Florida Keys Community Guide
The Florida Keys are considered the gem of not only South Florida, but also all of Florida. This little chain of islands is rich in history and full of tons of activities and adventures just waiting to happen. Obviously, if you love the ocean, then the Keys should be your prime location to build or buy your dream home. Almost everything revolves around the ocean, so don’t be afraid to get a little wet. Everyone talks about Key West, but there are many other great towns and cities between the mainland and the Conch Republic including Key Largo, Islamorada, Marathon, and Big Pine, so be sure to give them all a glance!
The history of the Florida Keys can be traced back all the way to May 15, 1513. On this day, explorer Ponce de Leon and chronicler Antonio de Herrera wrote about passing the island chain in their hunt for the Fountain of Youth. At this time, it was known as a pirate sanctuary. In 1822, the US Navy established a pirate fleet in order to eradicate the pirates. When in the Keys, it can be fun to wonder if a pirate stood where you are standing back in the 1500s, or if a pirate ship used the exact same waterways that you and your Boston Whaler use every weekend. Not many places in the world have such a rich history with pirates.
Eventually, settlers moved into the Keys and started farming Key limes, breadfruit, tamarind, and pineapples. Unfortunately at this time, much of the Native population (mostly Calusa) died off from disease. Some other settlers also became wreckers, hunting for goods and ship parts from ships that crashed on the extensive reefs. Some were even known to lure ships into the reefs in order to make a profit. Once Key West became the wealthiest city in the US, Henry Flagler decided to build a railroad that reached all the way to Key West. The railroad could be found where US1, or the Overseas Highway, is today. It was destroyed in the 1935 after one of the worst hurricanes to ever hit US soil blew through the islands. This storm actually derailed a train. After some tough times during World War 2, the Navy decided to make Key West a submarine base. This and the newly founded shrimping industry gave the islands a strong boost. Since then, the Keys have thrived. More than three million people visit every year in their own personal search for the Fountain of Youth.
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Key Largo’s written history dates back to the 1600s when a Dutch cartographer named Johannes Vingboons labeled the island “Caio dos 12 Ligues,” or “Key of 12 Leagues.” Caio or cayo is where the term “Key” comes from. Eventually, a post office named Cayo Largo was established in the present day Rock Harbor area. At the time, the town had a population of 60 people. In only 15 years, the population jumped to 230. By the time the railroad got started in 1908, Key Largo had four train stops. This helped increase the flow of immigration onto the island. The island was officially named Key Largo in 1921 by the postmaster of the area. Through the early 1900s, the island was primarily farmland for key limes and grapefruits. Now, Key Largo is one of the more well-known islands in the Keys. It is a great spot for both families and the single renter or buyer. Key Largo’s prime location leaves you only about an hour from Miami, and not too far from the rest of the Florida Keys.
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Tavernier, like most of the Florida Keys, was founded because of the railroad that used to connect the islands before there was any road at all. Eventually, the railroad was taken out and now US1 is there in its place. Tavernier has a long history dating back to the 1700s when the Spanish ruled the Florida waters. Many pioneers, ship wreckers, and other early Keys settlers used Tavernier as a stop on their many endeavors. Today, Tavernier is a great location for any island dweller. If you are a fisherman, you will love their marinas and access to both the ocean side and bay side.
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If you love the water, friendly neighbors, and a laid-back atmosphere, then Islamorada may be the perfect place for you to call home. The name “Islamorada,” which means “Island Home,” was first used back in 1907. William Krome named Upper Matecumbe Key “Townsite of Islamorada.” The locals liked the name so much that they started using it as their official town name, even though it was not officially incorporated until January 1, 1998. It is now known as “Islamorada, Village of Islands.” Islamorada now consists of six total keys, four of which are inhabited. The keys are Plantation Key, Windley Key, Upper Matecumbe Key (the original community), and Lower Matecumbe Key. Indian Key and Lignum Vitae Key are both a part of the Florida State Park system, and are included in the village. There is also a private island in the community called Tea Table Key. This key contains Fort Paulding, which was used by the military during the Second Seminole War. Ted Williams, the hall of fame baseball player, lived in Islamorada for many years after he retired from baseball. He became a world famous fisherman and is one of the most well known people to live on the islands. Other notable residents include Miguel Cabrera, Gene Hackman, and Jimmy Johnson.
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Duck Key has a unique backstory. It was bypassed by both the railroad and the original Overseas highway back when it was first built. It was originally part of the “Cow Keys” during Spanish occupation. In 1951, the key was purchased by a financier and mining executive named Bryan W. Nerkirk for $4 million. This is the beginning of modern day Duck Key. A causeway was built in 1953 to connect the key to US1. Eventually, the island was bought by a group from Pompano Beach in 1983. They built the well-known Hawk’s Cay Resort and Marina, which is still a hotspot today. Many homes were also built in the 1990s to accommodate people that wanted to live on the island. Duck Key is now a popular vacation spot for people all over the world.
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Marathon has a rich history that dates back to Spanish occupation. It was originally known as Key Vaca. In the early 1900s, Henry Flagler began his Overseas Railroad that would change the Florida Keys forever. Marathon was one of the main keys to have railroad stations. They built three throughout the town. The name Marathon comes from the building of the railroad. The workers kept asking why they were building so quickly. Some said things like “what is this, a marathon?” and the name eventually stuck. One of the largest fish to ever be caught in the Keys was caught by Captain Charlie Thompson in 1912. He caught a 39-foot, 30,000 lb whale shark. It took him five harpoons and 151 bullets to catch the massive fish. Of course, we know that it is frowned upon to catch such a docile creature today, but at the time it was a huge deal. Marathon is full of history and treasures, some of which you’ll have to discover yourself.
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BIG PINE KEY
Big Pine is not as big as its name makes it seem, but it is big in personality and rich in history. The key started as a homesteading paradise in the mid-1800s. Because of its proximity to Key West, it had a nice market for many goods and services. Farmers and sailors made up most of the population at that time. Salvaging was also a very popular occupation because of the frequent shipwrecks that occurred off of the coast of the middle and lower keys. Because of its relatively smaller population compared to Key Largo and Key Vacca, a permanent railroad station was not built. Instead, Henry Flagler, the railroad’s founder, decided to build a massive fresh water resource in the area. Big Pine slowly became more and more populated in the 1900s. It is now a hotspot for fishing, dining, and beautiful Florida Keys scenery.
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Key West, or the Conch Republic as the locals call it, might only be a few hours from the mainland, but it is truly a world away. The streets are lined with palm trees and there are always people out and about, taking in the unique vibes that the city gives off. Every local you meet will be different and will have a different background, but most have developed that laid back attitude that comes with living in such a diverse and tropical environment.
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