Florida Keys Travel Tip
It isn't the sun that drew the first visitor to Florida. It was the elusive
fountain of youth. In fact, explorer Ponce de Leon's friend Antonio de Herrera didn't even mention the stimulating
sunset in his 1513 journal when, upon sighting the rocky islets during their search for the eternal elixir, he penned these dire words.
" To all this line of islands and rock islets they gave the name of Los Martires because, seen from a distance, the rocks
as they rose to view appeared like men who were suffering; and the name remained fitting because of the many lost
there since. "
Settlers arrived in the Keys somewhere around the 1820's. The hearty pioneers grew limes, tamarind, breadfruit and
later captured sharks. ( The sharkskins were salted down and shipped to New York where they were processed into a
tough leather called shagreen. ) Pineapple farms flourished, and at one time, a large factory provided most of eastern
North America with fresh pineapple. Settlers that weren't into farming salvaged goods from shipwrecks. Still others
found a market for the high quality sponges harvested from the sea.
Cubans immigrated in 1868, when Vicente Martinez Ybor moved his Havana-based cigar factories to the Keys. When
the factories moved to Tampa in 1886 ( because of labor problems and fires ), the Cubans left, but not before leaving
their footprints along side the farmers, explorers and pirates.
In the late 1930's, believing that the Key's sea, sun and good winter climate were viable commodities, the Federal
government built the overseas highway. It was a sound idea, except, the hoped for tourist boom didn't materialize for
some time, because, shortly thereafter, World War 11 began.
In 1982, in a $185 million dollar upgrade project, 37 of the 43 bridges spanning the islands were replaced with wider, heavier spans. The old spans are still standing in various forms of deterioration, adding to the unique character
of the Keys.
Today, the highway is well traveled with tour buses, recreation vehicles and private limousines. Promoted as Florida's Caribbean islands, over a million and a quarter visitors explore the Keys each year.
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