Sunday, March 25, 2012


"Mary" is an old weather beaten and blistered replica of an 1850's era salvage vessel.
The wooden sailing ship has been run aground as decoration on Mallory Square since longer than I know.

Sadly, between the painted coconut and straw hat kiosks, the aquarium, shipwreck museum, conch trains and trolleys, hot dog vendors and the sponge warehouse (an overblown gift shop), not many people pay her much mind.

But me? I've got double trouble here. . .
I sail and, I aspire to be an historian if I ever grow up.
So Mary stands out for me.

Key West, of course, made it's bones on salvaging.
Ships sailing between Spain and Cuba would often run aground on the Florida reef.
Poor navigation, stormy seas and overloaded cargo ships, that were harder to control while tacking into the wind, were the main causes of the shipwrecks.

If the lookouts spotted a ship on the rocks, they'd holler " wreck ashore" and the salvage crews would man their boats, much like Mary, and race to the wreck.
The rule, as I understand it, was the first Captain to reach the wreck would be the"salvage master" and entitled to the lion's share of the plunder. Plunder which, after it was hauled back to town, could be either kept by the salvage master or
sold at auction.

In the early 1800s the Navy came to town and soon after that, Key West became an official U.S. port of entry. That drew more cargo ships directly here and more ships meant more wrecks and by about the time of the American Civil War the wrecking industry had made Key West the richest city in the United States.

Inevitably, with Yankee ingenuity being what it is, more lighthouses were built, nautical charts and navigation techniques were improved; and all that meant, less wrecks.

By and by, as the salvage industry faded, it was replaced by sponge harvesting and cigar making and those are stories for another time. But I can't imagine either was ever as lucrative as salvaging.
Key West's "golden age" was over.

Today Key West is a tourist economy (also not as lucrative as salvaging) and there sits Mary, weather beaten and blistered with chickens roosting in her hold; a strangely romantic reminder of a better time.

One last thing. . .

I've added a movie link; "Reap the Wild Wind" is all about Key West wreckers.
It stars Paulette Goddard, Ray Milland and John Wayne.
Released in 1942, it was produced and directed by Cecil B. DeMille (so you know the cinematography is first rate).
Some scenes get a little sappy (hell, it's an old movie) but you don't need to sit through all 2 hours of the story to get the overall flavor of Key West's golden age of salvaging.

1 comment:

RumShopRyan said...

Great story about the Mary. I've seen her sitting there many a times, but always passed her by without thinking of the islands salvage history. Next time I'm on island I'll pay more proper respects.