Florida Keys News - Key West Citizen
Friday, August 2, 2013
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Keys' history presented through monthly series

It's people who make up the history of the Florida Keys, the Matecumbe Historic Trust emphasizes.

The organization restarted its monthly presentations on July 29 at Island Community Church, Mile Marker 83, giving an audience of about 50 a slide show about the history of the Keys from Ocean Reef down to Key West.

Irving Eyster, the 94-year-old president of the nonprofit, had to stop putting on the presentations due to medical issues. His daughter, Barbara Edgar -- also vice president of the trust -- now reads from Eyster's notes.

Eyster, an archeologist and retired professor from Florida International University, worked on hundreds of excavations throughout South Florida and the Keys. He discovered remnants of the Calusa and Tequesta Native American tribes from Upper Key Largo to Key West.

He says pottery is the most important artifact in identifying tribes, as sand and clay content and how it was fired are unique attributes.

Both Tequesta and Calusa pottery was found in Key West; Eyster believes the tribes intermixed.

Eyster, through Edgar, also talked about Henry Flagler's railroad being built in the early 1900s.

The construction, in which imported German concrete was used and hundreds of arches built over the water, was a spectacular engineering feat second only to the Panama Canal.

World War I veterans helped build the railroad, sleeping on barges with living quarters, Edgar told the audience during the slide show.

"Each received $1 per day plus food, clothing and medicine. Sadly, hundreds died from the hurricane in 1935 from a 17-foot tidal wave, and the super-storm destroyed the railway system. But not all was lost when the railway was destroyed," she said.

"The railroad bridges were converted to roads," she said, referring to the Overseas Highway.

Before that, a ferry had brought cars from Lower Matecumbe to No Name Key.

"The first car to drive from the mainland to Key West happened in 1928."

Eyster remembers the Big Pine Key tollbooth for ferry passengers, which remained after the Overseas Highway was completed. "It was removed in 1957," Edgar read.

Long Key was also discussed.

"There is a great history of the island, starting with Native Americans to treasure hunters searching for lost treasure of the Margarita and other Spanish galleons," Eyster related through his daughter.

"Later, the Long Key Fishing Club was founded by Henry Flagler, who attracted famous guests such as Ted Williams, Jackie Gleason, Jimmy Carter, Arthur Godfrey, Hugh Downs, Winston Churchill and Mike Douglas. Guests were attracted to the location for the world-renowned fishing."

Developers Del Layton and Pete Riley created the city of Layton on Long Key in September 1963. The men converted wetlands into a town and were elected mayor and vice mayor.

Layton and Riley were some of the many people that helped sculpt Monroe County into its present form, Edgar read from Eyster's notes.

The trust was to open a museum two years ago, and Eyster was to cut the ribbon, but it was a victim of politics, Edgar said.

Displays encompassing geology, Native Americans, early explorers, shipwrecks, wreckers, early settlers, pirates, lighthouses, military presence, the Spanish connection and more are still packed away in boxes.

Eyster is hoping to cut a ribbon for a museum in his lifetime, as he feels the public needs to know "our" history.

For more information, visit matecumbehistoricaltrust.com.

apress@keysnews.com

Alex Press, an intern with The Citizen, is a recent graduate of Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.

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