Florida Keys & Everglades > The Upper Florida Keys

The Upper Florida Keys

The Florida Keys—a chain of more than 100 coral reef and oolitic limestone islands—began evolving more than 100,000 years ago when shallow seas covered most of the present-day Florida peninsula. They are still being shaped by hurricanes, tides, and slow-marching mangroves.

Although they extend out from the southernmost point in the continental United States, the Keys don't follow a north-to-south path. They instead lie mainly in a northeast to southwest line for 106 miles from Key Largo, south of Miami, to Key West, 90 miles north of Cuba. Seventy miles west of Key West, the Dry Tortugas are a cluster of tiny remote islands populated by a remarkable array of birds and marine life. Click here for a new window with a large version of this map.

The Everglades, Florida Bay, and Gulf of Mexico lie to the north of the island chain, the Atlantic Ocean and the Straits of Florida to the south. Fantastic and fragile living coral reefs lie below the waters all along the Atlantic shoreline. These reefs support over 650 species of fish and 40 species of coral, as well as a large array of sponges, marine worms, and other invertebrates.

Reefs that now are the foundation of the Key's islands probably formed about 200,000 years ago during the Sangamon interglacial period. Sea level was about 25 feet higher than it is today, and warm ocean water washed over all of southern Florida.

Living coral flourished on a platform reef covering a shallow, submerged plateau at the edge of the continental shelf. This mammoth reef tract extended from what is now Miami all the way to the Dry Tortugas. Key Largo Limestone forms the surface bedrock of the upper keys from North Key Largo to Big Pine and the Newfound Harbor Keys. From Big Pine to Key West, the reef drops down and lies beneath a 20- to 30-foot-thick layer of finely grained calcium carbonate known as Miami Oolite.

During the warm interglacial periods, which lasted thousands of years, large animals such as horses, camels, mastodons, mammoths, sabertooth tigers, jaguars, and panthers, and a huge array of birds, reptiles, alligators, and crocodiles, roamed the area. Isolated from the Florida peninsula, many species were extirpated and in their place the islands fostered indigenous species of birds, animals, and reptiles, including the tiny Florida Key deer, an indigenous subspecies of the common white-tailed deer. The nearly sea-level topography—the average elevation is 10 feet and the highest point is only about 16 feet—and the warm, humid climate provided the wildlife with a lush landscape of mangrove thickets, tropical hardwood hammocks, and pine forests.

The people that would eventually form the Tequesta and Calusa Indian tribes migrated to South Florida and the Florida Keys as early as 10,000 years ago. They built villages on offshore islands and on hammocks. They hunted small mammals, turtles, and deer, ate wild plants, and took to the sea in dugout cypress canoes to catch fish and harvest shellfish. Tools, household implements, knives, and fishhooks were made from shells and sharks teeth.

Spanish adventurers are believed to be the first Europeans to see the Florida Keys. Don Juan Ponce de Leon, during his explorations in the early 1500s, called the chain of small islands at the tip of the peninsula, "cayos," (small islands), a name later anglicized to "keys." He also called them "Los Martires" because to him they resembled a group of martyrs hunkering down on the low horizon. A smaller group of islands to the west was called Tortugas, the Spanish word for sea turtles.

In the 1760s after the conclusion of the Seven Years War, Spain ceded Florida to the British in exchange for Havana, and pulled out of Florida. By that time, decimated by their battles with the Spanish and English, by constant slave trader raids, and by European diseases, the Calusas and Tequestas were almost extinct. In their place came bands of Creeks, who migrated south from the Carolinas, Georgia, and Alabama ahead of European settlement. Collectively known as Seminoles at the time, they lived and hunted throughout the state and provided a refuge for runaway black slaves.

In 1830, Congress ordered all Native Americans east of the Mississippi River to move to present day Oklahoma. Seminoles who resisted fought three wars with the U.S. Army in the 1800s. Some bands of Indians never surrendered and took refuge in the Everglades and Big Cypress Swamp.

Isolated and accessible only by boat, and plagued by hurricanes and tropical fevers, the Keys' human population remained small through most of the nineteenth century. Except for Key West, which had a small merchant and professional class, most of the islands were inhabited by a scattering of fishermen, farmers, smugglers, and salvagers.

In the late nineteenth century, the Keys were invaded by plume hunters seeking the long, flowing plumage of snowy egrets, great egrets, herons, ibis, roseate spoonbills, and other wading birds. The feathers had become worth their weight in gold to apparel manufacturers, who used them as decorations on women's hats and dresses.

Birds were slaughtered by the thousands and several species came close to extinction. In 1905 National Audubon Society investigator Guy Bradley was shot to death by poachers in a Keys bird rookery. Public outrage over his death moved state and federal governments to enact protective legislation.

The Keys' modern history began in 1904, when Henry Morrison Flagler implemented his improbable dream of constructing a railroad 127 miles from Homestead, south of Miami, across vast stretches of water, down the chain of islands to Key West. From there he envisioned barges carrying freight and passengers across open seas to Cuba. Key West's deep port would also be a gateway to the Caribbean and the Panama Canal.

During the first year of construction, a hurricane drowned 130 laborers and washed away much of their efforts. More men, tracks, and embankments were destroyed in a 1909 hurricane. Undaunted, the nearly blind, 82-year-old Flagler pressed on. Then on January 22, 1912, "The Extension Special," carrying Flagler and a host of dignitaries and reporters, arrived to a wildly joyous celebration in Key West. "Now I can die a happy man, my dream is fulfilled," he said. He died in May 1913 and was buried at St. Augustine.

"The Railroad That Went to Sea," the once-upon-a-time, "Eighth Wonder of the World," was destroyed in a catastrophic hurricane on Labor Day 1935. The most powerful storm in the recorded history of the Keys, with winds of more than 200 miles an hour, killed hundreds of railroad laborers and residents, and in the height of the Great Depression left the railroad beyond all hope of resurrection.

The massive bridges and trestles that Flagler's crews constructed so sturdily defied the storm, however, and three years later, "The Highway That Went to Sea," superimposed on their framework, was opened to automobile traffic. Almost immediately, the Overseas Highway (US 1) began to attract intrepid tourists and ambitious land speculators and developers. Since the 1970s, newcomers have flocked to the Keys in ever-increasing numbers, turning once-pristine wilderness into housing tracts, shopping centers, and other developments that imperil the tropical paradise most new residents hope to find.

Today, 80,000 Keys residents live on 32 of the islands. Their numbers are dwarfed, however, by the estimated 4,000,000 visitors that journey to the Keys every year on vacation. Businesses catering to tourists—dive shops, marinas, hotels, and restaurants—line the Overseas Highway in long, often crowded, commercial strips on some of the larger islands, and in scattered clumps on the smaller keys.

The estimated $1.2 billion that visitors channel through these various businesses helps bring prosperity to an area where the main industry, tourism, is tightly tied to its fragile ecology. Tourism spending is also responsible for an estimated 50 percent of all the jobs in the Keys. Another result of the tourism-based economy is that Monroe County, which includes the Keys and Everglades National Park, has the highest cost of living of any of Florida's 68 counties.

All those visitors unwittingly bring other problems. Degradation of the Keys' marine ecology has ceased to be a debatable issue. Scientists contend that human waste from more than 12,000 septic tanks is irreversibly polluting waters close to shore and is endangering the only living coral reef in the United States.

Underwater visibility, conservationists and scientists say, is only about half what it was a decade or so ago. Healthy coral is disappearing. Algal blooms are suffocating seagrass meadows and reefs. Reduced freshwater input in Florida Bay has hurt fish and bird populations. What to do with the tons of garbage created every day is another problem. Dumping it in the ocean is out of the question, and the Florida mainland has its own waste disposal problems. Except for a couple bridges that are elevated over shipping channels, the Key Largo landfill is the highest point in the Keys.

The State of Florida has designated Monroe County an "area of critical concern." That means the state must review any plans for major construction that might affect the ecology. But "big government" supervision rubs against the grain of independent-thinking Keys residents, many of whom view themselves as political and social exiles from oppressive bureaucracy.

As a case in point, in 1990 when the U.S. Congress was considering legislation that would establish the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, and place the bulk of the world's third largest living coral reef system under federal protection, there was tremendous opposition from Keys residents. Most agreed that the reef needed safeguarding, but they wanted to do it themselves. Although the sanctuary was eventually established, it was only after years of heated negotiations, contentious meetings, and battles in the press.

Meanwhile, most visitors are blissfully unaware of the ecological perils and bureaucratic battles facing the Keys. They come to spend time in one of the nation's great outdoor playgrounds. They come to dive and snorkel, to swim and fish, and hike, and sail, and visit for awhile with nature. They come to sample the beauty and to savor the Keys' still-incomparable natural grandeur.

As visitors our responsibility is to leave as light a footprint as possible. It's our job to learn the rules for boating and diving and to properly dispose of litter. We should know not to feed the wildlife, or touch the coral, or collect live sea life. We should practice catch-and-release fishing, and in all ways respect this special place.

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