Monroe County is the southernmost county in Florida and the United States. It is made up of the Florida Keys and portions of the Everglades National Park and Big Cypress National Preserve. These parks are mostly uninhabited mainland areas. Most known are the Florida Keys with its string of islands connected by U.S Highway 1, which ends in Key West, 150 miles southwest of Miami.
In total area, Monroe County is comprised of 3,737 square miles1, mostly of water, 73%. The Florida Keys proper are an elongated, curved bow like chain of low lying islands over 220 miles in length. They extend from the southeastern tip of the Florida peninsula to the Dry Tortugas and lie between the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. Key West is the largest of the islands in the chain with a natural deep water harbor. The keys are islands of rock and sandy beaches are not common. Just miles offshore on the Atlantic side of the keys is the only living coral reef in the continental United States. No point, in the keys, is more than four miles from water.
Because Monroe County only has one highway, accessibility to the county seat (Key West) is time consuming and difficult. Other county government offices are located in Marathon and Key Largo to handle basic public government functions. Monthly commission meetings are rotated between Key West, Marathon and Key Largo along with three budget hearings. The county commissioners strive to make themselves available to all county residents.
On his search for the “Fountain of Youth,” in 1513, Spanish Explorer Juan Ponce De Leon sailed along the Florida Keys after he first landed near St. Augustine. Before returning to Spain, he sailed around to Florida’s West Coast, then to Cuba and Puerto Rico. This was the beginning of other wandering Spanish and English explorers looking to colonize new lands and discover trading partners. The “Age of Exploration” helped create a trade route between Europe and Central and South America with a port stop in Cuba, which is 90 miles south of Key West. Ships that sailed the trade route could be met with disaster by hurricanes, reefs or later on pirates.
During the next three centuries, Spain and Britain claimed Florida as a territory and in 1821, Spain ceded Florida to the United States according to the terms of the Adams-Onis Treaty. A year later, a small naval depot was created in Key West to help rid the area of pirates.
On July 2, 1823, an act of the Territorial Legislature established Monroe County as the 6th county in the Florida territory. Monroe County was named after then President James Monroe, our 5th U.S President, who served between 1817 and 1825. The county’s boundaries then were the southern portion of Florida. Over time, other counties were formed within the original Monroe County boundary including Dade, Broward, Collier, Lee, Hendry and parts of Charlotte, Glades and Palm Beach.
Five years after Monroe County was established, Key West was incorporated and became the county seat. Population at that time was less then 600 people. The main industries by 1830 was salvaging shipwrecks on the reef and fishing. By 1845, Florida was granted statehood.
During the American Civil War, while Florida seceded and joined the Confederate States of America, Key West remained in U.S Union hands because of a Naval base. Fort Zachary Taylor, which still stands today was constructed between 1845-1866, and was an important Key West outpost during the Civil War. But as a result of a war time population increase, Key West was the largest city in Florida. Monroe County’s population by 1870 was 5,657 and only 641 lived outside of Key West.
In the late 1800s, the economy in Key West was changing from ship salvaging to cigar production. Construction of lighthouses along the reef made the waterway more navigable and it contributed to the decline in the number of ship wrecks. During this time, there was a large number of refugees that fled from Cuba. These refugees brought over with them their skill in hand rolling cigars.
By 1890, the population of Key West was nearly 18,800 residents and it claimed to be the biggest and richest city in Florida. At the height of the cigar industry in Key West, there was approximately 200 cigar factories producing 100 million hand rolled cigars annually4. However, manufacturing competition from Tampa and Ybor City put an end of Key West’s hand rolled cigar industry by 1930. Today, one of these cigar factories is home to county offices, in the Gato Building.
The Florida Keys were perpetually changed with Henry Flagler’s decision to build a railroad to Key West from Miami. Flagler envisioned Key West as a port city when the United States signed an agreement in 1903, to construct the Panama Canal. His trains would provide deliveries throughout the east coast since he had already constructed the rail lines between Jacksonville and Miami. The first train rolled into Key West in 1912. Rail service in the Keys was short lived when the Hurricane of 1935 destroyed a portion of the railroad in the Upper and Middle Keys. This portion was never rebuilt due to costs.
However, the United States Government rebuilt the rail lines as an automobile highway, which was completed in 1938 and became an extension of U.S Highway 1. This meant that there was a highway along the East Coast of the United States linking Key West to Maine. This helped tourism evolve into the major industry that it is today. ___________________________________________