Miami And The Florida Keys – Reflections

The earliest known residents of what is now Miami were the “Tequesta” Indians. Little is known of the Tequesta Indians other than they resided along the banks of the Miami River over twelve hundred years ago. Believe it or not there was a small natural rapid a few miles upriver from where it emptied into Biscayne Bay. The Tequesta Indians hunted and fished along the banks of the River. In the 16th and again in the 18th century the Spanish established a few small missions along the banks of the Miami River. Spain originally possessed the area now called “Florida”, but ceded Florida and of course Miami to the British in later years. The first American Settlers began arriving in Miami Florida sometime in the early to mid 19th century and settled in and around the River. Agriculture in addition to fishing was one of the few economic mainstays of the area. The River’s water source was the Everglades and it was believed that the wetland could be drained by removing the rapids. Thereby providing additional cultivatable land for the new arrivals to settle and develop as farms. I am very sure that real estate sales and potential profits were a motivational factor as well. Real Estate in Miami has been a motivation from the beginning to present. Regardless of the reason(s) a decision to remove falls by dynamiting was made and implemented in mid to late 1800s. Other than during those years of the Seminole Indian wars the population steadily increased as did the real estate industry.

In the beginning Dade County was a huge track of land that extended from the southern tip of Lake Okeechobee (Fort Worth Florida) south to Key West Florida. Indian Key was the the seat of Dade County until sometime between the years 1860 and 1870. Prior to these years residents of the Florida Keys, other than those at Indian Key were counted as residents of Dade County.


Once upon a time there was a little fishing village located in Dade County, towards the southeastern tip of Florida. The name of this village was Miami. Many people living in Miami at the time, pronounced the name “Miama”.

I offer these remembrances’ as one born in the Biltmore Hotel; a land mark hotel in Coral Gables Florida, a town located in Miami-Dade County and a veteran’s administration hospital during the years of WW II. If my stories and recollections seem somewhat disjointed to the reader I beg forgiveness. They are all or at least most inscribed from memories. My only reason for attempting to write this article at all is to impart a few of my impressions/reflections to an interested reader regarding the conception of, development of, metamorphosis of and transformation that has occurred to the area that is today Miami-Dade County and the Florida Keys. My intention is to offer the reader a comparison of sorts to the areas mentioned, the inhabitants, their way of life compared to then and likewise now. I have no intention of smearing of chastising any particular group of people but too simply record the facts as I believe-remember them to be. I will leave it to the discretion of the reader which Miami, Florida Keys he/she prefers to relate. The then version 1945 to 1970 or the now version 2010, in order to provide a comparison between the two I will offer, in addition to my recollections, a few bygone happenings and circumstance conveyed to me by my predecessors on my mother’s side of the family, all residents of the Keys and Key West dating back 150 plus years ago, some still living there. To do this I am going to begin with my earliest recollections following WW II living first in Hamburg Germany, my father was an officer in the Air Force during the war and was at the time stationed there. Since he had not received his discharge my mother and I joined him, I think, sometime in the year 1946.


They Don’t Call Them Conchs For No Good Reason! (yes I know that’s double negative but I use it for emphasis)

Those that have eaten conch can relate to what I mean by this statement. Conk is a very tough marine mollusk. Rumor has it that in the early 1800s the doctors of Key West prescribed for new born babies, that they be set out on the porch to allow mosquito bites. The reason for this was to make the baby immune to the bite of a mosquito. What does this have to do with conch; man those people had to be tough to live in that environment during those very early years. Screens for windows did not happen until late in the 1800s so it is safe to say that these early Keys inhabitants did not have such luxuries. Don’t forget they had no present day amenity such as air conditioning either.


The Economies of Key West-1800s

It is a fact that at one time Key West was not only the most populated city in Florida but also had the highest per capita income in Florida and rivaled that of many other US cities. The economy was driven by numerous industries during this period of time.


My relatives speak of one, Mr. Walter C. Maloney Jr. (Maloney was my grandmother’s maiden name). The story goes that at some point in time, during the year 1885, Walter left Key West to travel to what was then known as the Gainesville Land Office in Gainesville Florida. There under Grover Cleveland’s land act, I think for the price of fifty cents per acres, he purchased 67 acres of property in what is now known as Marco Island, Collier County Florida. In reality the land he purchased was located on “Horr’s Island”, AKA “Marco Key”, located a mile or two west of Marco Island, Florida. Mr. Maloney’s purpose was to plant, grow, harvest pineapples on this island and sell his produce to the Key West market. To me it’s amazing that a man in his late forty’s’ and then fifty’s would board a sailboat in Key West and navigate his way across one hundred miles of Florida Bay to sell pineapples in Key West. The reader should understand that the waters of Florida Bay are prone to sudden violent storms during much of the year. In addition there were no cell phones or GPSs.

My granddad once told me of a relative, I believe last name “Hart” that would travel from Key West to Chokoloskee Florida to hunt. Chokoloskee is an island located south of Everglades City. This was also a very long boat ride from Key West. Chokoloskee boasts an elevation of 20 feet above sea level. Rumor has it that the reason for its’ elevation was discarded shells of various types deposited by the Indians of the “Ten Thousand Islands”, living in the area many years ago.

Obviously these were a different breed of people during that time in our history.

The Keys and Key West produced other crops in addition to pineapples, tomatoes, I call charcoal another because of the process used to produce it. Hookie-Pokee Ice Cream, made in the shad and sold in the sun, if you aint gotta nickel you cain’t have none. Yes with the heat and humidy ice cream was big in Key West. Cigar factories were also big in Key West.


Like Miami, the fishing industry was and still is a driving economical force. Florida lobster (commonly called crawfish) is still a big ticket industry. In early times turtle and conk were plentiful; today these are for the most part protected throughout the state. I will offer additional experiences I had as youngster with the seemingly unlimited conk and spiny crawfish that could be easily taken from the waters surrounding Key West and Miami Florida.


Before the invention of synthetic sponges, sponges were harvested from the sponge beds located in the waters surrounding Key West.


The waters surrounding Key West also had arguably the most treacherous reefs of any found elsewhere in the world. The history books are full of accounts of ships hitting these reefs and sinking, Spanish galleons loaded with gold taken by force from the natives of North and South America crashed on the reefs and sank with unbelievable regularity.

One of the better known salvage operations of recent times was that of Mel Fisher’s. He and his team of researchers and divers located the long lost “Atocha”. The Atocha crashed and sank on a reef west of Key West in the early 18th century and was loaded with over 400 million dollars worth of gold, silver, precious gems and other valuable artifacts. Most of which stolen by Spanish missionaries and Conquistadors (conquerors) from the Aztecs of Mexico and Incas of South America among many others.

During the 1800s, ships were still crashing on these same reefs. The series of light houses now erected on the reefs were not there during most of the 19th century. This resulted in a very lucrative salvage business during the 1800s. I have heard family members mention that years later, after the warning lights were built on the reefs some residents of the Keys would either allow them to burn out or manually extinguish them for the purpose of causing shipwrecks on the reefs to promote their salvage businesses. All productive salvage operators and operations were required by law to register their salvage ships and any salvaged items with the authorities in Key West which of course served to boost the local economy.

Prior to the erection of light houses on the reefs in an effort to reduce the number and severity of ship wrecks in these waters, the federal government commissioned “light house ships”. These ships and their captains were charged with the task of anchoring on the reefs, 24/7/365 to keep and maintain warning lights. One such ship was captained by another relative of mine Captain Whalton (my mother’s maiden name). Drinking water and other supplies were brought to land locations of these ships and deposited on shore. The crews would then leave the ship in a row boat, get the supplies and row back to their ship. The story goes that one night Captain Whalton and one sailor traveled to shore to transport the supplies back. For some inexplicable reason they traveled ashore unarmed, a war part of Seminole Indians waited, hidden in the bush. Both the captain and the sailor were killed.

FROM HAMBURG GERMANY TO KEY WEST and Back to Miami-THE YEAR 1947-1950 +/-

During my time in Germany but sometime after my Dad was discharged from the Air Force. My Grandfather Whalton called and suggested to Dad that together they should open a hardware store in Key West. At the time Key West did not have a hardware store. Purchasing a “Western Auto” Franchise they opened for business at 515 Duval Street directly across the street from the San Carlos Theater, now a land mark, in Key West Florida. The family remained in Key West for about 2-1/2 years, while Dad and Granddad operated the hardware store. The year was 19850 maybe 1951. The commercial passenger airline industry was stirring-ready to be born in earnest. National Airlines called my Dad and asked him to fly for the airline. Flying being my Dad’s first love, we moved from Key West to Miami, Florida. My parents rented a little house near the main hanger for National. The hanger was located on the east side of Lejune Road but Miami International Airport was located on the west side. We had one car; so when it was time for my Dad to fly, my mother and I would take him to the hanger. There he would board a two engine aircraft renamed for it new purposes a DC 3. The same plane, a C-47, Dad flew during the war with some seats bolted to the floor and some paint applied to the fuselage. A policeman would stop the automobile traffic on Lejune Road and my Dad would taxi his plane across the road and onto the end of the only runway that the airport possessed at the time, which was runway 9. For those of you that have passed through MIA recently I know this seems a bit bizarre, but as was Miami the airline industry was in its infancy. During this time 1950-1955, I would be surprised to learn that Miami Florida’s population exceeded 300 thousand.

After we moved to Miami, I for many years thereafter traveled from Miami to Key West. During summer vacations I worked in the store that my granddad still owned and operated. He had left the Western Auto Franchise and then operated the store as “Walton’s Auto Toys and Hardware.”

Each summer for about 5-6 years my mother would put me on a “Greyhound Bus”. Greyhound ran regularly between Miami and Key West. The bus station as I recall was in Downtown Miami, 8th street, AKA the Trail, AKA US-41. The driver would take a route west on 41 to US-27 or Krome Avenue, turning south on Krome proceeding through Homestead Florida and then left to US-1. Within a few minutes of entering US-1, we would be traveling at rate I believe to be over 80 miles per hour. I feel comfortable that this was so because the land distance from Miami to Key West is 160 miles and the trip never took more than 1 hour and 45 minutes. Folks on a trip today from Miami to Key West by car, you cannot do 35 miles per hour once entering the upper keys.

During the years that I worked in this store, the store would open for business 5-/12 days per week. On Thursdays the merchants of Key West would close at noon. My Granddad, my Grandmother and I would travel out “Overseas Highway”, US-1. With a “four pronged gig” and a bucket walking into the Mangroves that lined both sides of the highway, we could gig enough crawfish (Florida Lobster) for crawfish enchilada to be served at dinner that night, conch style with black beans, rice and fried plantain. During that time, Florida Lobster was plentiful in the Keys; there were no restrictions against harvesting them. Today, first you cannot use a four pronged gig without the risk of incarceration; second harvesting Florida Lobster is restricted to certain times of the year. This is also true of conk that could be taken a few yards off the beaches of Key West and sea turtle cannot be taken at all.

My point is, the quality of life in south Florida has been reduced by the influx of too many people from all over the US, south America and Cuba. I don’t believe that State and Federal authorities have done their jobs in protecting the things that were here when I was young and growing up. I believe that some measure of prudence could have and should have been applied a long time ago. The experiences that I had my children will be denied they will never have the opportunity to know the area the way I knew it.

As one that makes his living as a builder and General Contractor in the State of Florida but has known this area intimately for so many years, I have a number of questions in mind that I deal with on a daily basis, the questions are, 1. What could we have done previously to reduce the impact of uncontrolled influx here and thereby preserve more for future south Florida generations. 2. Is there a possibility of regaining some measure of the resources that were here in the earlier years?

I do believe that these are questions that some of the Florida agencies and law makers now deal with on a daily basis as well. But I’m not certain that the legal vehicle and money resource is available to accomplish the task if so be it possible.

But then with similarity to some higher mathematical problems, I think that the only constant is change and the only variable is time. Is this not also a statement of the development-over development and maybe the resurrection, restoration of south Florida?