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Key West: Spanish-American War

Key West: The Old and the New


For some time before the opening of actual hostilities between the United States and Spain, Key West bore the appearance of a war port.

To conciliate the Spanish authorities, who were constantly protesting against the use of Key West as a base for fitting out and embarking filibustering expeditions, one or more warships were stationed here, as evidence of our government's intention to prevent violations of neutrality laws. The Maine was here for about six months in 1896, and again in 1897; and it was from this port that she sailed on her last voyage. The Cincinnati, Raleigh, Amphitrite, Marblehead and Wilmington, each did its term of duty, assisted by two or more revenue cutters. The officers of these vessels added no little to the social life of the city, and many warm ties of friendship were then formed.

A number of fast tugs, reasonably supposed to be engaged in filibustering, came and went, but no proof could be obtained against them.

In 1896 Mr. Richard Harding Davis and Mr. Frederic Remington, the artist, came to Key West, representing the New York Journal.

Mr. W. R. Hearst's power boat, the "Vamoose," then the fleetest in the world, was under their orders to take them to Cuba, where they planned to visit the camps of the revolutionists, and interview the leaders. Mr. Davis was to write the story of their venture, and Mr. Remington to illustrate it with his wonderful sketches.

They fully appreciated the risk they would run, but were keen for the enterprise, and made two attempts to reach Cuba, but the "Vamoose," not able to stand the heavy seas encountered in the gulf, was forced to put back to Key West. Each day the skies were scanned, weather reports studied, and prognostications weighed, in hope of a favorable opportunity to make the run across the gulf, but the fates were against them, and the high winds and heavy seas abated not. The "Vamoose" was a long narrow shell, built solely for speed, and was unfit for a voyage to Cuba except in an unusually smooth sea. After several weeks spent in the vain hope for good weather, the trip was abandoned, and Mr. Davis and Mr. Remington went to Havana by the regular steamship line, hoping to make their way thence to the Cuban camps. In this they were thwarted by the travel regulations, and vigilance of the Spanish authorities, and they returned to Key West, and thence home.

They spent three weeks in Key West - "three yeras" - as Mr. Remington afterwards facetiously referred to it-and were guests at dinner parties, luncheons and informal receptions ashore and on the war vessels then in port, and their genius and camaraderie made them great social favorites.

An incident, which shows Mr. Davis in a light not generally known, transpired when he made his first attempt to reach Cuba. He told a friend that it was probable that after he arrived he would not be heard from for some time, and reports of his death might appear in the papers. In order to spare his parents unnecessary pain, he wrote a telegram to his father, saying: "Reports of your son's death not credited here. He is known to be in another part of the island." This message he asked his friend to sign and transmit, if any bad news was received, adding "if the report proves true, it will be no harder for them to bear later, and if false, it will spare them much unnecessary pain."

The friend has kept the telegram as a memento of a very pleasant epoch. He was also the recipient of several books by these distinguished authors, with autograph inscriptions. In his book, "Pony Tracks," Mr. Remington, wrote "In memory of the nice lunches, the fine dinners, the good times, and other alleviations of my three years in Key West, from the grateful, Frederic Remington."

The explosion of the Maine shocked the people of Key West probably more than any other community, for here the officers and the men had been stationed off and on for over a year, and had many friends.

An accident similar to that on the Maine came very near occurring in Key West harbor, on the Cincinnati in 1895. Spontaneous combustion in her coal bunkers was undiscovered until the fire had been communicated to the magazine, and boxes containing ammunition badly burned. Smoke was seen coming from the magazine, which in a few moments would have exploded. Had it been at night as in the case of the Maine, the smoke would not have been seen, and the tragedy of the Maine in Havana harbor would have had a forerunner on the Cincinnati in the harbor of Key West.

Not very long before the Maine went to Cuba, she took on soft coal at Key West, which was lightened to her in barges; during the day heavy showers of rain fell, and at least one barge load was thoroughly wet. If any of this was in her bunkers when she again coaled, her disaster is no more of a mystery than the cause of the fire in the magazine of the Cincinnati.

Most of the events of the Spanish-American War, such as the mobilizing at Key West of almost all the ships of our navy, the flotilla of newspaper boats, and war correspondents that gathered here, the military and naval operations carried on from this point, are matters for the general, rather than the local historian.

Several incidents, however, occurred which have some local flavor. The newspaper correspondents were wont to put on a bulletin board the war news they received, for the benefit of the public; these, the local newspaper, "The Herald," would publish under the heading "Special to the Herald." One day the correspondents put on the board "The American schooner Virginia, loaded with silver bullion and cocoanuts, sunk by a Spanish war ship, off the -coast of Spain." In an hour an "Extra" Herald was out, with a long "Special to the Herald," telling all about the Virginia and her valuable cargo. The editor was from the mainland, and not familiar with shipping, so did not see the hoax that was apparent, from the incongruity of a cocoanut droger, having silver bullion as part of her cargo; neither did he look in the register of American vessels to ascertain if there was a schooner "Virginia," but swallowed the bait, hook and line, at one gulp.

One wit among the correspondents, who grew weary waiting for orders to go to the coast of Cuba, described his feelings, in a Shakesperian paraphrase, "Cube, or not Cube; that is the Key Westion."

Among the distinguished newspaper correspondents who were here were Mr. Stephen M. Bonsal, Mr. Ralph Payne and Mr. Harry Brown.

Judge Ramon Alvarez, Special Deputy Collector of Customs, was the local correspondent of the New York Herald, and his reports were far more accurate than any sent by the world-famed war correspondents.

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


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