Thursday, December 4, 2008

Life in the Keys Back When

This picture of the two vessels at the dock in Miami always fired up my imagination, picturing an idyllic, probably non-existent, vision of a simple, romantic island life of time gone by.

As my old friend Charlie Hordt used to say, “The good old days? Forget it! What was good about ‘em? Everything was harder then.” The early islanders lived without refrigeration, telephones, radio and TV, screens on their windows, penicillin, automobiles, or power tools.

Maybe so, but we still cling to an idealized vision of times gone by, whether it’s to the stories of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, the Wild West of TV and cinema, or to the Leave It to Beaver years of post-WW II America. Some would call it “escapism.”

A digression: Looking at that picture more closely now, I see that the American flag and Union Jack have 48 stars, making it post-1912, when New Mexico and Arizona were added to the union. 1912 was also the year when the Overseas Railroad was completed.

Ironically the advent of the Overseas Railroad meant the beginning of the end of island schooners like the two boats in the picture. Produce and seafood from the Keys could now be shipped by train to Key West, and more importantly to Miami and points north via refrigerated railroad cars.

For sailing buffs: We don’t know where the Crosland was built. But we do know that the family had a commercial fishery in Marathon for many years. The Crosland itself appears to be considerably larger than the Island Home. The article linked here ( indicated that the Island Home was close to 60 feet on the waterline, and weighed over 40 tons. We can also assume that by this time both boats probably had auxilliary motors. Neither of these boat’s owners were without means, and the addition of a motor greatly improved the craft’s manuverability and ultimately its survivability.
This is a photo of the christening of the Detroit, the first gasoline-powered vessed to cross the Atlantic Ocean, a trip it made in 1912. (So it's most likely both of the Keys vessels in the photo were equipped with gasoline engines by this time.)

And after all, what’s wrong with being an escapist? You’ll certainly never have to worry about office politics. There’ll be no need to dress down for “casual Fridays.” And you won’t have to worry about what a tranch is.

What was life like on the Keys before the railroad? Most of the settlers came by boat from the Bahamas. Miami was just a small settlement on the river. Some of the Keys had shallow wells, where settlers could take advantage of the fresh water lens that floated atop the heavier salt water below. Additional amounts of fresh water were obtained seasonally from cistern that held rainwater.

On most of the Keys the land could be cleared to reveal a rich topsoil overlying a sandy layer. On rockier areas natural sinkholes filled with years buildup of composted organic matter were also used to plant melons and fruit trees.

Did the settlers lead a “South Pacific” tropical island life? Or was life for them "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short"? Well, neither extreme, it would seem, but there was no doubt they were tough. They lived without electricity, window screens, running water, air conditioning and fans, and most of the conveniences that we take for granted. Early census records list the professions of the settlers as farmers or “seamen.” All of the families must have had boats or some sort, most likely Bahamian type sloops. Some settlers were also listed as “charcoal makers.” Charcoal was needed for cooking, both locally and in Key West.

With the arrival of the railroad most settlers on offshore islands moved to the main islands where they could take advantage of the convenience of the trains.

Oddly, some time after the civil war, a relatively large settlement on Vaca Key, which is now the city of Marathon, disappeared without explanation. Whether by disease, depredation, or simply discovering a better place to call home, the families who were recorded as living there simply disappeared. (I always thought this story would make a good plot for a book or movie.)

A few people in the twentieth century emulated the lifestyle of the earlier settlers. Russell and Charlotte Niedhawk were two of them. When I lived in the Upper Keys in the 70's, many people knew them and spoke highly of them. Their interesting life is described in a post from Conch Scooter’s blog.

Others, many of whom would just as soon stay anonymous, have made homes for a time on the offshore islands.This idyllic setting was the home of an affable retired fire chief on one of the offshore islands. We met him while visiting on a camping excursion in 1995. The building was basically in ruins when I took this picture about ten years later. He left it sometime in the 1990's, before the island was raked by Hurricane Georges in 1998, and further damaged by Wilma in 2005. The last we heard the property had been bought by a fishing guide, who just visits it from time to time.

"The good old days? Forget it!" Yeah, but it's nice to think back to a quieter time, to a quieter place, if only in the shadows of our minds.

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