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Gulf Coast: Cedar Keys to Key West

Florida for Tourists, Invalids, and Settlers


The waters of the Gulf of Mexico wash the entire west and south coast-line of Florida, a stretch of about seven hundred miles.

Commencing about one hundred miles northeast along the Atlantic coast side, a series of islands forms a continuous chain around the southern extremity of the State, and extends in a line bearing south of west from the mainland out into the Gulf.

These islands are generally small, averaging about one hundred acres, excepting Largo and Key West, which are from one to two miles in width and seven to ten miles in length. All are quite rocky, but the sparse sandy soil is very fertile, and everywhere covered with an abundant vegetation. These islands are called keys, and the cluster at the western extremity is the famous Dry Tortugas, where the United States Government has extensive fortifications, store houses and military supplies.

South of this long chain of keys, and separated from them by a navigable channel, is the great Florida Reef, a long, narrow ledge of coral, of great danger to the navigation of these waters, being hidden beneath the surface of the ocean, and only exposed to view in severe gales.

All this great line of mainland and island coast presents but few harbors, owing to the shallow soundings. Commencing at the extreme western end of the coast, the harbors are Pensacola, Appalachicola, St. Marks, Cedar Keys, Tampa Bay, Charlotte Harbor, and Key West. The three ports first named, together with Tampa Bay, have been described in previous chapters.

Cedar Keys is the Gulf terminus of the Florida Transit Railway from Fernandina (one hundred and fifty-four miles), and is also the port of the Henderson Gulf Line of steamers and of the New Orleans, Havana and Gulf Line, both lines having excellent steamers, well equipped and supplied, and scheduled so as to connect daily at Cedar Keys with any of the Gulf and West India ports. Cedar Keys is a dreamy, cleanly kept, irregular little village of orderly and thrifty people. It is built on an island (as its name suggests), and faces to the northeast, quite confusing to the traveler, who usually expects to look west for the Gulf waters. The railroad enters the place across a long bridge that spans the lagoon. The general appearance of the town is pleasing, the one business street being lined with substantial structures, mostly built of coquina-stone, and in design and material having a Spanish, tropical appearance quite in keeping with the surrounding scenery. The trade is mostly wholesale, and amounts annually to several hundred thousand dollars, supplying the retail dealers of all the little hamlets along the coast and rivers of a large portion of that region. To the hunter, fisherman, or health-seeker, it offers attractions equal to any portion of Florida.

Under the guidance of Major Parsons, who has resided here forty-three years, the writer visited all the various points of interest, and enjoyed a pleasant visit in this delightful old place. Late one brilliant afternoon we were on board the splendid new steamship Admiral, that makes two trips weekly between Cedar Keys, Key West, and Havana, and soon all were enjoying the soft, refreshing salt-water breeze and viewing the beautiful scenery of the islands, with their wealth of tropical vegetation, the large, comfortable-appearing dwellings standing in the midst of flower-laden gardens and broad, bright green lawns. On we sped, passing the graceful lighthouses and picturesque home of the old lightkeeper, out into the warm blue waters of the Gulf. It was a lovely, warm evening. After partaking of an excellent supper, all assembled on the after-deck in the deep enjoyment of cigars, listening to anecdotes, and inhaling the pure, balmy breeze, observing the clear sky, the brilliant stars, and bright full moon that lighted the calm waters like a vast sheet of glittering silver. It was a charming scene of great beauty, deeply enjoyed and long to be remembered by all the participants, none retiring until a late hour.

Early the following morning all were on deck, sniffing the invigorating breeze and watching the many dolphins, porpoises, and occasional sharks, as they plunged through the waters in every direction.

To our left, quite plainly in sight, was the coast of Florida, the islands of very tropical appearance forming exceedingly pretty pictures as the bright sun rose behind them. The coast is for the most part low and sandy, edged by shoals and bars, and broken here and there by beautiful bays and indentations. All the larger inlets are filled with islands, most of which are sandy and arid, though some are covered with a tropical luxuriance of vegetation.

All along the coast at convenient points are little farming or lumbering settlements: the principal being Crystal River, Hamosassa, Bayport, Anclote River, Clear-Water Harbor, Law's Store, Me-Mullen's Store, Philippi's Grove, Point Penales, Alafia, Terrasea Bay, Little Manatee, Manatee, Sarasota, Charlotte Harbor, and Punta Rassa. Manatee, which is something of a village, is not directly on the coast, but about eight miles up the Manatee River, in a pleasant situation, where game is abundant.

Charlotte Harbor, however, possesses greater natural advantages than any other on the Gulf coast, and has been pronounced by competent authority to be the best harbor between Port Royal and Pensacola. It is a grand sheet of water, about thirty miles in length by ten in width, easily accessible from the Gulf, and studded with hundreds of beautiful tropical islands, of which the most important are Pine, Sanibal, Captira, Lacosta, and Gasparilla. The locality has of late begun to attract much attention, and nearly all the projected railroads of the State have fixed upon Charlotte Harbor as a southern terminus-among them the South Florida Railroad, which, as explained in another chapter, has already set out on the route thither. Indeed, the geographical, commercial, and climatic advantages of the place are too apparent to escape notice, and I believe that some locality on that noble harbor is destined to become a great trade and shipping center, and one of the most popular winter resorts in the State. All the lands in the vicinity are good; and crops of everything that can be produced elsewhere in the semi-tropical portions of Florida will grow there and produce abundantly. The scenery is beautiful, the climate is wonderfully bland and equable, and game and fish, oysters, turtles, and the like, are found in inexhaustible quantities. The islands, great and small, that are so numerous on that beautiful coast, are wonderfully pretty, perfect gems of tropical scenery.

Considering how numerous are the summer resorts, inland, and seaside hotels all through the north and west, and how few are the winter resorts—the hotels specially for winter tourists numbering scarcely two dozen inland they dot in the really tropical region of the State; and considering how limited is the tropical region; how the number of hotel residents, of tourists, wandering to all sections of the country, summer and winter, in search of health and pleasure, is increasing to such a vast multitude each year; and that the hotels of Florida, even at highest prices, are scarcely able to accommodate the visitors to the State—it is apparent that the time is near at hand when a vast winter "Coney Island," with Newport and Long Branch combined, must be established at some point in the southern part of the peninsula, beyond any possible danger of cold, frosts, or extreme changes; where a sea-beach drive, islands for pleas sure-yachts, a race-course, polo-ground, base-ball park, etc., etc., can be established, and where the health-seeker, the hunter, and the fisher, as well as the lover of strange scenes and excitement, may each find special attractions. Charlotte Harbor, with a railroad, would present just such a location, and railroads must go there. Each season the army of tourists to Florida is increasing, and the farther south they can get the better they like it. And this spot offers attractions not possessed by any other in the whole country for such a resort. As I sat on an elevated spot on the shore of that harbor, and looked over its broad, beautiful expanse, watching the sun sinking behind the lovely islands, and saw many dolphins gamboling in the bright waves, and thought of the myriads of fish and oysters so easy to be obtained, and the soil, so prolific of all dainty fruits, I reflected that it only needed the genius of a Corbin, a Breslin, or a Lorillard, to wake up this dreamy, delicious locality, and make it a spot that would rival any pleasure resort in the world. With competing lines of railroads and steamers, and consequent low fares, all the United States would soon wish to enjoy the novelty of seeing a horse-race, or a game of base-ball, or a yacht-race, or to try a swim, pick a banana, or wear a white suit in January.

On Pease Creek, a tributary of Charlotte Harbor, a large amount of elevated and rich lands is open to settlement. The mainland, between the head of Charlotte Harbor, Meyakka River, and Little Sarasota Bay, also offers a fine field for settlement. Between the Haulover and the bead of Little Sarasota Bay a high bluff extends along the Gulf coast, and to those who wish to pitch their tents within sight and sound of the waves this would prove a desirable spot.

At the southern extremity of Charlotte Harbor is situated Punta Rassa. The improvements consist of the signal and telegraph station—a large wooden structure—a large storehouse, a superior dock, and a fish-ranche. This is the great point for the shipment of cattle to Key West and Cuba. The Caloosa entrance, leading from the Gulf to this point, is comparatively shallow, affording but nine feet of water at low tide at the shallowest points. Leaving the dock and proceeding in a northerly direction for three miles, the mouth of the Caloosabatchie River opens up. Unfortunately for the navigation of this stream, there is but seven feet of water in the channel at the mouth, at low tide. However, this depth would prove ample for river steamers, and if it should ever be required, a small expenditure would deepen the channel so as to allow of the passage of any vessel that could enter the port. Soon after entering the river it widens out and becomes a beautiful stream, from one and a quarter to three miles in width, for a distance of thirty miles. The land gradually rises from the and a half, and I have been as river for a mile, or a mile assured that it is good, productive pine-land, in many places mixed with shell and underlaid by clay or marl.

Fort Myers, distant twenty-five miles from Punta Rassa, is an old military post, which was abandoned after the last Indian war. At present it contains a population of about two hundred persons, the majority of whom are engaged in cattle-raising. Here I found several small orangegroves, and the trees appeared vigorous and healthy. Large patches of bananas flourished with a luxuriance unknown in the more northern portions of the State. But what gratified me most was the existence of eleven cocoanut-trees, seventeen years old, with their pendent fruit and luxuriant leaves. The cocoanut is very susceptible to the influence of frost, and the presence of these trees convinced me that the locality had not suffered from it for seventeen years. At this point the river is much narrower than lower down the stream, but measures one mile and eleven chains from bank to bank.

By the course of the river the Caloosahatchie telegraph station and crossing is distant fifteen miles. From the fort to within a short distance of the station the banks of the river are low, and in many places swampy. Near the station the banks are high and the soil excellent. The operator pointed out a lemon-tree near the house, not five years old, that had produced about one thousand lemons. A few of them were hanging on the tree, and I found them thin skinned and very juicy. We are satisfied that the time is not far distant when the lemons of Southern Florida will drive the diminutive, and, to a certain extent, juiceless lemons of the Mediterranean from the American markets.

From the telegraph station to Fort Donand, distant twenty miles in a direct line, but more than twice as many by the course of the river, the stream is narrow, varying from one hundred and fifty to four hundred feet in width, but very deep. Between these points the banks of the river are high, and, in some places, almost perpendicular. In many of the reaches, to make a landing without a ladder would be a troublesome undertaking. Along the river rich hammocks exist, clothed with a growth of small live-oaks and cabbage-palms, back of this a belt of pine-timber, and then the open prairie, covered with luxuriant and nutritive grass. From our own observations, and information obtained, the belt of timber on the line of the river is narrow in its whole course. The prairie on each side of the stream is very extensive, and dotted with what is known as 'islands'—patches of live-oak and palm, and belts of pine of limited extent. These oases of foliage furnish protection to cattle and herds. The grasses in this section are more tender and succulent than in the northern and western portions of the State.

For the production of sugar-cane this section possesses an advantage over Mississippi and Louisiana, where cane has to be cut before it has attained its full saccharine development, in order to avoid the injurious influence of frosts. In Southern Florida the cane will tassel and perfect itself."

Key West was reached about noon on the day after leaving Cedar Keys, and we were soon enjoying the comforts of the Russell House, a large and well-kept hotel. Afterward we rode about the city and island, visiting the extensive water-batteries, the park, and the lighthouse. Everything in and about Key West is strange, foreign, and interesting. The business houses and public buildings, the dwellings, the gardens, lawns, flowers, trees, soil, and vegetation, the appearance of the people, their costumes, and even their names, all are so un-American and suggestive of a foreign clime, that it is difficult indeed to realize it as one of the busy, enterprising cities of our United States. Nevertheless, in this far-off, isolated community of Uncle Sam's family are found the same social sentiments and the same interests as among all American citizens.

Key West has a steady business of exchange and supply for all the settlers and retail dealers of that section of the State. It is not of the intensely active, Chicago sort of business, but it is steady, easy-going, and quiet. Cigar-making is the principal industry, exceeding all other interests, employing hundreds of people, mostly Cubans, occupying numerous large establishments, and paying to Uncle Sam an annual revenue of upward of three hundred and twenty thousand dollars. A stroll about the place at once makes it apparent where the famous Key West cigars come from; everywhere are tobacco-dealers and cigar-manufactories, and upward of thirty million cigars were manufactured there in 1880.

The United States has erected several large, substantial structures here, and the public buildings of the county and city, also the churches—four—the public schools, operahouse, etc., are all creditable structures. The Government dock, barracks, and forts are all large and costly, this being regarded as one of the most important points in the defensive system of the United States. An unpleasant feature is the impossibility of obtaining cool well or spring water. Wells cannot be sunk, and there are no springs, and the inhabitants are obliged to depend on rain-water cisterns or condensed supply. Turtling, sponging, mullet-fishing, and shell-hunting are important industries. A large number of men are engaged in wrecking on the reefs. The population is about eight thousand five hundred.

Excerpt from "The Gulf Coast and Key West" Florida for Tourists, Invalids, and Settlers, 1882.


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