Wednesday, August 21, 2013

key west history, part 4

Of course, no history of Key West would be complete without talking about. . .
In 1860, Key West was the richest city in the Union.
Not because of King Cotton or coal, but because
we were wreckers.

"Wrecking" refers to the salvaging of crews and cargo from distressed ships. And in the 1800’s, business was really,
really good.

In 1822, Key West was declared an official port of trade for the United States. During that time, about 100 ships passed the island’s shores every day. The waters were treacherous for passing vessels; the dangerous shoals and shallow waters were  made worse by the a lack of navigational information and unpredictable winds. All those conditions together led to, at least, one distressed ship a week.
Wrecking crews were strategically posted along the shores with all eyes on the horizon. When a vessel met trouble, the race was on. The first crew to get to the scene were the “wrecking masters”, allowing them the largest cut from the salvage and all control of delegating responsibilities.
  Once the initial wrecking excursions were complete, warehouses, ship yards and ship chandlers were employed to store cargo and repair the ships. The island’s economy thrived because much of the stranded cargo was sold locally. Those sales filled Key West’s houses and stores with a wealth of treasures from the sea.
 A few of the most successful wreckers were, Asa Tift, who also designed the "Hemingway House".
John H. Geiger, who made his home in the "Audubon House" and Francis B. Watlington who built the “Oldest House in Key West” in 1829.

Today The Oldest House is home to the "Key West Wrecking Museum", a great place for learning more about this chapter in Key West history.

The wrecking business began to decline in the late 19th century. With the building of lighthouses, improved navigational equipment and  steam-powered engines, the once treacherous waters surrounding the Key West seemed suddenly tame. 

By the 1920s, the wrecking industry was as gone as so many sunken ships.


AmyDublinia said...

Looking forward to reading part 5!

AmyDublinia said...

I am a regular visitor to Key West from Ireland :-)