Key West Wreckers

We spent a relaxing Christmas day at the Schooner Wharf Bar, listening to one of our favorite local musicians, Michael McCloud. Quite a change from the norm!

That evening, we visited with our slip neighbors, Jeff and Belinda. They left Texas, and are headed for the Bahamas and Eastern Caribbean from here. We talked boats and travel, and had a great evening.

Our friends Stephanie and Paul came down the next morning on the ferry from Ft. Meyers, for an overnight visit. We spend time walking around a bit, and watched our Ravens actually win a game (we’re having a terrible season)… against the dreaded Steelers no less!

We also visited the Shipwreck Museum. Sponging, fishing, turtling and cigar making were all lucrative industries in Key West in the 1800s, but wrecking far out-passed them. During that time, over 100 ships per day passed by Key West. The waters in the area were well known as some of the most treacherous in the world.

Precise navigation equipment and accurate charts were still centuries away. What information there was didn’t indicate the dangerous reefs below the surface. Little was known of weather conditions in the area (aka hurricane season), and there were no lighthouses. As a result, at least one ship per week would wreck off shore on the reefs!

 Wreckers would watch the reefs night and day from observation towers, some over 90 feet high.

They would also patrol the reef in their own small vessels. When a wreck was spotted,  “wreck ashore!” would echo all over the island, and men would scramble to the docks to join the race to the reef. The first man to reach the wreck became the “wrecking master,” controlling the salvage operation and getting a larger share of the prize.

Larger goods (cotton, and such) were auctioned off on the piers, while smaller and most times more valuable things were taken into one of the numerous warehouses for general sale (coffee beans, spices, ivory, silks, clothing, silver, etc.).  People came from all over to bid on the valuable salvaged items. Between 1828 and the 1850s, Key West was considered the richest city, per capita, in the United States!

But by the turn of the century, transportation of goods was veering away from the sea, as railroads and highways carried increasing freight. Better trained navigators used new technology, and lighthouses began to dot the coastline, resulting in far fewer wrecks. Wrecking died off, and by 1921 the wrecking registry was closed.

We climbed the tower and enjoyed some scenic views of old town. Check them out, along with some other photos.

“Shells Sink, Dreams Float. Life’s Good On Our Boat!”