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Key West: Business

Key West: The Old and the New


That there could be a city of 22,000 population on an island in the gulf, without a railroad or a wagon road connecting it with the county of which it politically forms a part, is the best evidence of the commercial importance of Key West.

No other city in the United States occupies or has occupied such a unique position. Its harbor, landlocked by keys and reefs, in which the largest ships can float, has four entrances: The southwest passage has thirty-three feet of water on the bar; the main ship channel, thirty feet; the southeast, thirty-two feet, and the northwest, fourteen feet. A vessel leaving the harbor of Key West by the southwest passage has but seven miles to sail before she can shape her course to her port of destination, and through the main ship channel, but five miles.

Ships putting into Key West for stores or repairs add only about ten miles to their voyage - an advantage possessed by no other port in the United States having equal depth of water. At a very little expense the northwest passage can be deepened to twenty-four feet; this would enable the entire commerce of the gulf to pass through the harbor of Key West, and besides saving seventy miles on a voyage between the ocean and the gulf, would avoid the dangerous reefs around the Tortugas Islands, which they must otherwise pass.

By special legislation the president was authorized to establish a custom house at Key West in 1822. A collector of customs-Mr. Joel Yancy, from Glasgow, Ky. -- and other officers were appointed, and the following year a revenue cutter was attached to the port. Mr. Yancy did not long remain on the island, but left the office in charge of his deputy, a Mr. Dawley, and Mr. Samuel Ayres, inspector. Mr. Dawley died in June, 1823, and Mr. Ayres having resigned the position of inspector, Key West occupied the unique position of having a custom house with no one to fill the offices. From June, 1823, to January 1, 1824, the custom house was in charge of Mr. Thornton, the purser of the port, a position corresponding to that of naval station paymaster at the present time. On the latter date Mr. Ayres, at the request of the naval officer in command at Key West, again assumed the duties as acting collector, but served only to the 15th day of January of the same year.

No name is found in the records as having filled the office of collector from January 15th to October 5, 1824. It is supposed some revenue cutter officer was detailed to fill it temporarily during this period. Mr. John Whitehead was appointed collector on February 9, 1824, but declined to serve. In July 1824, Mr. William Pinckney was appointed and took charge on October 5th of the same year, and remained in office until May 27, 1829.*

On September 13, 1833, the government purchased an irregular shaped lot bounded on the north by Whitehead street, on the east by Front street, on the south by Greene street, and on the west by the waters of the harbor. There was a frame building on the end of the lot nearest Greene street, which was used as a custom house until 1876, when a substantial frame addition was made to it. In the early part of 1889 the old part of the building was torn down, and the part built in 1876 was sold and removed, preparatory to constructing the building now used for the United States custom house, post-office and light-house department.

It is an interesting circumstance that the part of the custom house which was built in 1876 was purchased by Colonel Frank N. Wicker, who had for eleven years, occupied it as collector of customs. He moved it to a lot on Duval street between Front and Greene streets, three doors from the Jefferson hotel, and occupied it as a real estate office. It is now owned by the Key West Investment Company and the lower floor is used for an office by them. After this building was sold, and until the completion of the new building, the custom house business was carried on in a building on Whitehead street, between Caroline and Eaton street, which was erected by Mr. Benjamin Sawyer, and long owned and occupied by Mr. E. L. Ware. It was afterwards torn down, and on the site Mr. W. L. Delaney erected his present residence.

The following sketch of the present government building is from the pen of Mr. Ramon Alvarez, who has been an employee in the customs service since 1873, except for intervals when the country had Democratic administrations; and for fourteen position of special deputy collector years has held the responsible of customs:

"A contract for the erection of the present building was awarded December 15, 1888, and the structure was completed and occupied in the latter part of 1891, the cost of construction, together with building a sea wall, being $107,955.96. It rests on a pile foundation, is constructed of red brick with stone and terra cotta trimmings, and contains an area of 354,634 cubic feet. The building is on a slight elevation facing a small triangular park known as Monument Square (Clinton Place), formed by the intersection of Whitehead, Greene and Front streets. At the rear the ground slopes to the beach. A broad piaSt. Johns and Ocklawaha Riversa extends around the building at the first floor line, from the rear of which may be seen the shipping as it passes Sand Key Light-House to and from the Gulf of Mexico. The first floor is occupied by the postal and customs services. On the second story, reached by a broad flight of stairs, are located the court room and court offices, and on the third floor the light-house inspector and other government officials have their offices."

Prior to 1860 Key West was much the most important city in Florida as shown by a table prepared by Mr. William A. Whitehead, collector of customs at Key West, for four years between 1831 and 1835.*

The revenues of the custom house of Key West showed an average of about $45,000.00 annually from 1828 to 1832. In 1874 the amount of dutiable goods imported into this district was $641,335.00, and free of duty $19,077.00, making a total importation of $660,432.00. In 1874 the total amount of duties paid into the customs house was $222,371.35; tonnage dues $2,520.83; hospital dues $2,728.51. In 1875, total $297,238.96. In 1876, total $245,514.73. For decade ending with the fiscal year of 1911 the collections have averaged over $500,000.00 per year.


The first commercial body organized in Key West was the Key West Board of Trade on November 30, 1885. The meeting was called to order by Mr. Horatio Crain, and Judge James W. Locke elected temporary chairman, and Mr. R. Alfred Monsalvatge temporary secretary. A committee on organization was appointed who made their report on December 4th, and Mr. John Jay Philbrick was elected president; Mr. E. H. Gato, first vice president; Mr. John J. Delaney, second vice president; Mr. George W. Allen, third vice president, and Mr. Horatio Crain, secretary. Shortly after his election Mr. Philbrick resigned the presidency, and Mr. John J. Delaney was elected in his place, and held the position until the organization died a natural death some years later.


In 1889 the Merchants' Protective Association was organized, largely for the purpose of protecting the old Key West merchants from the competition of the Jew peddlers who had just begun coming to Key West. Mr. William Curry, the first president, resigned after a short time, and Mr. James A. Waddell was elected in his stead. About the only thing that the association accomplished was to have the city charter amended to authorize the imposing of a license tax of one thousand dollars on each peddler. This had the effect of making the Jews quit peddling and open stores. Several of them are now among the most prosperous and progressive citizens of Key West. Of the dry goods merchants who were in business at the time the Merchants' Protective Association was organized, not one has a store today, and of the clothing merchants only one, Mr. George S. Waite.


In 1902 the Key West Chamber of Commerce was organized. Its first president was Mr. W. D. Cash, he holding that position until the consolidation of the Chamber of Commerce with the Commercial Club in 1910.


The Commercial Club was organized August 1, 1907, and bad for its purpose the development of the commerce and industries of Key West. Club rooms were fitted up and the organization was conducted both as a business and social institution. Its 'first president was Mr. William R. Porter, who was succeeded by Dr. John B. Maloney. In 1910 it was consolidated with the Chamber of Commerce. Under the plan of consolidation the name of the latter was retained, and the officers of the Commercial Club became the officers of the new organization. In November, 1911, in recognition of the valuable services rendered by Mr. W. D. Cash to the commercial organizations of Key West, and his long service as president of the Chamber of Commerce, he was made an honorary life member without dues, a distinction not before conferred on any member.


Among the first of the enterprises which placed Key West on a commercial footing with other cities, was the establishment of a telegraph line by the International Ocean Telegraph Company in 1866.

General W. F. Smith (known as "Baldy Smith"), a retired volunteer officer of the United States army, who was president of the company, had previously obtained from the Spanish government the exclusive privilege for forty years of landing a cable on the coast of Cuba.

He had under consideration two plans for reaching Key West-one contemplated a land line to Punta Rassa, and thence by cable to the island, the other, a continuous land line down the East Coast and over the keys. It was proposed to use iron piles in the water between the keys, and socket them about ten feet above high water mark with wooden poles. It was finally decided, however, to abandon this plan, and adopt the route from Punta Rassa.

The cable came into Key West in front of the United States army barracks on the north side of the island, and was carried underground to a point near the bridge at Fort Taylor, whence it went to Cuba.


In March, 1884, a gas company was incorporated, and a plant erected back of Emma street near what is known as the Fort Pond. The gas furnished was smoky and of inferior lighting power, and the company did not prosper. After a time Mr. John Jay Philbrick acquired a controlling interest in the stock, and on the establishment of his electric lighting plant in 1890, the manufacture of gas was discontinued. In 1911 the circuit court, upon the application of the city, declared the gas franchise forfeited for non-user.


In 1885 a franchise was granted by the legislature of Florida to Messrs. Walter C. Maloney, Jr., Eduardo H. Gato, Louis W. Pierce, George G. Watson, John White and Charles B. Pendleton, to operate a street car line on any of the roads or streets in that part of the island of Key West lying outside the corporate limits. A charter had previously been obtained from the city council to operate a line within the city of Key West.

The company was financed by Mr. E. H. Gato, who built and operated the road largely as his own private enterprise. The cars were drawn by mules.

In 1894 the company was incorporated under the general laws of Florida, but with the exception of Mr. Gato, the incorporators were nominal stockholders.

One branch extended up Whitehead to Division street, thence along Division to White street, where the car barn was located near the foot of Rawson street; another extended along Front street and proceeded thence on Simonton, Eaton. Margaret, Southard and White streets, to the car barn.

When the road was finished Mrs. Alicia Carey opened an ice cream parlor near the terminus, which became a popular resort for merry-making parties of young people.

In 1896 the street car line was bought by Mr. John Jay Philbrick, who had just perfected arrangements to convert it into an electric line, when his sudden death in 1897 put a stop to the work for a time. His heirs sold it to a corporation composed of New York and Chicago capitalists, who carried out Mr. Philbrick's plans, and in 1900 the electric line was opened for traffic.

In 1906 the Stone & Webster Corporation bought the line, and it is now being operated by this company. Its policy is liberal and its equipment and service of the highest quality.


When Air. Philbrick bought the street car line, he erected on the ocean front, at the end of Simonton street, a handsome and commodious pleasure pavilion. It was one hundred and twenty-five feet long, one hundred feet wide, with piaSt. Johns and Ocklawaha Riversas twenty-five feet wide on all sides. One room, twenty-five by fifty feet, was used for refreshments, and the other fifty feet square for dancing and concerts. Later, an addition was built on the northeast end, and a commodious stage and dressing rooms added.

For many years it was a favorite pleasure resort for the people of the island, and the principal social functions were held there. Dances were given frequently during, the week, and sacred concerts held on Sunday afternoons. These, with occasional private entertainments, made it a center of the general social life of the island. Unlike such resorts in most cities, it was patronized largely by the better classes.

In the hurricane of 1910 it was washed from its pillars and completely destroyed.

In 1909 Mr. A. Louis erected a large two story building of the county road, about a mile out of town, which is now used for social functions.


In 1889 Mr. John Jay Philbrick established an electric lighting plant, and discontinued the manufacture of gas. A power house was erected on the site of the old gas plant.

In 1897 William Curry's Sons Company put in a small electric lighting plant for their own use, and furnished a few persons along their line with lights. Gradually the plant was enlarged and it became a formidable rival of the Philbrick plant. After the death of Mr. Philbrick, his nephews, Mr. John P. and Mr. A. F. Laflin, having acquired his interest in the company, incorporated The Key West Electric Company, purchased the Curry plant, and effected a consolidation. This plant was acquired by the Stone & Webster Corporation, when they bought the street car company, in 1906.


Prior to 1890 Key West used natural ice, brought here in sailing vessels from Maine.

The first ice house was owned by Mr. F. A. Browne and in later years the business was conducted by Messrs. Charles and Asa F. Tift and Mr. John Jay Philbrick.

In 1890 John R. Scott and C. J. Huselkamp interested the Sulzer-Vogt Company of Louisville, Ky., in a project to manufacture ice in Key West, and a plant was established on what is now the county road near George street. Shortly afterwards, Mr. John Jay Philbrick bought the business, and moved the equipment to the electric lighting plant on Emma street, where he continued the manufacture of ice.

In 1895 William Curry's Sons Company established an ice plant with a daily capacity of fifteen tons, which was enlarged to thirty tons in 1901, and in 1904 was further enlarged to a total capacity of sixty tons.

In 1905 the Consumers' Ice & Cold Storage Company was organized, and began making ice in 1906. The par value of its shares was ten dollars, and its stockholders numbered several hundred. Its first manager was Air. E. E. Larkin, and it entered at once upon a successful career. In 1910, on the death of Mr. Louis -Mouton, the then manager, who had acquired a large block of the stock, a controlling interest was bought by Wm. Curry's Sons Company, who sold their plant to the Consumers' Ice Company and closed down the Curry plant. The Consumers' Ice plant has a capacity of seventy-five tons per day.


Prior to 1835 all large vessels needing repairs or cleaning were hove-down alongside of a wharf. This was done by ropes attached to the top of the masts, and run through heavy blocks on the dock. A strain was then hove on the tackles, and the vessel careened, until one side of the bottom would be out of water. After one side was cleaned or repaired, the vessel was turned around and again hove down, and the other side cleaned. This method was regarded as very hazardous, and was a source of no little uneasiness to the master, inasmuch as tardiness or mischance in righting, or a sudden squall of wind, might endanger the lives of those engaged in the work, or cause injury to the vessel.

Smaller craft were banked on a sand bar at high tide, and when the tide receded the work of cleaning or repairing was done.

The construction of a marine railway in March, 1853, by Messrs. Bowne & Curry, merchants of this city, did away with these practices, except for very large vessels, although it was occasionally practiced as late as 1880.

This railway was the first important public venture by private citizens in Key West. For a number of years it was operated by horse power, but with the spirit of progress which distinguished Mr. Curry and his successors in business, it has been enlarged and kept pace with the march of progress. At first the railway could only take up craft of less than one hundred tons; in 1859 it was enlarged to five hundred tons, and in 1899, another and larger ways was constructed, with a capacity of one thousand tons displacement. Steam power was then installed on both railways.


In 1876 Mr. J. T. Ball inaugurated what he called "Ball's Express" between New York and Key West. His method was to have packages sent to his agent in New York, who would put as many packages as possible in one case and ship it by freight on Mallory steamship to Mr. Ball. The minimum rate of the steamship company on any package, however small, was two dollars and fifteen cents. Twenty or more small packages could be put in one case, the freight on which would be the same as for a small package. Mr. Ball could thus deliver goods for less than one-half the freight charges per package, and make money from the business.

Later he tried to conduct in the same manner an express business from Cedar Keys, in connection with the Southern Express Company, but it did not work satisfactorily, and in 1890 the Southern Express Company established an office here with Mr. Mason S. Moreno, their first agent.


For many years the entire sponge industry of the United States was derived from the Mediterranean, although in the early forties a few sponges were shipped to the United States from the Bahamas, but the supply was small, the total imports in 1849 being valued at about $10,000.00. In that year a cargo of sponges was sent to New York from Key West on a venture, which narrowly escaped being thrown away as worthless. Its ultimate sale, however, established a market for this newly discovered product of the keys, and several merchants of Key West began to buy the better grades and take them in trade. The business proved profitable, and a number of sailing craft were fitted out as spongers. The industry increased until the catch was worth over $750,000.00 a year. About one hundred and forty vessels, aggregating two thousand tons, and giving employment to over twelve hundred men, were engaged in the business.

The bulk of the sponges are taken from water averaging twenty feet deep, off the western coast of Florida. The sponge caught near the Florida Keys, taken from shoal water, are of much finer quality.

The Key West spongers retain the primitive method of hooking the sponge with a three pronged hook on the end of a long pole. Each sponging vessel carries a small boat for every two men in the crew; one sculls the boat, while the other, called the "hooker," gathers the sponge.

In 1904 several Greek companies introduced the system of gathering sponge by the use of diving apparatus, and established headquarters at Tarpon Springs in Hillsboro county. This transferred the bulk of the sponge business from Key West, and the value of the catch is now worth only about two hundred thousand dollars a year.


In 1886 a building and loan association was formed with Mr. John Jay Philbrick, president; Mr. D. T. Sweeney, vice-president; Mr. Ramon Alvarez, secretary; Mr. George W. Allen, treasurer, and Mr. Jefferson B. Browne, attorney. It was very prosperous at first, but after a few years gradually ran down, was placed in the hands of a receiver, and went out of business in 1892.


About 1890 Mr. A. Granday, a celebrated French chef, established a factory for canning turtle soup made from the green turtle which abound in these waters. He accumulated what, to a thrifty Frenchman, is a comfortable fortune, and sold the business in 1904 to Mr. Louis Mouton, who died in 1908, and in 1910 the plant was purchased by Mr. Norberg Thompson.

Its output is about two hundred quart cans per day. It is limited to this quantity, not for lack of demand, but from the difficulty in securing turtle, as only the choice parts are used in making the soup.

A couplet of an old English verse extolling the delicious qualities of green turtle soup, says:

"Land of green turtle, thy very name
Sets the longing alderman aflame.,'


In 1877 a cigar box manufactory was established in Key West, situated on Emma street, southeast of Eaton. It was managed by Mr. A. de Lono, but not being able to cope with the disadvantages of freight rates and lack of transportation facilities, he closed down and the plant was disposed of at the end of about two years.

In 1910 Mr. Norberg Thompson began making plans for the establishment of a plant for cigar box manufacturing. He secured a lot on the water front at the corner of Caroline and William streets, and erected thereon a large one-story building of reinforced concrete, equipped it with the best of modern machinery, and began work in September, 1911. It has a capacity of seven thousand boxes a day; the work turned out equals in quality the output of the best factories of New York.


In the spring of 1911 the city council granted to Messrs. Charles E. Starr and John C. Reed, gas operators of Philadelphia, Pa., a franchise to establish a gas plant in the city of Key West. Work on laying the gas mains was begun in November, 1911, and a plant large enough to serve a population of fifty thousand people will be installed. The Key West Gas Company is incorporated in Delaware and authorized to issue one million dollars' worth of bonds. The contract for the construction of the plant was awarded to Whetstone & Company of Philadelphia. Mr. John Mayer is president and general manager of the company.


This company was organized and incorporated in 1892 under the laws of the State of Florida. It commenced business on May 1st of the same year.

The first officers were Messrs. George S. Waite, president; C. B. Adams, vice-president; John T. Sawyer, treasurer; Jefferson B. Browne, attorney; E. M. Martin, secretary and general manager. The company has prospered and is one of the strong financial institutions of the city. Mr. George S. Waite has been president of the company, and Mr. E. M. Martin, secretary and general manager since it was first organized.

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


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