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Key West History

You won’t get lost driving to Key West. Head south on U.S. Highway 1 and enter the Florida Keys just south of Miami. It’s the only connection between the state’s mainland and the 42 bridges spanning island to island until you reach Key West. Known as the southernmost city in the continental United States, Key West is actually closer to Cuba than Miami, 94 miles as opposed to 161. The city’s name is derived from old Spanish charts listing it as Cayo Hueso, literally meaning “Bone Key” in English. Key West was just another nondescript island for centuries, with one exception: it has a natural deep-water port. After Florida became a U.S. territory in 1821, its protected harbor and ability to dock large ships turned it into a center of commerce and a refuge for travelers sailing between the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean and the U.S. Atlantic coast. Immigrants from the Bahamas arrived, too, calling themselves Conchs (pronounced “konks”) after a tropical shell that houses a marine mollusk which is now a local delicacy. The influx catapulted Key West into the largest city in Florida and the wealthiest per capita in the U.S. by 1860. In 1912, Henry Flagler put the final touches on a staggering engineering feat, a railroad that linked Key West to Florida’s mainland. However, in 1935, his railroad came to a crashing end when a monster Category 5 hurricane killed hundreds of people in the Keys and destroyed sections of the railroad. The rebuilt bridges and roadbed above the rails later served as the backbone of the present Overseas Highway/U.S. 1. Word of Key West’s robust character and laid-back mentality attracted vacationing presidents, such as Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, and has served as home to famous residents, including Ernest Hemingway and Jimmy Buffett. In 1982 the U.S. Border Patrol blockaded the northern U.S. 1 entrance to the Keys to winnow out illegal aliens, a move that choked off tourism. An enraged Key West protested by seceding from the U.S. and mockingly declared itself the independent “Conch Republic.” Locals before and since proudly refer to themselves as Conchs.
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