Relive Key West History Through Island’s Many Museums
KEY WEST, Florida Keys — The colorful history of Key West incorporates shipwreck treasures and artifacts, renowned artists, literary legends, a cigar-making heyday and a vibrant past as a bustling seaport. The area’s historic and cultural richness is preserved, spotlighted and celebrated in the island city’s many museums.
For example, Key West is home to the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum, founded by the legendary shipwreck salvor who died in 1998. The museum holds the richest single collection of 17th-century maritime and shipwreck antiquities in the Western Hemisphere — most of them excavated from the waters around the island city.
Visitors can view gold, silver, emeralds and priceless artifacts from the shipwrecked Spanish galleons Nuestra Señora de Atocha, wrecked off Key West in a 1622 hurricane and discovered by Fisher in 1985 after a 16-year search, and Santa Margarita.
Also on display are artifacts from the English merchant slave vessel Henrietta Marie, which sank in 1700 near the Marquesas Keys and was salvaged by Fisher’s crew. In addition, a second-floor gallery hosts a new maritime exhibition each year.
Located at 200 Greene St., the museum is open from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. For more information, visit www.melfisher.org or call 305-294-2633.
Just a few steps away stands another structure commemorating a historic highlight: the period in 1832 when artist and ornithologist John James Audubon visited Key West and the Dry Tortugas, sighting and drawing 19 new species for his monumental “Birds of America” folio. It is believed that many of those detailed paintings were conceived in the garden of the 205 Whitehead St. property now known as the Audubon House & Tropical Gardens.
Today the 19th-century home, built by ships’ carpenters for harbor pilot and shipwreck salvager Captain John Geiger — whose family occupied the house for approximately 100 years — is a museum that showcases both the Audubon connection and Key West’s early years. The antique-filled house contains nearly 30 first-edition Audubon works and adjoins a gallery featuring 500 Audubon lithographs.
The gardens surrounding the Audubon house, encompassing nearly an acre, contain a breathtaking variety of tropical foliage, native plants and exotics. In the front yard stand three Geiger trees, one of which appears in Audubon’s painting of the white-crowned pigeon.
The property is open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. For more information, visit www.audubonhouse.com or call 877-294-2470 or 305-294-2116.
Key West’s Cuban heritage is represented by the San Carlos Institute, 516 Duval St. An affiliate to the Smithsonian Institution, the San Carlos was founded in 1871 to preserve Cuban culture and promote the freedom of Cuba. In 1892, it was from the institute that Cuban patriot José Marti united exiles for his drive for Cuba’s independence.
Today, the San Carlos serves as a museum, library, art gallery, theater and more. The institute is open Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. For information, call 305-294-3887.
A few blocks away stands the Key West Shipwreck Treasures Museum, 1 Whitehead St., dedicated to aspects of the wrecking or shipwreck salvage industry that was the cornerstone of the island’s early economy. The museum combines actors, films, laser technology and actual artifacts from the shipwrecked Isaac Allerton, which sank in Keys waters in 1856. Guests can also lift a salvaged silver bar that dates back to 1656.
Visitors meet Asa Tift in his 1856 wreckers’ warehouse, enjoy a fascinating video on the wrecking industry and hear tales from the families who made their fortunes in wrecking. Those who climb to the top of the 65-foot observatory can even scan the reefs for wrecks just as Key West’s 19th-century captains did.
The Key West Shipwreck Treasures Museum is open from 9:45 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. For more information, visit www.historictours.com/keywest or call 305-292-8990.
A pivotal era in Key West’s political history is showcased at the Harry S. Truman Little White House Museum, 111 Front St. on Truman Annex. Truman, who visited Key West 11 times during his presidency, liked the island so much that he once wrote his wife, “I’ve a notion to move the capital to Key West and just stay.” The Navy base’s commandant’s quarters, a roomy West Indian structure, became his Little White House.
Today, docents guide visitors through the meticulously restored residence, which contains items including the original piano and poker table used frequently by the former president. The house also has hosted former presidents William Howard Taft, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.
Nearby, at 938 Whitehead St. stands the Key West Lighthouse and Keeper’s Quarters Museum. Completed in 1847, the lighthouse guided mariners through the treacherous Key West waters until it was decommissioned in 1969. The only U.S. lighthouse within city limits, it stands beside the keepers’ quarters building — and museum visitors can step back in time to learn the stories of the men and women who kept the light burning.
The restored keepers’ quarters contains personal effects, diaries, artifacts, photographs and other items relating to the era of the lighthouse keeper. Climb the 88 steps to the top of the lighthouse, see the 12-foot "first order" Fresnel lens and get a great view of Key West.
The Key West Lighthouse Museum is open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. For more information, visit www.kwahs.com/lighthouse.htm or call 305-294-0012.
Fort East Martello Museum, 3501 S. Roosevelt Blvd., provides another intriguing view into Key West’s heritage and character. Dating back to 1862, the brick fortress-turned-museum contains exhibits highlighting the intriguing, eclectic and haunted side of the island. The fort features vaulted brick ceilings, curved walls and a central lookout tower for viewing the Atlantic.
Particularly notable are Cuban-American folk artist Mario Sanchez's colorful wood carvings depicting Key West in the early 1900s, Stanley Papio's irreverent found-object art, and artifacts from the city's haunted past including Robert the Doll.
Fort East Martello Museum is open 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily. For more information, visit www.kwahs.com/martello.htmor call 305-296-3913.
The Key West Museum of Art & History is located in Key West’s historic Custom House at 281 Front St. near Mallory Square. One of the finest examples of Richardsonian Romanesque architecture in the country, the Custom House opened in 1891 and housed Key West's first post office.
It's now filled with permanent and touring exhibits of art and history on two floors in seven elegant galleries. Permanent exhibitions include an exploration of Ernest Hemingway’s life in Key West and "Speedway to Sunshine, Flagler's Ocean Railway," showcasing the Florida Keys railroad called the eighth wonder of the world upon its completion in 1912.
Also paying tribute the railroad and its founder, Henry Flagler, is the Flagler Station Over-sea Railway Historeum, located at 901 Caroline St. in a bright yellow wooden building in the island’s Historic Seaport. The structure is the Maggie Atwell House, relocated from Big Pine Key, and inside visitors experience an authentic Florida East Coast railroad car filled with memorabilia and photographs. Other attractions include an audio tour presenting authentic eyewitness accounts from passengers riding the railroad.
Flagler Station is open daily 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. For more information, visit www.flaglerstation.net or call 305-294-5161.
People can learn about Key West’s unique turtle-fishing industry at the Key West Turtle Museum at 200 Margaret St. in the Historic Seaport. The museum sits on a former waterfront turtle-soup cannery next to the one-time turtle holding pens, or kraals. It details the story of Key West’s centuries-long relationship with sea turtles.
Highlights include numerous historic artifacts and photographs relating to the island’s turtling business, and archaeological materials excavated from the waters surrounding the museum.
The Key West Turtle Museum is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday, with educational tours offered by appointment. For more information, call 305-294-0209.
As well as unique industries, Key West is home to the oldest house in South Florida, dating back to 1829. The Oldest House Museum & Garden at 322 Duval St. is an homage to builder Richard Cussans who, it is suspected, moved the home from its original location on Whitehead Street to its current location in 1836. The Watlington family, headed by Captain Francis Watlington, lived in the home from the late 1800s until the last of the family died in 1972. The Old Island Restoration Foundation acquired the home in 1975 and still manages the property.
The interior is filled with original furnishings, ship models, period and wreckers’ documents. The gardens on the grounds feature benches and the only surviving cook house in South Florida.
The Oldest House Museum & Garden is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday and Tuesday and Thursday through Saturday. For more information, visit www.oirf.org or call 305-294-9501.
Visitors interested in military history can tour a new Key West museum: a historic U.S. Coast Guard cutter that, on its retirement in 1988 after 52 years of service, was the oldest serving and most decorated naval vessel.
The 327-foot Ingham, launched in 1936, is one of only two preserved Secretary-class cutters. According to Coast Guard historical records, it is the only cutter ever awarded two Navy Presidential Unit citations.
The Ingham served during World War II, the Korean conflict and Vietnam War. During the 1980 Cuban Mariel boatlift, the Ingham performed search-and-rescue missions in Florida Keys and South Florida waters that saved many Cuban lives.
Ingham visitors can tour areas ranging from the ship’s radio room and engine room to the mess deck and commanding officer’s quarters. Artifacts on display in the exhibit room include code bags for transporting classified messages, telescopes, weapons, uniforms and helmets, navigational equipment and photographs documenting Ingham’s construction and long years of service.
A registered National Historic Landmark, the Ingham is docked on Key West’s Truman Waterfront. For more information, visit www.uscgcingham.org/ or call 305-292-5072.
What are cookies
Cookies are small text files that are stored on a user's computer or mobile device. They are used for a variety of purposes, including personalising pages, remembering visitor preferences, analysing visitor behaviour, managing shopping carts and delivering targeted advertising. Cookies are used to improve the online experience of almost every website, including our own.
Types of cookies
When you use our website, the following four types of cookie may be set on your device:
Necessary cookies: Necessary cookies are essential for the use of the features and services we offer on this website. Without these cookies, the services you want to use (such as view and buy your images) cannot be possible.
Functional cookies: These cookies allow us to provide you with a better online experience when you use our website. They do not gather or store any information which would allow us to identify you personally.
Performance cookies: Performance cookies collect information about how our customers use our site so that we can improve our site. These cookies collect anonymous information on the pages visited. For example, we might use performance cookies to keep track of which pages are most popular, which method of linking between pages is most effective, and to determine why some pages are receiving error messages.
Targeting cookies: These cookies collect information about your browsing habits in order to make advertising more relevant to you and your interests. Advertising Bureau has put together a great resource for information on behavioural advertising: how it works, further information about cookies, and steps you can take to protect your privacy on the internet. For more information please visit www.youronlinechoices.com
Most internet browsers allow you to erase cookies from your computer hard drive, block all cookies (or just third-party cookies) or warn you before a cookie is stored. You can choose to restrict or block cookies through your browser settings at any time.
For more information about how to do this, and about cookies in general, you can visit www.allaboutcookies.org. Please note that certain cookies may be set as soon as you visit this website, but you can remove them using your browser settings.
However, please be aware that restricting or blocking cookies may impact the functionality or performance of our website. Some cookies on this site are essential, and the site won't work as expected without them. These cookies are set when you submit a form, view pictures, login or interact with the site by doing something that goes beyond clicking on simple links.