13 August 2019
KEY WEST, Fla. — The colorful history of Key West incorporates shipwreck treasures and artifacts, renowned artists and eccentrics, pioneering women, a cigar-making heyday and a vibrant past as a bustling seaport. The area’s cultural and historic richness is preserved, spotlighted and celebrated in the island city’s many museums.
For example, Key West is home to the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum, founded by the legendary shipwreck salvor who died in 1998. The museum holds the richest single collection of 17th-century maritime and shipwreck antiquities in the Western Hemisphere — most of them recovered from nearby waters.
Visitors can view gold, silver, emeralds and priceless artifacts from the shipwrecked Spanish galleons Nuestra Señora de Atocha, wrecked off Key West in 1622 and discovered by Fisher in 1985 after a 16-year search, and Santa Margarita. Also on display are artifacts from the English merchant slave vessel Henrietta Marie, which sank in 1700 near the Marquesas Keys.
The museum’s other highlights include an exhibit titled “With Little More Than the Shirts on Their Backs.” It features displays of personal items that Cuban balseros, or rafters, brought to the Florida Keys on chugs — handmade boats — on their treacherous ocean journeys to freedom. The Mariana, a 21-foot makeshift vessel that carried 24 Cubans from their homeland to Key West in 2015, stands in the museum’s courtyard. 200 Greene St., melfisher.org.
Not far away, located at Flagler Station in the Key West Historic Seaport, is the recently opened Sails to Rails Museum. Visitors can follow an interactive timeline of Key West history to learn about the industries of sponge fishing, turtle harvesting, shipwreck salvage (also called wrecking) and cigar making.
The state-of-the-art museum features hands-on exhibits, intriguing video presentations, rare artifacts and an outstanding scale model of Fort Jefferson. The Civil War–era fort is the massive centerpiece of Dry Tortugas National Park, a remote outpost that lies about 70 miles west of Key West in the Gulf of Mexico.
In addition, visitors can learn about Henry Flagler, the visionary who conceived the Florida Keys Over-Sea Railroad. Completed in 1912, the railroad connected the previously isolated Keys with the mainland and each other for the first time, forever changing the history of the island chain. 901 Caroline St., historictours.com/keywest/?t=6.
Unique elements of the city’s seafaring heritage are spotlighted at the Key West Lighthouse and Keeper’s Quarters Museum. Opened in 1848 with a woman as its keeper, the lighthouse guided mariners through the region’s treacherous waters until it was decommissioned in 1969. The only U.S. lighthouse within city limits, it stands beside the keepers’ quarters building — and museum visitors can learn the stories of the men and women who kept the light burning.
Now restored to an early 1900s appearance, the keepers’ quarters contains original artifacts, photographs and other items relating to generations of lighthouse keepers. Climb the 88 steps to the top of the lighthouse and get a great view of Key West. 938 Whitehead St., kwahs.org/museums/lighthouse-keepers-quarters/visit.
Fort East Martello Museum provides another window into Key West’s heritage and character. Dating from 1862, the brick fortress-turned-museum is one of the country’s finest preserved examples of Martello-style military architecture.
The museum contains exhibits highlighting the eclectic and haunted aspects of the Keys. Particularly notable is “Stanley Papio — Junkyard Rebel,” commemorating the late metal sculptor whose quirky welded creations incorporate elements such as recycled car parts, appliances, pipes and wire. The museum houses the world’s leading collection of Papio’s art, with more than 100 of the Key Largo artist’s works on display.
Chief among the artifacts recalling the city’s haunted past is internationally renowned Robert the Doll — an eerie 41-inch doll whose persona intrigues paranormal investigators, museum visitors and Robert’s nearly 10,000 Facebook followers. 3501 S. Roosevelt Blvd., kwahs.org/museums/fort-east-martello/visit.
This fall, families will find it especially easy to explore museums and historic attractions in Key West and around the Florida Keys. That’s because the Key West Attractions Association is offering a Kids Free Florida Keys program with free admission to attractions and tours for youngsters. Kids 12 and under can enjoy free experiences from Sept. 3 through Oct. 13 when accompanied by an adult.
Participating Kids Free attractions and museums include the Key West Lighthouse & Keeper’s Quarters, Fort East Martello Museum, Old Town Trolley, Conch Tour Train, Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory, Key West Aquarium and Harry S. Truman Little White House Museum.
In the Middle and Upper Keys, Kids Free Florida Keys attractions include Dolphin Research Center, the Turtle Hospital, Florida Keys Aquarium Encounters and oTHErside Boardsports’ paddle or kayak eco-tours.
For participating businesses and Kids Free coupons, visit kidsfreefloridakeys.com.
Florida Keys visitor information: fla-keys.com or 1-800-FLA-KEYS
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