"Sailin' away to Key Largo" might have been a little more difficult than the popular 1980's song suggested, especially prior to
1870. Throughout this article care must be exercised to differentiate between Key Largo the island and Key Largo the
community. The island of Key Largo is about 27 miles long and consists of about 22,000 acres. For a comparison, the next
largest island is Big Pine Key consisting of about 5,800 acres.
A note on the word "Key" used to identify an island. Its origin is not well established except by usage. Most believe that it began
by the Spanish adapting the word "cayo' from the Taino Indians of Hispanola and Cuba referring to small islands. The Spanish
normally used "isla" for island and "islet" for small island. At least in the New World, they appear to use "cayo" and "cayuelo" for
a very small island. The English used "Cay" or "Kay" such as Cay Sal Banks. Cay is pronounced as the letter "K." English maps
of the Keys made just prior to the Revolutionary War of 1776 used the word "Key." A Colonial American court record of the "Libel
of Dennis and Allen vs the snow St. Fermin alias Britanis" in 1744 used the word "Keys" referring to the Florida Keys. See the
Admiralty Papers, Vol. 2, 1743 -1744.
The 1639 Johannes Vingloons chart labeled the island of Key Largo as "Caio dos 12 Ligues." The Roggeveen chart of 1675
referred to it as "Caio dos Doces Leugnes (Key of 12 leagues)." The 1733 Spanish chart made during the effort to recover the
treasure of the New Spain armada after its sinking off of the Upper Keys referred to Key Largo as "Cayo Largo." Another chart
made in 1760 by J. Proctor also named it "Cayo Largo." The William De Brahm chart of 1772 shows it as "Peninsular Larga."
Bernard Romans published a 1774 chart that used the specific words "Key Largo."
The first hint of a community of Key Largo was an 1870 post office named Cayo Largo in the present day Rock Harbor area. The
Cayo Largo post office closed and Menendez Johnson established a post office named Largo in the mile marker 101-102 area
in March 1881. According to his postal application form he estimated serving a population of “About Two Hundred” which would
have been all or most of the island of Key Largo.
The 1870 census population of the island of Key Largo was 60. Of course post offices serves others than permanent residents.
This contributes to confusion as Commodore Kirk Munroe writes of sailing into Newport on Key Largo in 1866 which is the
name attributed to the same general area. Artifacts of a community exist behind the Newport Village housing area. Until about a
decade ago a large bee-hive community oven existed among the water cisterns and coral rock animal pen. It was typical of early
Keys communities to use community cooking ovens separate from the living area.
Alfred L. Baker established another post office in 1895 (to 1900) named Aiken in the mile marker 106 area to serve a population
"to exceed one hundred." By then the island's census (1885) population had increased to 230. Meanwhile, John W. Johnson at
Planter on the southern portion of Key Largo opened a post office in 1891 to serve "One hundred and fifty." The Aiken post office
closed in 1900 and transferred its mail responsibility to Planter. For more about Rock Harbor and Planter see pages for Rock
Harbor and Tavernier.
So we see that a community specifically named "Key Largo" had difficulty coming into existence. Continuing chronologically a
1905 Florida East Coast Railway land survey showed Planter as the only group of buildings on Key Largo Key. In fact, there were
more buildings shown on Plantation Key than on Key Largo.
A Key West Citizen newspaper article dated May 28, 1907 announced: "When the F.E.C. Railway was first completed to
Homestead and later to Jewfish Creek, an occasional passenger train was sent down to accommodate sightseers. Later, it
was found necessary to inaugurate a daily passenger train to accommodate the hundreds of settlers arriving in that district. "
Scheduled daily train service began in January 1908 from Miami to Marathon. On Key Largo Key the railroad had four stations:
Tavernier, Rock Harbor and Key Largo and a small building at Jewfish Creek mainly for the bridge tender. The telegraph station
was at the Key Largo depot, located at today's mile marker 105.6 just south of the Key Largo Chamber of Commerce. Although
there were other small platforms, only four were listed on a 1909 time table as flag-stops.
A James Clark was appointed postmaster of the Jewfish post office on May 7, 1908, but the order was rescinded for some
reason on August 18, 1908. Planter continued to be the only post office in the Middle and Upper Keys. When the railroad was
completed to Key West in 1912, a viable Jewfish, Florida, post office was opened on February 8, 1912. David Sasser was the
postmaster. Postal records show its name remained as Jewfish until May 31, 921, when it was renamed Key Largo. Additional
records support this timetable. The post office cash book of domestic money orders dated August 4, 1920 is titled "Jewfish." The
Register of Money Orders dated August 17, 1925 is labeled Key Largo. National Archive microfilm records also verifies this.
A copy of the 1926-27 F.E.C. insured property list shows "Jewfish Station, Bldg. No. 596, insured for $600" and nothing for
contents. The next location shows "Key Largo Station, Bldg. No. 1573, insured for $1,600, contents $150 and a Covered Platform
insured for $300." Both Jewfish and Key Largo have "agent's cottages" listed and no others are listed until Marathon. Some
assume that these were only for the telegraph operators, however, Islamorada had a telegraph operator, believed to have lived
in a private home.
The name change to Key Largo evidently occurred after appointing Wilbur Lofton as postmaster of Key Largo on April 18, 1921.
The same year on November 15, 1921, Mrs. Lillian Sexton was appointed postmaster. Around 1923, Lillian and Charles Sexton
traveled from Mississippi to build their "Venice" in Florida on Blackwater Sound, The Sexton's purchased the land just north of
the St. Justin Martyr Catholic Church (mile marker 105.5), across the tracks from the Key Largo railroad depot. Today the tracks
would have been where the southbound lane of U.S. 1 is now, and the depot in the median strip of Highway U.S. One.
The Sextons operated the hotel, store and post office, plus developed their land holdings. In addition, Charles offered land
clearing and dredging services. He used this equipment, when not working for others, to develop his "Venice of the Keys" that
later became known as Sexton Cove. This complex was advertised as the "Key Largo Plaza" in a 1926 issue of the Key Largo
Breeze. We actually possess the microfilm copies of the local newspaper which was published in Homestead.
The Shaw family, who worked for Charles Sexton, was an additional source of information. Clifford Shaw, on a 1993 trip to Key
Largo, verified the location of the depot at about mile marker 105.6. He produced family photographs of the depot, hotel, hotel
annex, store and homes. Additional telephone conversations with his older brother, Everett Jr. and younger sister, Francis,
establish a vivid picture of life in the early community of Key Largo. In fact Mrs. Shaw maintained a diary, the only written
documentation of life in Key Largo of the era.
From Clifford's pictures and memory, we get a better idea of 1926 Key Largo. The Sextons, Shaws and Prues had homes
between the hotel annex and Blackwater Sound. There was a road leading from the depot, past the hotel and homes, down to
the canals west of where Linda Drive is presently located. The Chapman lime packing house was north of the depot; Mr.
Chapman lived on the southside. Okie Hill, from Rock Harbor, operated the dredge for Charles Sexton, whose service was also
advertised in the Key Largo Breeze newspaper.
The history of the Card Sound road began in 1922 when Monroe County floated a $300,000 bond issue with an additional $2.5
million in 1926. Dade County cooperated and built a road from Florida City to a wooden Card Sound bridge. The project was
disrupted in late 1926 by a hurricane and the bridge had to be raised higher off the water.
Everett Shaw Sr. and Jr. worked for the Jenner Construction Company building the road from Card Sound bridge to Islamorada.
The building of a road from the mainland was important for Key Largo, as the Florida Land Boom was in progress and vehicle
access to land for sale was becoming critical.
The 1920s Florida land boom introduced Key Largo to land development. The North Carolina Fishing Village was the first
subdivision in 1923. Lots were laid out and pink sidewalks put in for Key Largo City Gardens (1925), just north of the train depot
and Garden Cove. Excursion trains were operated on weekends to bring potential customers to see this new development.
More subdivisions quickly followed to the south, such as the Angler's Park (1925), Angler's Shores (1925), Sunset Cove (1925),
Mandalay (1927), Seaside (1924-30), Tavernier Cove (1926) and Tavernier Heights (1926). By 1930 there were 26 subdivisions.
Very few actual houses were built. By the end of the 1970s there were about 123 subdivisions.
In the Upper Keys, the road was constructed by the Jenner Construction Company. The entire road was completed by 1928. The
wooden bridge was taken out in 1944 and not replaced until the 1960s.
A circa 1928 Florida Keys Upper Section brochure the following paid business advertisements in Key Largo: Doc. Knowlson's
Fishing Lodge, *Key Inn, Capt. J.S. Gerlock, John A. McRae - Realtor, Royal Palm Ice Co., Keys Supply Co. and the Key Largo
Store. *Below is an undated postcard of the Key Inn. I would have been a couple of miles north of the CR-905 and US-1
highways intersection on Key Largo. Ed and Fern Butters later sold the business and purchased the Matecumbe Hotel at
One of the historic homes is the European styled Largo Sound Rock Castle. It was a 1920s native coral rock home for New
Jersey dentist, Dr. George Engel. The walls are three feet thick at ground level and taper to 16 inches at the top. Upper Keys
county commissioner (1940-1942) T. Jenkins Curry had a small house nearby. Both survived the 1935 hurricane even though
the downstairs portions were completely flooded.
The mother of local attorney Jeff Gautier purchased the Largo Sound Castle in 1952. It had been vacant since the death of Dr.
Engel in 1945 and was sometimes referred to as the "Haunted house on Largo Sound." She remodeled the house and
removed the stone parapets along the roof line for safety reasons. A facsimile was later built in Dade County and "The Castle"
remains one of the oldest structures in the Upper Keys still standing in its original location. Many tales have been spun about
ghosts, etc. about the rock castle and it is located at the foot of Oceana Drive MM 103.5, oceanside.
The big plans for the 1920s community of Key Largo never materialized. As previously mentioned, between 1923 and 1927 there
were 26 subdivisions platted, but little actual construction. After 1927 there were no new subdivisions platted and recorded until
the 1940s on Key Largo. A category-three hurricane struck the Key Largo area in 1929, with winds estimated at 150 miles per
hour and tides up to 8.8 feet in the Garden Cove area.
Key Largo resumed its citrus economy, with the bust of the Florida Land Boom. Key limes and grapefruit were the principal
products. Perhaps the largest single packing house was the Chapman packing house immediately north of the Key Largo
depot. The introduction of the Persian lime on the mainland doomed the key lime as a Keys commercial product. Throughout
the Keys, visitors started to become the most important product and charter fishing would become an industry onto itself, as an
element of increased tourism.
With the destruction of 40 miles of railroad in the hurricane of September 1935, the railroad was not rebuilt and ceased
operations. The early Key Largo post office was discontinued on March 15, 1936 and mail responsibilities transferred to Rock
Harbor. Most new building moved south toward Rock Harbor, now included in the area of present-day Key Largo.
This action gave a Rock Harbor address to everyone on Key Largo Key living north of Tavernier. And once again, the community
of Key Largo had no definable center or identity. The old Rock Harbor Post Office, a small building located at mile marker 100,
was recently demolished in 1993, quietly erasing another small piece of Key's history.
In 1939 Miami Beach developer Carl Fisher began constructing the Caribbean Club, but failing health precluded him attending
the January 1940 opening. The use of the Club's facade for the filming of the 1948 movie “Key Largo, based on Maxwell
Anderson's Broadway play, gave the name Key Largo instant popularity. A 1955 fire in the hotel portion of the club took the life of
a Miami woman allegedly in the room of a Long Island doctor and prompted an investigation. Ruthie Whitehurst purchased the
club from Richard Craig in 1962 and has operated the club to present.
The movie "Key Largo" occurred during the tenure of George Brown as the Rock Harbor postmaster. Local businessmen
wanted to capitalize on the international popularity of Key Largo, but there was not even a Key Largo mailing address. In 1952,
the name of the Rock Harbor Post Office was arbitrarily changed to the Key Largo Post Office. Nothing really changed except the
post office sign and the cancellation stamp. The effect was to combine Key Largo, Rock Harbor, the Ocean Reef Club, the
Angler's Club and Newport into one postal community, and everybody north of Tavernier had Key Largo as a new address.
Outgoing letters were postmarked Rock Harbor on May 31, 1952 and Key Largo on June 1, 1952. It was then that the name of
Key Largo as a community, not as an island, was resurrected.
A definite increase in growth was experienced by Key Largo in the 1950s. This was generally due to the end of World War II, the
fresh water pipe line, public electricity, a certified High school and mosquito control. In my collection, the first published phone
book was dated "Corrected Through November 8, 1951;" therefore, I assume there was one before this. The following is a count
of listed residential and business phone numbers by location:
Tavernier = 75
Rock Harbor = 26
Key Largo = 16
Plantation Key = 5
Garden Cove = 1
Matecumbe from Long Key to Snake Creek listed 148; therefore, the Upper Keys had 371 phone listings.
In the mid 1950s the The Homestead Leader began publishing a weekly Keys section in its newspaper. A significant change
was experienced in the late 60s or the 1970s. The Upper Keys did not have any banking institution until the First Federal Saving
& Loan opened in the Port Largo Plaza. In 1972 a reasonably well used small landing strip opened using the breakwater of the
Port Largo subdivision. Then in 1977 the Florida Keys First State Bank opened where it remains today - 2004.
Chronologically this was the era when environmentalism just began to be manifested. In 1934 the U.S. legislature passed a bill
dubbed "Alligator and Snake Swamp Bill." President Franklin Roosvelt signed the bill on May 31, 1934. This parp proposal
included all of Key Largo and part of the reef.
As a significant portion of west Monroe County property was taken for the park, the county prevailed in placing the east park
boundary just west of Key Largo and Cross Key. In 1946 the Park Commission was re-activated with The Miami Herald's
associate editor John Pennekamp as its leader. The park was dedicated by President Truman on December 6, 1947. In 1956
"No Spear Fishing" signs appeared north of Long Key.
The year 1956 also marked the start of the construction of the Cross Key Waterway or the Key Largo Waterway as it was then
known. Today, most simply call it "The Cut." Marvin D. Adams purchased 50 acres of land in the narrowest part of the island of
Key Largo. Barney Waldin had invented a side mounted coral cutting machine and agreed to excavate 'The Cut' for the coral fill
material. Both canal ends and the highway/utility portion were left untouched. Barney excavated the 100-foot wide 40-foot deep
plugged canal in a year and a half. Some time passed before 'The Cut' was completed due to permits, highway and utility
bypasses and reconstruction. It opened in 1963 for maritime traffic and technically Key Largo became two islands.
In 1959 Governor Leroy Collins gave the Coral Reef Preserve control of the ocean bottom out to the three-mile limit. On
December 10, 1960 at Harry Harris Park Governor Collins named the preserve the "John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park.
One problem was not a single inch for a land base existed --a total underwater state park. Through John Pennekamp's efforts
the Radford Crane family donated 74 acres for a land base. The problems were not over as not an inch of the 74 acres had
vehicular access to U.S.1. Enter Herbert and Donna Shaw who donated a 60-foot strip of land from U.S. 1 to the property. As
another 'small' donation the Crane family donated the entire Julia island with three miles of oceanfront to the park. With control
of Julia Island, South Creek was dredged deeper to provide reasonable access to and from Florida Bay, via the now Marvin D.
Adams Waterway. The Adams Waterway and Pennekamp have separate web pages.
The 1926 original Key Largo community was considered to be about four linear miles, as opposed to today's Key Largo
spanning about 24 miles from Ocean Reef to Tavernier's approximately defined border at MM 96.
Source - Historical Preservation Society of the Upper Keys - 2000
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