An island resting where the Gulf of Mexico meets the Atlantic Ocean, Key West is surrounded by shallow water with the deep, cold, quick-running Gulf Stream current just offshore. With its unique position 150 miles south of mainland Miami and 90 miles north of Cuba, it’s only natural that Key West would have a rich maritime history. From explorers and pirates to fishermen and the Navy, the waters of Key West have proven ripe for discovery and adventure, as well as strategic territory for the US military. Here’s the ultimate guide to Key West’s maritime history.
The Age of Exploration & Cayo Hueso
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.
During this expedition, de Leon also found the Dry Tortugas 70 miles west of Key West and gave them their name for the abundance of sea turtles there (tortugas means turtles in Spanish.)
US Territory & The Navy
The Florida Keys and Key West officially become 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.
In 1823, The US Navy’s presence was established in Key West to stop piracy. With wealthy shipping merchants operating fleets from the Lower Keys, pirates like Blackbeard and William Kidd used the Florida Keys as a base to prey on shipping lanes.
Key West Gets Rich
Starting in 1828 and throughout the 1850s, working on the water became a profitable business in Key West. Thanks to the shallow reefs just offshore and the vast waters of the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico, industries like wrecking, salvaging, salt manufacturing and turtling made Key West the richest city in the United States per capita.
In 1847, the Key West Lighthouse was built to help prevent shipwrecks and offer a safe harbor to ships sailing ashore. You can still scale to the top today for spectacular bird’s eye views of the island.
Naval Expansion & the Coast Guard
From 1845 to 1866, Fort Zachary Taylor was constructed as a Naval fort. During this period, The Sand Key Lighthouse was built in 1853 seven miles south of Key West to mark the barrier reef and prevent shipwrecks. Today, it’s a popular destination for snorkeling.
During the Civil War, the State of Florida joined the Confederacy, while Key West remained Union territory because of the island’s strong Naval presence.
Fort Zachary Taylor also figured prominently during the Spanish-American War when the battleship Maine exploded at anchor and sank after sailing from Key West to Havana. This act caused the United States to declare war on Spain. The entire US Atlantic Fleet was sent to Key West during the war.
During World War I in 1917, a US Naval Submarine Basin was established to supply oil to the US Fleet and block German ships from reaching Mexican oil. That same year, the base expanded to include Naval Aviation with seaplanes and blimps for year-round training facilities thanks to ideal conditions with access to the open sea. Today, it’s still used for Navy SEAL and paratrooper training.
At the end of World War I, the base was largely decommissioned. It would continue to be used intermittently during World War II and the Cold War. Today, the US Coast Guard maintains active duty on the island.
Adventure & Tourism
In 1928, Ernest Hemingway and his second wife Pauline first visited Key West. They spent most of the 1930s in a home on Whitehead Street that you can visit today. The Pulitzer and Nobel Prize-winning author’s years in Key West were his most prolific writing period. He also spent his days fishing the waters surrounding Key West on his beloved boat Pilar. He even helped a team of scientists in the classification of many species of fish in the area for the first time.
The Schooner Western Union was built in Monroe County in 1939 and launched off the beach on Simonton Street. The wooden tall ship originally protected the front from U-Boats during World War II and later laid communication cables between Key West and Cuba. Docked at the Historic Seaport today, she’s considered the Flagship of the State of Florida and a historic treasure of Key West’s early seafaring days.
In 1984, a cruise ship port opened directly on Mallory Square opening up the island to further tourism.
A piece of Key West’s history was dredged up from the bottom of the ocean floor in 1985 by treasure hunter Mel Fisher when he discovered the 1622 wreck of the Spanish galleon Atocha. From “pieces of eight” gold coins to Fisher’s exciting life, you can learn all about his discoveries at the Mel Fisher Museum.
Today, 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. There are a wide variety of tour operators to get you out on the water to experience all the joys of Key West’s maritime heritage.