Home > Floripedia > Key West: Naval Base
Site Map

Key West: Naval Base

Key West: The Old and the New


In February, 1822, Capt. L. T. Patterson and Lieut. Tuttle of the United States navy arrived with orders from the government to survey the coast and harbor, and they were soon followed by various government vessels that brought stores and materials, and by the end of the year the island was a regularly constituted naval depot and station, under the command of Commodore Porter. A resolution was adopted in the house of representatives in Washington requesting the President of the United States to inform the house:

"What appropriation will be required to enable him to fortify Thompson's Island, usually called Key West, and whether a naval depot, established at that island, protected by fortifications, will not afford facilities in defending the commerce of the United States, and in clearing the Gulf of Mexico and the adjacent seas from pirates."

To this Hon. Smith Thompson, secretary of the navy, for whom Captain Perry had named Key West, replied:

"That the geographical situation of the island referred to in the resolution has for some time past attracted attention, and been considered peculiarly important both as a military position and in reference to the commerce of the United States.

"The commander of one of our vessels, cruising in that quarter was accordingly directed last winter to touch at this island and take possession of it as a part of the territory ceded by Spain to the United States, and to make such general examination as might be useful in forming an opinion of the advantages of the place, and the propriety of a further and more particular survey. From the report of Lieutenant Commander Perry, who was charged with this duty, it has been satisfactorily ascertained that this position affords a safe, convenient and extensive harbor for vessels of war and merchant vessels. His instructions, however, did not require him to make so minute a survey as was necessary, in order to judge of the extent to which this place might be safely and advantageously occupied and improved as a naval depot.

"These are some of the obvious benefits in time of peace; but its advantages in time of war with any European power having West Indian possessions, are still more important, both as it respects the protection of our own commerce and the annoyance of our enemy. An enemy with a superior naval force occupying this position, could completely intercept the whole trade between those parts of our country lying 'north and cast of it, and those to the west, and seal up all our ports within the Gulf of Mexico. It may, therefore, be safely answered, to one branch of the inquiry made by the resolution, that if this island is susceptible of defence, a naval depot established there would afford a great facility in protecting our commerce. It is believed, however, that it is susceptible of defense, at an expense that would be justified by the importance of the place; but to form any tolerably satisfactory estimate of the amount, an accurate survey and calculation, by competent engineers, is indispensably necessary.

"This island is considered so advantageous and convenient a place of rendezvous for our public vessels on the West Indian station, that it is intended to make it a depot for provisions and supplies for the expedition against the pirates, lately authorized by congress, to be secured in temporary buildings, under the protection of a guard of marines."

Commodore Porter's communications to the department abound in expressions, which show his high appreciation of the advantages likely to result from the occupation of the island by the United States as a naval station. Under date of May 11, 1823, when asking for an increased number of vessels and men, he said:*

"From the importance of the trade of Cuba and the Gulf of Mexico, the whole of which is protected from this place, with a force not equal to one frigate, I presume my requests will not be considered extravagant. The arrivals and departures of the American vessels from the port of Havana alone average about thirty a week, and those from Matanzas about twenty. Not a day elapses but that great numbers of American vessels are to be met passing through the gulf, and since our establishment here, they daily in numbers pass in sight of us. I mention these facts to give you an idea of the importance of this station, and to show the propriety of augmenting the force by the additions which I have asked."

Under date of November 19, 1823, be said: "The fixing an establishment at Thompson's Island for rendezvous and supplies has had a most happy effect in attaining the object had in view. Its vicinity to Havana, placed as it were, in the thoroughfare of vessels sailing through the gulf, making it, in many points of view, an object of great importance to the United States."

Commodore Rodgers thus mentions the island under date of November 24, 1823: "Nature had made it the advance post from which to watch and guard our commerce passing to and from the Mississippi, while at the same time, its peculiar situation, and the excellence of its harbor, point it out as the most certain key to the commerce of Havana, to that of the whole Gulf of Mexico, and to the returning trade of Jamaica; and I venture to predict, that the first important naval contest in which this country shall be engaged will be in the neighborhood of this very island."

Seventy-five years afterwards this prophecy was fulfilled, and with Key West as a base. our fleet engaged in the most important naval contest ever fought in the gulf, destroyed the Spanish fleet, and drove Spain from the Western Hemisphere.

Sickness prevailed during the summer of 1823 to a great extent, and the reports of naval officers to the department, and from the department to the president, are replete with explanations as to the cause, and apprehensions as to the eff ects upon the permanency of the establishment. "Had the necessary number of medical men been furnished this year 11 wrote Corn modore Porter, "the squadron would have been no doubt in a great measure saved from the deplorable consequences which have resulted, as the disease, in its commencement, was completely under the control of medicine; but I regret to say that several perished without receiving any medical aid whatever, and without even seeing a physician."

He further reports that "with the exception of one case of yellow fever, only bilious fever prevailed until June 20th, and the cases yielded readily to the agency of medicine, at which time it assumed a highly malignant form.

"This disease now commenced on board the store ship Decoy, which was rendered unhealthful by the impurity of her hold. A quantity of ballast was put on board from this island, containing shell-fish and sea-weed, which by the heat of the tropical climate, was thrown into a state of putrefactive fermentation. Two of the cases, *however, which occurred on board this vessel were contracted by imprudent exposure to a noonday heat in the streets of Havana."

The secretary of the navy, under date of September 21st, drew the attention of the president to the impropriety of abandoning the island. "It ought not", said he, "readily be deserted. It is very desirable to save it." And Commodore Rodgers wrote a letter to the Secretary on the sixteenth of November, containing these sensible passages:

"United States Schooner Shark, Hampton Roads, Nov. 16, 1823.-From the little experience I have had, my opinion is that the climate of Thompson's Island is similar to that of the West India islands generally; that its air is perhaps less salubrious than some, but more so than others; and notwithstandina the objections which may be urged against it, on account of particular defects arising from its surface, and the many salt and fresh water ponds which it is said to contain, still, that it is, from the excellence of its harbor and its peculiar station on the map of the Western Hemisphere, too important an object, in a political and commercial point of view, to be suffered to remain unoccupied kid unregarded, for, admitting its climate, in its present unim- proved state, to be as unfriendly to health as even that of the colony of Surinam, it is, notwithstanding, susceptible of being SO improved, or at least, the dangers attending it so much dimin- ished by artificial means (such as I will hereafter describe), as to render the objections to it, if not harmless, at least comparatively small."

These remonstrances bad the desired effect and prevented the abandonment of the island as a naval base.

The first use of Key West as an active base of naval operations was in 1822, when Commodore David Porter commanded the squadron organized to suppress the pirates of the West Indies, known as "Brethren of the Coast." Prior to his assuming command, no satisfactory progress had been made the draught of the war vessels being too great to follow the buccaneers into the shallow bays, coves and rivers in which they sought refuge when pursued. Operations were conducted in this unsatisfactory Manner for two years when Commodore Porter in command of the West Indian Squadron, inaugurated a new plan of campaign. First, he selected the island of Key West as a base of operations, and erected a storehouse, workshop, hospital and quarters for the men. Ile then detached and sent north the big, useless frigates and supplied their places with eight small light draught schooners and five twenty-oared barges. These last were appropriately named Mosquito, Midge, Gallinipper, Gnat, and Sandfly. Of the old squadron he retained the Peacock, John Adams, Hornet, Spark, Grampus and Shark. Thus was gathered at Key West a fleet of twenty-one craft, eminently suited for the work of driving from the sea forever the dreaded "Brethren of the Coast."

In order to make his barges available, it was necessary to tow them until he fell in with the buccaneers, and when they attempted to escape in shallow water, man the barges and go in pursuit. For this purpose he procured an old New York steam ferryboat, the Sea Gull, and her use for naval purposes is the first instance of a steam propelled vessel being used in the United States navy. In this way, Captain Porter captured and destroyed a number of the buccaneers' vessels, who made their final rendezvous at the Isle of Pines. Here he attacked,, captured or destroyed most all of them. Some that escaped put into the Port of Fajardo, Porto Rico.

The buccaneers paid tribute to the Spanish government, and left the commerce of that nation unmolested, for which they received its moral support. Commodore Porter followed the buccaneers into Fajardo, and upon the military authorities refusing to give them up, sent a punitive expedition ashore, and taught the Spanish authorities a needed lesson. Thus was ended piracy in the Caribbean Sea.

Spain complained of his action at Fajardo, and he was court-martialed and sentenced to six months suspension, whereupon he resigned and entered the service of the Mexican navy, and later was connected with the Turkish navy, and while holding this position, the United States in atonement for the injustice which bad been done this gallant and efficient officer, appointed him consular agent of the United States in Turkey, where he died in 1843.

While engaged in the suppression of piracy in the Caribbean Sea he became impressed with the importance of Key West as a naval base and so reported to the secretary of the navy in 1829.

In 1856 a United States naval depot and storehouse was commenced at the corner of Whitehead and Front streets. In 1857 when the walls were ready to receive the roof, work on the building was suspended, and it remained so for several years for want of an appropriation by congress. At the outbreak of the Civil War it was in this unfinished condition.

In 1861 the U.S.S. Atlantic, having conveyed Federal troops for the relief of Fort Pickens, touched at this port for a supply of coal but finding none, was compelled to sail to Havana.

On three occasions has the importance of Key West as a naval base been demonstrated. During the Civil War more ships were stationed at Key West than at any other port in the United States, and but for its occupancy by the Northern forces as a naval base, the result of the war might have been different. In 1873 when the capture of the Virginius threatened war with Spain, nearly every available ship in the navy was hurried to Key West, which was made the base of all operations. In 1897, on the breaking out of the war with Spain, every available naval vessel was again sent to Key West, and the Oregon and Marietta made their record run from California to the all important Key West.

Its position on the Straights of Florida-through which four thousand vessels pass annually, and the commerce of all the gulf ports--commands the protection of American commerce in any war. In all past history this position has been of the greatest importance, and no matter where on the Western Hemisphere the war may be, the American commerce in the Straits of Florida will have to be protected from Key West as a naval base.

Whether the inexplicable zeal of certain naval authorities to develop Guantanamo (a port in a foreign country), at the expense of one of our own ports, will be sanctioned by congress, or continue after the personnel of the naval board is changed, is problematical.

Vague theories, personal preferences, individual hostilities, and opportunities for speculation, may give Guantanamo a temporary advantage over Key West, but actual war will again demonstrate that this place commands the route on the Key West-Porto Rican strategic line of force, and that it commands all approaches to the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean Sea and Panama Canal, and as a distinguished naval historian says, the government will recognize "the capacity of the Florida Reef as an advantageous naval station-a sort of Downs or St. Helen's Roads, in the West Indian seas."

In 1881 the naval wharf was rebuilt; iron piles being substituted for the wooden ones and a steel pier constructed. This work was done by Lieut. Robert E. Peary, the discoverer of the North Pole, who spent a year in Key West. The pier was demolished in the hurricane of 1910, and a more substantial concrete one was completed in 1911.

In 1895 the Navy Department bought the property that was the home of the two Stephen R. Mallorys, father and son, both of whom represented Florida in the senate of the United States. The old house, which was a center of social and intellectual life, was torn down to give place to coal bins.

In 1890 a double house was built by the Navy Department for the use of the commandant and paymaster of the station. It proved too small for two families and is now used exclusively for the commandant, at the present time Admiral Lucian Young.

In 1902 the United States government condemned for naval purposes all that part of the island lying southwest of Whitehead street between Fleming and Fitzpatrick streets, except the Mallory property, and the old home place of Mr. Joseph Beverly Browne, on the corner of Caroline and Whitehead streets, which the government bought in 1858, and the strip of water front acquired in 1854, on which the machine shop, commandant's quarters and coal bins had previously been erected. On the property condemned, the Navy Department now has buildings for the various departments of the service, and residences on Whitehead street for the paymaster and civil engineer. A distilling plant with a capacity of fifteen thousand gallons per day was constructed in 1898, and in 1910 a concrete reservoir of one million, five hundred thousand gallons capacity was erected on the Whitehead street side of the navy yard. In 1906 a wireless telegraph station was constructed, which is one of the most powerful in the world, and messages sent from here have been caught by the Mare Island station, a distance of twenty-six hundred miles.

Standing on the naval reservation at the corner of Whitehead and Caroline streets, is one of the oldest buildings in Key West, and for many years had the unique distinction of being the only one not built entirely of wood. It was known as "The Stone Building," being built of cement from a cargo of that material wrecked at Key West. It is a quaint three-story structure with a high pitched roof, having a narrow balcony supported by consoles of solid cement , extending the entire side on Whitehead street. On the gable end was once a similar balcony, but it has been taken down, and only the consoles remain. Above the side balcony is a large plaster mask of the builder, Mr. John G. Ziriax, who kept the foremost bakery of his day. Before it acquired the cognomen of the "Stone Building" it was known as the "Ziriax Building". It is now used as a marine guard-house.

Another building on the Naval Reservation which connects the old and the new Key West, stands about two hundred feet southwest of the Marine Guard-house. It is a type of the old style Key West architecture of which so little is left. When the grade of the reservation was raised it covered part of this house, and changed its appearance. The first floor was a foot below the level of the ground, built of stone to about eight feet in height, above which was the frame part of the building. The old officers' quarters at the barracks are of the same style of architecture, and most of the better class of houses in the early days were so constructed, for the protection, then supposed to be necessary, against the high tides which prevail during the passage of a hurricane in this vicinity.

Excerpt from "Key West: The Old and the New" by Jefferson B. Browne. Published 1912.


Home > Floripedia > Key West: Naval Base
Site Map

Exploring Florida: A Social Studies Resource for Students and Teachers
Produced by the Florida Center for Instructional Technology,
College of Education, University of South Florida © 2005.