Thursday, April 8, 2010
Key West, Florida - A Different World
Key West, Florida
Originally called Cayo Hueso (literally "bone key") by Spanish explorers, the island of Key West is said to have been visited by Juan Ponce de León as early as 1521. Once Florida became a Spanish colony, a garrison was established on the small fishing village, and the Europeans found an adequate jumping off point for sailors between Cuba and the Bahamas.
In 1763, Great Britain took control of Florida, and the Spaniards who had settled there quickly relocated to Havana. Although Florida was later reclaimed by the Spanish, no single nation exerted control over Key West for quite some time.
History records a flip-flopping interest in the area among the United States, Spain, and Britain for many years through many military conflicts. Nevertheless, many of the island residents were immigrants of European ancestry referred to as “Conchs,” who emigrated from the Bahamas in great numbers by the early nineteenth century.
It was not until Key West was connected to the Florida mainland via the Overseas Railway extension of Henry M. Flagler's Florida East Coast Railway in the first part of the twentieth century that the island was no longer isolated. Eventually, after the U.S. government built an automobile highway to the Keys, the area became a hot spot. U.S. Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy were particularly fond of the area. Celebrities like Ernest Hemingway popularized Key West to legendary proportions.
Most Americans are unaware that in 1982 Key West actually declared its independence from the United States, and established itself as the Conch Republic in a protest over a United States Border Patrol blockade, which paralyzed the tourist industry. Conch Republic flags and tee shirts remain popular souvenirs for visitors to Key West. April 23rd marks the annual Conch Republic Independence Celebration.
I love Key West and visit often. I find it to be the ideal place to write. The big draw for me, missed by hundreds of tourists each year, is the status of the island. True, the tiny, southernmost region of the continental U.S. is ideal for vacationing. The fishing is superb. The restaurants are fantastic. The scenery is outstanding. The weather is tropical. But Cayo Hueso is not a place. It is a state of mind.