the ocean at the end of Duval Street.
President Harry S. Truman began making regular visits to Key West beginning in 1946 staying in the quarters of the former Naval Station's commanding officer. This building is now known as the Harry S. Truman Little White House and is a historic museum open to the public.
Jimmy Buffett & Fantasy Fest
Throughout the 1970s and 80s Key West came into its own as an offbeat destination for dreamers who wanted to live by their own rules. Jimmy Buffett arrived in 1971 and the island has been associated with his famous song Margaritaville ever since. Today, visitors can dine at his restaurant named for the song on Duval Street. In 1979, the first Fantasy Fest was held on the island. The 10-day bacchanal at the end of October is now a legendary annual tradition.
The Conch Republic is a thriving island city with a strong connection to its history. This is apparent in the Classical Revival or Neoclassical architecture of conch cottages and mansions preserved throughout Old Town, as well as many long-standing, locally-owned restaurants, bars and businesses. The waters of Key West are popular for recreational boating and water sports, from fishing to snorkeling, kayaking, sailing, jet skiing, parasailing and eco-tours. You can visit the Custom House museum to view fascinating primary documents and artwork depicting Key West through the ages or go for a spin on the Conch Tour Train to see it all unfold before your eyes.