Twenty-seven years ago my husband and I bought a derelict ketch in Fort Lauderdale and sailed south through the 120-mile-long swath of reefs and islands wrapped around Florida’s southern tip in the Straits of Florida. When we reached Key West, the southernmost of the 1,700 islands in the chain, we wanted to stop, but the wind wasn’t cooperating and our oil-spattered engine was less than reliable. Fresh out of a graduate program in Latin American history, I was well aware of the Straits’ 500-year-old reputation as a treacherous, reef-studded passage where numerous treasure-laden galleons riding the Gulf Stream home toward Spain often went aground. I didn’t want to be part of the count. Still, we managed to tack close enough to glimpse Key West with its namesake city, positioned where the Atlantic meets the Gulf of Mexico.
Now, more than half a lifetime after I first saw Key West, I’ve returned to explore it in a feet-on-the-ground instead of hands-on-the-tiller way. Despite my land approach, I feel like I’m at sea. First off, shipwrecks (and a seafaring history) are ever present. In Old Town, the city’s historic district, one of the main streets is Whitehead, a mile-long avenue that nearly reaches from the Atlantic to the Gulf of Mexico. It is named for John Whitehead, who arrived in Key West in 1818 after the ship carrying him from Mobile to New York ran aground. Whitehead and his partner, John Simonton, were the first entrepreneurs to realize that Key West’s deep-water harbor and its position at the juncture of major shipping lanes made the city an ideal place to offload salvaged cargoes. Congress fast-tracked Key West’s development by decreeing in 1825 that all goods recovered from wrecks in national waters had to be taken to a U.S. port of entry. Three years later, Key West was designated a port of entry, and less than a decade after the shipwreck that brought John Whitehead to Key West, merchants and clerks, shipwrights and captains lured by the promise of its setting poured into the new port.
The compact grid of houses in Old Town reminds me of ships moored in Key West’s crowded harbor. Early Key West settlers brought their different building styles and sometimes even their buildings with them. Two restored circa-1846 houses shipped from the Bahamas in pieces and reassembled in Key West by a pair of master yacht builders share the corner of William and Eaton streets. Another house has a captain’s walk, a Northeastern architectural element that relocated wrecking captains brought to Key West to use as vantage points for scanning surrounding reefs.
On Whitehead I pause near the cascading roots of a century-old banyan tree where I discover a reincarnated shipwreck: A faded sign nailed above the front door of number 305 announces that Bradish “Hog” Johnson, “King of the Wreckers,” built this two-story house with lumber scavenged from cargo off wrecks on nearby reefs, aka “The Ocean Lumber Company.” Modern Key West is so accessible it’s hard to imagine that every person, animal and utilitarian object arrived here by boat or high tide until 1912, the year Henry Flagler’s railroad connected Key West to the mainland.
After a brief stroll, I duck into the Key West Shipwreck Historeum Museum, an institution devoted to the 1856 salvage of the Isaac Allerton, a U.S. merchant ship. Weaving through the dark, wood-paneled exhibits, squeezing between replicas of barrels, coiled lines and bales of cotton, I feel like I’m traveling in the crowded hold of a merchant schooner. But those Spanish galleons that ran aground close to Key West are on my mind, and I want to see some of their exotic treasures.
So I head just around the corner to the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Museum, a former naval storehouse that holds the western hemisphere’s largest collection of 17th-century shipwreck treasure. Supported by his dedicated family, Mel moved to Key West in 1969 to live closer to the reefs where he believed the Nuestra Señora de Atocha sank in 1622. For centuries, salvors had searched for the Atocha’s cargo, worth close to a half a billion in today’s dollars, but countless hurricanes had scattered the Atocha across approximately 10 miles of ocean. The ship’s remains lay beneath tons of sand until July 20, 1985, when Mel’s crew found a “reef of silver bars” and raised the richest cargo ever recovered off Key West.
Two years ago at a scuba-diving conference I met Sean Fisher, Mel’s grandson, and he invited me to visit the museum if I ever got to Key West. As soon as I enter the exhibit, I see everyone clustered around a box with a hand-sized hole that allows visitors to reach inside and heft a gold bar. I wait my turn and cup my fingers around the gold. It’s smooth and heavier than I thought. I feel a bit like a kid with her hand in the cookie jar as Sean greets me and asks if I’d like to see some Atocha treasure not on display.
In his office overlooking the heart of Old Town, Sean opens a safe and pulls out a cardboard box sealed with duct tape. His eyes twinkle as he sorts through small bundles wrapped unpretentiously in bubble paper. When he passes me an 8-pound gold disk and a thumb-sized chunk of emerald, I almost stop breathing. With quivering hands I trace the original metal assayer’s marks and rub the emerald’s roughly faceted surface while Sean talks about his grandfather and Key West. “After moving to Key West, Mel insisted, ‘Today’s the day,’ every day for 16 years, even after 1975 when my uncle and aunt died looking for the Atocha. Most people don’t realize how difficult it was to find something that had been underwater and beat up by storms for almost 400 years, but my granddad never gave up, and Key West supported him. My family is still working that wreck, hoping to salvage [the treasure believed to be in] the Atocha’s stern castle.”
“So the people in Key West didn’t think Mel was eccentric?” I ask.
“No, people everywhere else thought he was crazy, but Key West and my family go hand in hand. Here Mel was just a normal guy going about his business. He fit in and became a part of the history, like the old wreckers who started this town.”
It’s nearly time for sunset, and I’m ready to melt into Key West’s vibe, so I ask Sean where Mel hung out. He laughs. “Every day after work my granddad made the rounds. He went to the Bull, the Schooner Wharf and just about every other bar in town. He always had a smile on his face and a rum and coke in his hand.”
Rum strikes me as the perfect way to end this day. After all, it’s the traditional sailor’s drink and, even though I no longer own a sailboat, the sea is ingrained in me. I stroll along the harbor walk where restaurants occupy renovated warehouses that once brimmed with salvaged cargo. In front of the Schooner Wharf Bar, charter-boat skippers tune their rigging where wrecking captains once docked gaff-rigged sloops. I grab a seat, squeeze half a Key lime into my rum and the other half over six crispy conch fritters. Soothed by the rhythmic creak of the old wooden wharf, I toast the eternal sounds of a place forever linked to the sea.