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Key West, Florida (The Conch Republic)
Founded by the Calussa Indians, Spanish conquistadors attempted to seize this prime location in the Southwestern Keys. The beaches became the burial grounds for many of the natives, thus giving the island the name Bone Island; Cayo Hueso in Spanish. The English Anglicized name is Key West.
John Simonton, an American businessman, bought the island from Juan Pablo Salas and developed the island with the help of Greene, Whitehead, and Fleming. They encouraged the Navy to open an anti-piracy base in the region.
The island thrived because the reef brought many ships to Davy Jones Locker. Many made millions by salvaging countless shipwrecks. At one point, Key West was the wealthiest city per capita in the United States.
Henry Morrison Flager, against all odds and common sense, built a railroad from Homestead to Key West. The first train arrived on January 22, 1912. This connected the country to Key West. From Key West, Havana Cuba was only ninety miles away. Considered one of the Seventh Wonders of the Modern World, the Underground Railroad crossed 42 miles of sea and platforms and bridges, the longest being seven miles. From 1912 to 1935 Key West exploded as a tourist and business center. A major Category 5 hurricane destroyed many railroads in 1935. Once again Key West was cut off from land.
The State of Florida purchased the Overseas Railroad and converted it to the Overseas Highway in 1938, using roads and bridges built by Henry Flager.
World War II brought new development to the island and the Naval Base. Ernest Hemmingway and Tennessee Williams lived and visited the island. Cuban tobacco became hand-rolled cigars.
In 1981 the US Government built roads near Key Largo, cutting off the tourist trade in Key West. I don’t know why this happened. The citizens of Key West decided to secede. They formed the Conch (Pronounced conk) Republic. Many still fly the flag to this day. They demanded billions in reparations and foreign aid. The US government ignored their demands; but they removed the barriers.
Today Key West thrives mainly on tourism. Arrive by driving 128 miles along the Overseas Highway on an old railroad bed, or fly into Key West Airport, or board the Key West Express from Marco Island or Ft. Myers Beach. To get to know the island better, take the 1½ to 2 hour Conch Tour Train. Tickets can be purchased at the Flagger Train station or at the Old Town ticket booth near Mallory Square. A guided tour covers almost every road in Key West: the best places on the island. Other means of transportation on the island are electric cars, bicycles, mopeds, taxis, and bicycle carts for two. Walking on the streets, perhaps, is the best way to see the island, which is four kilometers long and one kilometer wide. Traffic can be very difficult, especially on US 1, which starts at mile marker 0.
Looking for action? Duval Street is your destination. Stop for a beer at Hemingway’s watering hole, Sloppy Joe’s bar and restaurant. If your tastes lean toward Jimmy Buffet, head to Margaritaville, four short blocks down the street. Up and down Duval restaurants, bars, souvenir shops, and people-watching draw everyone to the narrow streets. You might come across one of Key West’s famous chickens walking down the street.
Other highlights include Hemingway’s home, with guided tours that cost $12.00 this time. Outdoor viewing is free. Across Whitehead Street is a historic lighthouse and museum. The lighthouse was moved inland to protect it from the storm. A few other places on the street is the Truman White House. President Truman used the residence as well as many outhouses during his time in office. Other dignitaries followed his lead: John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Colin Powell. Speaking of President Truman, not to be missed is the Margaret Truman Laundromat. Rumor has it that it was named after Margaret Truman, the President’s daughter. Its location is at the corner of Margaret and Truman Streets. Hence his name.
On Truman Street is the convent of Our Lady of the Sea. Many survivors of the 1935 typhoon were helped there. The nuns built a cottage near the church in honor of Our Lady of Lourdes. As hurricane season approaches many candles are lit in the grotto as a prayer to keep Key West free and safe. A marker indicates the southernmost point in the Continental USA. Tourists love to have their picture taken.
We had lunch at Pepe’s Restaurant on Caroline Street, near Flager Station. The restaurant, which was established in 1909, serves a wide variety of American cuisine. I had a hard time finishing my open meat sandwich.
A trip to Key West is all about water sports: parasailing, jet skis, snorkeling, glass boating, deep sea fishing, or just relaxing on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. Tours to The Dry Tortugas National Park (Fort Jefferson) depart daily from Key West.
Above all, the people-watching, weather, and serene atmosphere draw people, young and old, to Conch Republic. It invites you too.
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