John James Audubon, Henry Flagler, Ernest Hemingway, Harry Truman, and Joseph Long are all notable people, each with a different life story that brought them to Key West, at our nation’s southernmost point. My recent trip to the island allowed me to reflect on each of them, relax with family in this small corner of paradise, and do a little birding.
Key West sits at the literal end of the road, the last stop. The remote tropical setting has attracted travelers, including writers, drifters, gawkers, and pirates for years. In the mid 19th century it was actually the largest city in sparsely settled Florida. I had previously driven the spectacular highway bridging key after key, but last month we opted for the high speed ferry from Marco Island.
The Audubon House in Key West is somewhat of a misnomer, as historians have learned that the famous birder spent a few days at this site in 1832, but the house itself was built after his short stay. Be that as it may, the beautifully restored period house is filled with Audubon’s phenomenal artwork and the museum shop on the grounds gives one the opportunity to own one of his prints. Notables of his Florida birds includes the Osprey, Brown Pelican, Snowy Egret, and the Spoonbill, which he called a Roseate Curlew. Remember, he birded in the pre-binocular era, shooting his birds before posing them dead for his paintings.
One theme of the history of the Florida Keys is the periodic hurricanes that devastate the low-lying islands, and man’s persistent, almost fool hearted rebuilding, in preparation for the next inevitable onslaught. Henry Flagler’s railroad from Miami to Key West was the epitome of that persistence as several powerful storms delayed this monumental project.
You might say that Flagler was the builder of modern Florida, at least the east coast. He made his fortune as John D. Rockefeller’s partner in Standard Oil of New Jersey, but spent most of his later years at his various Florida ventures. Building a railroad down the east coast of Florida in small sections and planting a luxury resort hotel at each terminus was his successful strategy in bringing the well-heeled Easterners and their cash to the sunshine state. His last and greatest challenge was to connect Miami with Key West by rail, an engineering feat for the ages. Read Les Standiford’s riveting book, “Last Train to Paradise” for this story.
The final track was laid in 1912 as a satisfied and elderly Henry Flagler rode the first train into town amidst a joyous celebration. But Mother Nature was not done with the keys. The severe unnamed Labor Day hurricane of 1935 flattened the islands, the railroad, its bridges, and everything else in its path. Today one can still see the Stonehenge-like remains of the trestles from Highway 1. The railroad was never rebuilt.
Ernest Hemingway, an injured ambulance driver from World War I left the expatriate crowd in Paris and arrived in Key West with wife Pauline in 1928. He finished the classic “A Farewell to Arms” in his first weeks on the island. Their house and its artifacts are well-worth your visit. The hedonistic life style of Key West seemed to suit him well and evidence of those 12 years of writing, fishing, and partying are all apparent in their restored home on Whitehead Street.
My recent trip to Key West was not, strictly speaking, a birding excursion, but you birders all know the drill. Carry the binoculars at all times and sneak in an early morning trek while your travel companions are still sleeping or reading the NY Times at the local coffee shop. If roosters are your target bird, you are in luck as they awaken you each morning and seem to be taking over the town. More serious birding is done at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park. Its varied habitat is a magnet for migrants as well as the more common south Florida birds. Visit http://www.keysaudubon.org for a good list of the local birding sites.
By November of 1946 President Harry Truman was exhausted. The war was over but the doctor’s orders were for a warm, southern vacation. He chose the former officer’s quarters at the Key West Submarine Naval Base, hereafter known as the “Little White House”. It worked like a charm as he visited it for 175 days on 11 occasions during the remainder of his presidency. It’s now a museum with excellent docents.
I’ll conclude this post with Joseph Long’s story–you probably have not heard of him. He was one of the countless patriots that volunteered to serve in World War II. At the age of 17 he enlisted in the Navy and was shipped to the South Pacific, serving as a gunnery mate on an LST, nicknamed by its sailors as a “Large Slow Target”. He did his part in the closing campaign of Okinawa and was present in Tokyo Bay when the Japanese surrendered. He concluded his service mustering out his colleagues at the relative paradise of the Naval Base at Key West.
Thirty years later I had the good fortune to marry Joe’s daughter, and after another 38 years she and I were privileged to escort him back to Key West to visit the old Naval Base one last time. The current Naval Air Station rolled out the red carpet for Joe, welcoming him as another revered member of that “Greatest Generation”. As most of his fellow vets, he didn’t speak much about those war years, but you could sense his rekindled memories of those consequential days as we toured the site. Joe is no longer with us, but our memories of him were renewed during my recent trip to Key West with his daughter, daughter-in-law, and son.