Key West's earliest settlers didn’t come for the weather. They came for opportunity.
In 1821 Florida had just become United States Territory and Key West’s deep water harbour was perched along a major shipping route. Along the Gulf Stream from Mexico and Cuba came molasses, sugar, coffee; from Spain flowed fine wines, lace and silver. Ships plied the Gulf Stream along a treacherous stretch of barrier reef whose tentacles brought an average of one ship a week ashore!
When a ship foundered in the reef, wreckers sailed with dispatch to the rescue, vying to be the first on the scene, as the wrecking master and his crew would take the largest share of the salvage. The wreckers would labor quickly to “lighten the ship” of its cargo so that it could float off on the next high tide. Once removed cargo became ‘salvage’ and was liquidated to compensate the wrecking captain and his crew.
These were the days before the permanent lights that now line Florida’s barrier reef and the frequent wrecks would make Key West into the largest city in Florida and reputedly the most prosperous US city per capita of the mid 19th Century.
As the first settlers moved in, the last of the pirates were quickly run out of the Florida Straits by a naval detachment, the Mosquito Fleet, under the command of Commodore David Porter, Many thought the wreckers little better than privateers. Yet, the wreckers risked their vessels, their equipment and often their lives to rescue the vessels and cargo that ran afoul of the reef. Divers frequently worked in waters polluted with dye or guano to recover goods from the bottom of the hold of a sinking ship or the ocean bottom. Without their skill and heroics, all would have been lost. But, before a US Territorial Court was established in 1828 and a Judge James Webb was installed, the wreckers often negotiated as much as 95% of the salvage value.
When Spain held the peninsula prior to the 1820s, wreckers from Nassau and Cuba salvaged any wrecks that foundered along the coast of Florida. In 1825, the US passed a law requiring any salvage salvaged from a wreck in Florida waters had to be brought to a US port of entry. Key West soon became that port. At the same time, the law required wreckers to be licensed; they had to prove to have seaworthy vessels, the proper equipment and an honest character. Salvage portions feel to 25-35%, and still Key Westers grew rich. In 1824, the value of the salvage sold was $293,353,00! Using the consumer price index that’s the equivalent of $5-6 billion, depending on which inflation calculator one uses. It was a lot of money.
Wrecking’s "Golden Years" years would last until the mid to late 1800s when the lighthouses that warn ships of the dangerous shoals to this day, were built along the Florida Keys.