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Day 126 - Key West, Writers & Treasures

We spent all day in Key West, visiting Ernest Hemingway's home, another Lighthouse, a Shipwreck Historeum and Mel Fisher's Maritime Museum, which houses some of the Spanish Galleon treasures he's found.

sunny 68 °F


Miles Driven - 13 (RT)
Weather - Sunny, mid to high 60's and warming
Camped at Boyds RV park again


It's hard to believe this is the half way point of our trip! In many ways, it feels like we're just getting underway. In others, I'm also anxious to get home. Odd stuff that. Mom and I were really enjoying the sunshine and beach at lunch and got to discussing Key West vs Everglades: both at southern end of Florida and the US, both very beautiful but in totally different ways. In fact, they're both so different they're hard to compare - but while we're enjoying Key West a lot, we both liked the quiet and solitude of the Everglades better. Guess we're hopelessly not jet-setters.


My plan is to spend today in Key West, then start heading back up Hwy 1 Sunday, maybe taking a little more time to stop along the way and visit some of the other Key's. So I wanted to get as much sightseeing in as possible. I think we succeeded.

We started off driving on the SE side to the Island. Key West is about 4 miles long and 2 miles wide, not very large but maybe larger than some of the other Key's we've driven across. There were no beaches along most of the route, just a seawall. Some folks were out walking or jogging however and it was a lovely drive with the morning sun on the water.


Then we went to the monument to the Southern Most point in the continential US. I'm not sure why this qualifies, since Key West is an Island, but maybe since it's on the Continental Shelf or connected to the continent by Hwy 1, they can make this claim? But this was one of the major targets of our trip - and here we are:


BTW - there was a short line of people waiting to get their pictures taken by the monument, so we each just took turns taking pictures for the next group, then posing ourselves. Later in the day the line was half a block long! It turns out that Dec - Jan are the most popular (crowded) times to visit Key West, since folks want to avoid the really hot, humid months and also the bugs. The worst part of that period is the Christmas/New Years break - when lots of folks are off from work or school.

But it also seems that many folks like to sleep in late when they're on vacation, so between 9 AM and 10 AM, we still found some parking and breathing room downtown. After that, good luck (well, sort of anyway). Most folks rent bikes, scooters or electric carts - which I'd highly recommend (not sure where they park the carts tho).

Anyway, after some circling around I finally found a handicapped spot a couple of blocks away from the home Ernest Hemingway lived in during some of his most prolific years, so we put the RV there for the rest of the day and headed off to tour the Hemingway house.


Actually, this may be misnamed a bit because the house was built by Asa Tift - the richest 'wrecker' in Key West during the 1800's, but more on that later. After "A Farewell to Arms" was published and became a big success, Ernest Hemingway bought the property in 1931 and lived there with his second wife, Pauline, until their divorce in 1939. The house and furnishings are all pretty much as they were when the Hemingways lived there.


Hemingway built a room to write in above a converted carriage house. The museum leaves it set up with his typewriter, table and chairs just as he worked in it.


Of course, throughout the property are cats, 47 of them at present. They are decended from Hemingway's original six toed tomcat. The six toes are a genetic trait, polydactyl, and about half of the museums cats carry this trait. Regardless of how many toes they have, the cats are very well treated.


There is even a special watering trough for the cats. This was actually the urinal at one of Hemingway's favorite bars. Pauline objected to having it in the yard and her gardener tried to hide it's original function by adding tiles and a urn fountian, but the tour guides are happy to share the real secret.


Across the street from the Hemingway home is the Key West Lighthouse - a handy location for someone who often tended to stay out drinking too late. (Just follow the bright light home!)


This isn't the largest or most spectacular lighthouses we've seen - but has one very interesting feature. In addition to the Third Order Fresnel Lens in the lighthouse itself are a First Order, Fourth Order and Fifth Order lens in the Museum - with all their glass pieces intact!



Of course I climbed the ninty or so steps to the top, but even though this wasn't as tall as other lighthouses - the steps were detached from the walls a couple of feet, so were very narrow and almost freestanding - and more scary than most. The views from the top were pretty good however.


Mom didn't climb the lighthouse of course, but enjoyed the sunshine and finding a banana tree in the yard. We also enjoyed finding so many beautiful flowers in bloom in early January down here! She's asked me to print some hard copies of the flower shot for her friends (I may cheat and use a photo printing machine...)


By now it was about time for lunch, so we walked the 4 blocks or so back to the Southernmost area to a cafe we'd seen earlier. The "Southernmost Cafe" is on a small beach and open on the sides so you can enjoy the sea air and carribean ambiance. We somehow got seated right along the open beach side and had a wonderful lunch. We also ordered two slices of Key Lime Pie that were just too good (they make their own)


While we were eating, several things flew by including a biplane. (A helicopter and sailboat also passed by, but I'll spare you pictures of everything we saw, honest!)


Of course, after all that walking Mom was pretty tired - so we ordered a cab to take us to the north side of the island. The NW corner is where the historic waterfront & town were located. The tourist brochures indicated there was a Shipwreck museum there, which I thought might be interesting. As we approached the museum (they call it a "Historeum"), Mom heard music and found her second wind.

However, she also decided that there were too many stairs for her in the Historeum didn't go through it. Maybe there were also too many shops in the area she wanted to visit while I went through the Historeum as she spent the wad for January while I was inside!


It turns out that there were so many shipwrecks along the Florida reefs (in spite of the lighthouses) that in the mid 1800's Key West had the highest per capita wealth in the US! "Wreckers" made their living salvaging goods from shipwrecks. Asa Tift, who built the house later made famous when Hemingway lived there, was the most successful and wealthy "wrecker". The historeum is located in his warehouse, although the tower is a replica. Wreckers built towers and hired folks to watch for ships to founder ("Wreck Ashore"!). The first captain to get his ship to the sight got the salvage rights and could decide which other ships & wreckers to use in the operation. Wreckers also rescued passengers and crew and often risked their own lives. It was such a dangerous occupation that nobody would insure the wreckers vessels, which were almost always sloops.


Asa Tifts also made money in other enterprises. Across the square from his wreckers warehouse was his ice house (now a shell store, the pink building below). His ships brought Ice down from Maine for sale in the Key's as late as 1890.


It was an interesting thing to tour, the exhibits were mostly of items that had been on shipwrecks, so weren't in pristine condition. I think it was more interesting learning a little more about the colorful past than the exhibits themselves. (Who knew there were people who made a legitimate living off of shipwrecks, and a good one at that?)

Anyway, Mom was really worn out after spending all that money (and dancing), so we took a bicycle ride back to the RV for her. Our driver, Sebastian, is actually planning a bicycle tour around the US shortly so was very interested in our trip. I gave him a card of course.


I was also getting pretty tired, but had seen one more museum in the old waterfront area that I had to visit, so after Mom was comfortable back in the rig, I hoofed it the mile back to the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum.

Mel Fisher is a treasure hunter. He and his company have been finding shipwrecks for years and had searched for many, many years for the 'mother load', Spanish Galleons that had sunk during a hurricane in 1622 carrying tons of treasure. In 1980, he found the first one, the Margarita. Then in 1985, they found the flagship - the Nuestra Senora de Atocha. This was carrying 40 tons of treasure, including 24 tons of silver bars and about 200,000 silver coins as well as copper, gold and emeralds. The treasure today is worth about $450 Million dollars. But it is not hidden away in some vault somewhere (at least not all of it). The Fisher's have set up a non profit organization to display some of the treasure and other artifacts in this musuem!

Not only do they display some of the treasure in a museum, they allow you to take pictures (not commercially of course). Here are a picture of one of the wood boxes and silver coins they found. Following that are a couple of the gold bars.



The museum also houses items recovered from other shipwrecks. They don't always yeild treasures in the traditional sense, but offer glimpses into lives from centuries ago which yields a different sort of treasure. These are some crossbows from the 1564 wreck of the Santa Clara.


These are some items from the Henrietta Marie, a slave ship. The cauldron was used to cook a gruel or soup from whatever stock was on hand to feed the 250 slaves on board. Shackles were used mostly on men and when the ship was near enough to shore to worry about rebellion, but some of the pairs Fisher's team found were smaller so may have been used on children or women.


After adding to the treasure haul by visiting the gift shop, I finally headed back to the RV also (another walk across the island). Along the way, I took more pictures of historic homes and things we hadn't taken the time to tour, but that might still be of interest. I'll post these for you to peruse at your leisure (or not as you prefer).

Tomorrow, we'll leave this lovely (but expensive) place and start up Hwy 1 again, and slowly towards home (OK - maybe in 3 or 4 months?)


Posted by jl98584 20:39 Archived in USA Tagged family_travel

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Mother, love the dancing....
Very interesting. There must have been more gold bars that financed things, and displayed just a few..
Any way, the slave holders give me a very erie feeling. History true, difinitely a display of the bad side of humanity.
Love the light house, that would be very cool. That is now one of my destinations, very beautiful. Everglades are interesting, but belong to the aligators. Love Key West.

by rllomas

There was about 40 tons of treasure on the ship, only a very small portion was on display of course. The bulk (24 tons) was silver bullion, mostly in bars. Some of those were on display. The slave ships were terrible, maybe one of our ugliest chapters. There is so much more to these stories than I can fit in the blogs (or my brain).

by jl98584

Hey, tell your mom to watch out for those men she doesn't know!

This reminds me that there is a young man from Berrien Springs who is becoming famous salvaging some major shipwrecks off the coast there. I can't recall his name at the moment, but his work has been written up in National Geographic, etc. He's found major treasure.

by msj

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