My America...Journeys

"Let every fellow tell his tale about." Chaucer

Sunday, September 24, 2006



Topside, the waning rays of the setting sun bathed the eclectic grouping that gathers each evening for the sunset ritual on Key West's Mallory St. Pier. They probably didn't know it, but they were standing on the birthplace of the Florida Keys.

"You will naturally inquire how we live, and the reply is very simple; by and through wrecks. Stop that and we cease to live". So wrote attorney Charles Walker to a friend in 1840, clearly defining what made this little dot of coral scrub pine and sand the richest city per capita in the United States for almost sixty years.

Between 1810 and the Civil War, before Hemingway, before Faulkner and Dos Passos, before Truman--Capote and Harry--before Flagler and his folly, before the two lane blacktop that connects but a few of the 800 keys, before there were T-shirt shops every twenty feet on Duval Street, Key West was a booming, vibrant, rough-and-tumble town that owed it's good fortune and very existence to the five-mile wide reef three miles offshore, and the Louisiana Purchase.

Upwards of 150 ships a week circled the horn of Florida, bringing raw goods from the delta to the markets up north; hard goods and supplies from the industrial north to the south. It was an arduous trip, and each year, providence, poor navigation, bad weather, and lack of lighthouses combined to wash hapless wooden-hulled ships onto the reef. In 1842, for example, fifty ships were dashed on the reef, in 1855, sixty-nine.

In 1821, John Simonton, a New Jersey businessman and wrecker, bought Key West from Spaniard Pablo Salas and established a wrecking station. He was joined by other adventurer/entrepreneurs—hard nosed Yankee businessmen, New England fishermen and Britons from the Bahamas, the original Conchs--who took up the wrecker’s dangerous but lucrative pursuit. Spotting towers dotted the shoreline and wreckers would put out at first light after the sighting of a wreck, remove the passengers, and establish salvor’s rights Warehouses were centered on Mallory Square, which was owned then by Asa Tift, the second richest man in Florida and wrecker extraordinaire.

Key West became a society focused on wrecks, wrecks, and more wrecks. The treasure was not gold, silver or stones, but the everyday things of life: cotton, dry-goods, industrial machinery, anything and anything that could be redeemed for cash, including slaves, and in one instance, a steam locomotive which took wreckers three days to float and return to port In 1880, Mary Munroe wrote to a friend that "A wreck was the most wished for and thoroughly enjoyed thing that could happen."

Little remains of what was salvaged. It was a cash business, and the goods were moved quickly. The legacy the wreckers left was Key West itself. The homes they built, the signature conch architecture. The Hemingway home, the James Audubon house and the Curry Mansion, all open to the public, were built by wreckers.

The Oldest House In Key West is now the Wrecker’s Museum, complete with furnishings and out-buildings, showing the rewards and lifestyle enjoyed by those men who deigned to challenge the sea successfully. Built in 1929 by wrecker Captain Francis B. Watlington, the two buildings comprise a sterling display of the 19th century lifestyle, so far from Washington, so close to the sea. The main house, where the family, including their nine daughters lived, and The kitchen house--in keeping with southern style and tradition, is separate from the main house—If you can’t stand the heat, move the kitchen, so to speak.

Many other homes still in private ownership, such as the Heritage House built by Hog Johnson, and the Porter Mansion, can be seen on a walking tour of the island.

On August 5, 1856, the packet ship Isaac Allerton, with a cargo valued at four hundred thousand dollars set sail from New York, bound for New Orleans, racing against the oncoming hurricane season. It lost. It foundered in a hurricane over five-fathom deep Hawk’s Channel and dashed up on Washerwoman Shoals.

The five year-old Key West Shipwreck Historeum is a re-eation of the original Asa Tift Warehouse on Mallory Square complete with an eighty foot spotting tower. Every two hours, every day, there is a show and a tour that opens the early days of Key West to the visitor’s eyes and ears. While there's more than a touch of hokum and a flair for the showmanship that would do wreckers proud, there is also a sense of history here.

. These are not the canon, emeralds, silver and gold on display at Mel Fischer's Maritime Museum down the street. They are simpler things; a gentleman's top hat and a lady's lace glove, shoes, silverware, china by the barrel, household goods, candlesticks and merchant's scales; jewelry, buckles, buttons and broaches; scales and telescopes, ivory and meerschaum, inkwells and paperweights; all things very ordinary, all bits and pieces of people's lives and business in 19th century America. These are artifacts of how they lived. It is hard not to be transported back in time, just a little.

I look out to sea, close my eyes, and I can almost hear a wreck being ground up on the reef. Well, almost. WDJ



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