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Key West: Military Base

Key West: The Old and the New


THE United States government since the first settlement of Key West has recognized the importance of strongly fortifying the island, but progress has teen by fits and starts. In 1824 a company of marines was stationed here and barracks erected for them fronting upon the harbor between Duval and Whitehead streets. They were not long occupied and were in a dilapidated condition in 1831, when they were sold and removed.

In February, 1831, Major James M. Glassel arrived with two companies of infantry and established a temporary camp at the present site of the army post on the North Beach.

The proprietors of the island set aside a tract of land for the use of the army embracing all of squares fifty-two, fiftythree and fifty-four, and parts of squares twenty-eight and twenty-nine, fronting on the waters of the bay, on the north side of the island, and in 1833, 1835 and 1837 this and some additional lots were deeded to the United States government, by the original proprietors, and has since been occupied as an army post. By the charter of 1836 all jurisdiction over this property was ceded to the United States government. On May 10, 1836, Lieutenant Benjamin Alvord, afterwards paymaster general of the United States army, came to Key West with Company B, 4th United States Infantry.

Temporary quarters were erected for the accommodation of the troops which were removed in 1844, when six buildings for officers' quarters and two for soldiers' barracks and a guard house were erected. The soldiers' barracks, each one hundred and twenty-five feet long, and twenty feet wide, were about forty feet apart, on the southwest side of the parade ground. Three of the officers' quarters were on the northeast, and three on the southwest side of the parade ground. One of them was destroyed by fire in 1847. The officers' quarters and the soldiers' barracks were of the same style of architecture and admirably suited to this climate. They were built of wood, on stone and brick foundations, seven feet high, with piaSt. Johns and Ocklawaha Riversas on all sides. In 1892 three additional sets of officers' quarters were constructed.

In 1906 additional officers' quarters, barracks for the soldiers, and a barracks for the bandsmen, were erected, and three companies of artillery, with a regimental band, under the command of a colonel, garrisoned the post.

In 1909 the old soldiers' quarters, which were built in 1844, were so badly damaged by a hurricane that they were torn down, and two companies, and the band, detached from the post.

There is now only one company stationed at Key West, a force wholly inadequate for the care of the modern guns on the fortifications, and the maintenance of the government property. During the tourist season many representatives of foreign nations visit Key West, and the indifference shown by the War Department for so important a point is a subject of frequent criticism, and ofttimes ridicule.

The fortifications, and the army post are on opposite sides of the island, and squads of troops are marched every day a distance of a mile and a half to the fortifications.

At the time of the Civil War there were no roads or streets directly connecting the army post and Fort Taylor, which could only be reached by marching the troops through the town. In 1861 General John M. Brannan, the commanding officer, cut a road across the island from a point about a thousand feet northeast of the post, so that he could march his troops to the fort without going through the city. For several years this was known as the Brannan Road. As General Brannan only cut away the trees and brush, the road remained full of the coral rock which abounds on the island, and soon became known as the Rocky Road. Later the name was officially changed to Division street, it being the dividing line beyond which on the southeast side there were few, if any, inhabitants. The city has grown far beyond Division street, which is now one of the most populous and best business streets, but is still generally known by the cognomen "Rocky Road." The term, Division street, having lost its significance, it would be historically accurate to change the name to Brannan street.

In 1845 Fort Taylor was commenced, and so much of the work as had been constructed up to October 11, 1846, was by the hurricane of that year destroyed. The work, however, was resumed at once and it was ready for occupancy in 1861. Fort Taylor was a double casemated brick fort of the Bauban plan. Its armament consisted of forty 10-inch Rodmans and ten 24-pounder howitzers on the first tier; thirty 8-inch Columbiads, six 30-pounder Parrott rifles; two 10-inch Rodmans, eighteen 24-pounder howitzers on the second tier, and twenty 10-inch Rodmans, two 15-inch Rodmans, three 300-pounder Parrott rifles, three 100-pounder Parrott rifles, three 30-pounder Parrott rifles, one 10-inch siege mortar, and four 8-inch siege mortars on the parapet.

It was built on a sand spit about a quarter of a mile from shore, and had four bastions and four curtains. Three of the curtains commanded all of the water entrance into Key West. At the breaking out of the Civil War two large sand covert faces were thrown up on the edge of the sand spit towards the town in anticipation of an attack by the Confederates from that direction. Commodious quarters were constructed within the walls of the fort, but only occupied during the Civil War. In 1899 the parapet and second tier of casemates were demolished, and the gun embrasures in the lower tier built up of solid masonry. Back of this is twenty feet of sand and debris, and back of this twenty feet of concrete. Behind this are two 12-inch guns on barbette carriages; and four 15-pounders for protecting the mine fields in the harbor.

In 1861 the government began the construction of two Martello towers on the water's edge; one near the extreme northeastern end of the island, and the other about two miles nearer town. They consist of a citadel about forty feet high, surrounded by casemates, and a parapet reinforced with sand embankments. When they were built they were capable of withstanding any attack from the land or sea, but with the improvement of ordnance they soon became as useful as paper houses for defense, and have long been abandoned. Their only use now is to gratify the curiosity of tourists, and to adorn postal cards, where they are designated as ancient ruins.

In 1873 a small sand battery was erected on what was once known as Light-house Point, called the South Battery, about a quarter of a mile from Fort Taylor, and another about midway between it and the Marine Hospital, called North Battery, and a few modern guns were mounted upon them.

In 1897 a mortar battery, with two nests of four 12-inch mortars each, was constructed, and the sand battery at Lighthouse Point enlarged and made into the most modern type of fortification, on which are mounted four 10-inch, and two 8-inch rifles on disappearing carriages, with a small flanking battery on the one band, mounting two 15-pounder guns, and another mounting two 4.7 Armstrong-Whitworth guns. The old North Battery was replaced in 1904 by a battery of more modern construction, on which are mounted two 6-inch barbette guns. These are flanked, on the northeast side by a battery mounting two 15-pounders.

In 1908 the government condemned for military purposes that portion of the water front on the south side of the island lying between the southeast end of the large sand battery and South street, and part of five blocks between the southwest side of South street and the fort reservation. The amount paid for this property was about one hundred thousand dollars. A recommendation has been made by the War Department for the condemnation of the rest of the land in these blocks for the purpose of erecting officers' and soldiers' quarters.

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


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