The Southernmost Key in Florida

After visiting Biscayne Bay National Park and some of its northern keys (Adams Key, Elliott Key, and Boca Chita Key), David and I drove the Overseas Highway (Hwy. 1) to see some of the other islands in this coral archipelago. The 106.5 mile section of the Highway 1 connects Key Largo with Key West. With this addition, it became the longest north-south road in the U. S. (2,369 mi.) David and I found that the farther south that we traveled on the Scenic Highway, there were fewer visual obstructions and more breathtaking the views of the turquoise water.

Prior to the construction of this highway, railroad magnate, Henry Flagler, built a railroad down to Key West in the 1910s. This was the only overland way to ship goods to and from Key West. After a Category 5 hurricane destroyed many of the railroad structures in 1935, Flagler decided not to rebuild the railroad. The state bought up the right of ways and decided to build a road to replace the rail transportation. While they were able to use some parts of the old railroad route, engineers had to erect some bridges linking the keys again. The longest is a 7-mile bridge that goes from Knight’s Key to Little Duck Key. Although the Highway officially opened in 1938, to this day, they continue making improvements to it.

Key West is the largest city in Monroe County. At one time, it was the largest in the state of Florida due to its prime location. It was an important stopover along the trade routes between Caribbean countries and other U. S. ports like New Orleans. Key West is a city full of history and a mix of many cultures. Monroe County, that contains the Florida Keys, is currently celebrating its bicentennial.

Key West is only 4 miles long and a mile wide but there are a lot of interesting sites packed into this small area. Although we were only there for a day, we had a wonderful time exploring various parts of the city.

We began our day by walking down the famed Duval Street, named for the first territorial governor of Florida, William Pope Duval. There are many shops, art galleries, restaurants, and well-preserved mansions in this downtown area.

In the southernmost part of the city is a Victorian mansion built in 1896. It is appropriately named the Southernmost House. Built by Judge Jeptha Harris, this was the first house in Key West to have electricity. During Prohibition, it served as a speakeasy and casino and, in the 1940s, it was a nightclub. Since its renovation in 1949, five American presidents have stayed there and it was one of Ernest Hemingway’s favorites. Today it is a Bed and Breakfast.

Not far from the mansion is a colorful buoy that is 12 ft. tall and 7 ft. wide. Dedicated in 1983, this monument marks the southernmost point in the continental U. S. Although the buoy states that Cuba is 90 miles away, it is actually 94 miles from this spot.

Near the buoy is a bronze statue of a person blowing a conch shell. In 2015, this sculpture was placed there in memory of Albert Key, the unofficial goodwill ambassador of Key West. He would walk around town yelling “Welcome to the island!” to everyone that came to see the Southernmost buoy.

It is a popular spot for tourists to go to take photos and to watch the sun set. There is often a long line that forms to take these memorable photos.

Key West’s proximity to Cuba resulted in a strong Cuban influence throughout the city. From the Cuban coffee served in restaurants and coffee shops to the stores selling Cuban cigars. We saw another one as we walked around Key West. We heard roosters crow from time to time and there were chickens in peoples’ yards, on the sidewalks, and in the streets. Evidently early settlers brought chickens to the island. Later, Key West roosters were bred in Cuba and brought to the island for cockfighting. When cockfighting was outlawed, roosters were released into the streets where they continue to thrive. These colorful roosters are part of Key West’s vibe and they also help to control the insect population. You can see Cuban culture and heritage all over Key West.

One of the fascinating places that we toured was the Key West Lighthouse. Construction began on the 45 ft. tower in 1825. The first lighthouse was located on Whitehead’s Point, right by the water. It stood firm and tall for 20 years but, in 1846, a hurricane destroyed both the lighthouse and the light keeper’s house. The residents decided to place it farther inland on the island’s highest point. When completed, this new lighthouse was 46 ft. tall. In 1894, they added 20 more feet to the tower making it 100 ft. above sea level. David and I climbed the 88 steps up to the observation platform. From there we could see all of the town below and about seven miles out to sea. We saw Whitehead Point, the Southernmost House, La Concha Hotel where Ernest Hemingway stayed, and many other famous sites in the city.

Next to the Lighthouse is the Light Keeper’s House which is now a Museum. The light keeper and the assistant light keeper and their families lived in this one small house. They had to keep the light lit throughout the night as ships passed through the Florida Straits. The first light keeper was Michael Mabrity. When he died of yellow fever, his wife Barbara became the Principal keeper. She served in that position for 32 years. She was not the only woman to be a light keeper in Key West. Mary Amanda Carroll and Mary Eliza Bethel both were also Key West light keepers.

This historic landmark, with its tower’s amazing views, museum that is full of history of the island and the lighthouse, and beautifully manicured grounds, are worth the visit.

We made a brief stop in front of Ernest Hemingway’s House after a wonderful lunch at the Moondog Cafe and Bakery across the street. Then we made our way to Mile 0 at the corner of Fleming St. and Whitehead St. This is the southernmost point of Highway 1. It’s 2390 miles from the north terminus at Fort Kent, ME.

Our final stop was Fort Zachary Taylor State Park. At the center of this park is the famous Civil War fortress that was named for Zachary Taylor, the 12th President of the U. S. In 1845, construction of this three-level masonry fort began to protect the southeast coast. When completed, the fort’s walls were 5 ft. thick and 50 ft. high. There was a causeway that connected the fort with the mainland. It was surrounded on three sides by a moat.

During the Civil War, Fort Zachary Taylor served as an important Union outpost that combated the Confederate blockade runners. Years later the fort was downsized to just two stories and a battery added. This fortress played a critical role in the Spanish American War, World War I, World War II, and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

In 1968, Civil War guns and ammunition that had been buried earlier were unearthed. Today this fort houses the largest collection of Civil War cannons in the U. S. To see this historic landmark, you can join a ranger-led tour or you can take a self-guided on. We did the later since there were no ranger-led tours the day that we were there.

There are a series of interpretive panels that help you imagine what it was like to be stationed here and you can see the imposing Civil War cannons that are on display. The views of the Atlantic Ocean from the battery are very impressive. If you do plan to visit this site, be aware that the stairs to reach the overlooks are steep. The battery is definitely not accessible for wheelchairs.

There are other places to see in the state park that are very enjoyable as well. There is a section of hardwood trees and white sandy beaches on the Atlantic Ocean. You can swim, snorkel, kayak, fish, picnic and bird watch. There is something for everyone here.

David and I had a great time in the Florida Keys and Key West. There is so much to do and see there and we just saw a small portion of what this area has to offer. We had hoped to make it to Dry Tortugas National Park but we could not get reservations for that excursion. It is a very popular place to go. Maybe we can see it the next time we visit the southernmost key again.

After spending the winter in Florida, David and I are headed north to Canada’s maritime provinces: New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island. Exploring this part of Canada has been on our “bucket list” for some time now and we are looking forward it.

4 thoughts on “The Southernmost Key in Florida

  1. Great post about Key West! Even though it is small you can’t see everything in one day but you saw most of them! We spent many years from the 1970’s to 2006 going to the keys and visited Key West many times. Thanks for taking me on a trip down memory lane!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. We really enjoyed your adventure in Key West. We visited there in the winter of 2020 and loved it. We also got a chance to go to Fort Zachary but did not go to the lighthouse. Loved all the history you provided of the area. Have an amazing time in Canada- Kyle and Michelle

    Liked by 1 person

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