November 28, 2018

Monroe County Public Library photo
Sally Rand, famed for risqué performances, lived in Key West and visited patients at the U.S. Navy base.

Monroe County Public Library photo Sally Rand, famed for risqué performances, lived in Key West and visited patients at the U.S. Navy base.

FLORIDA KEYS — Henry Flagler’s railroad nearly came to a halt at Knight’s Key during a two-year dispute with the U.S. Navy over dirt.

Two duelists, spurred by an illicit romance, survived an 1829 exchange of pistol shots on a Key West beach. One was later gunned down from behind. Everyone in the tiny island town knew the killer, yet the case never went to trial.

“Hidden History on the Florida Keys,” a new volume penned by Laura Albritton and Upper Keys historian Jerry Wilkinson, reveals seldom-told tales of the “lively and unusual cast of historic figures” who helped shape the Florida Keys from the 1820s through the 1960s.

“Not much has been written about most of these things, so not a lot of people know the whole stories,” Wilkinson said. “They’re not made up.”

Chapters in the 144-page book range from Key West to Key Largo with accounts of courage, criminality, celebrity and conniving.

“The people are fascinating and the events astonishing,” Albritton said. “Jerry has done so much research that’s he a treasure trove of information.”

“Hidden History of the Florida Keys” is dedicated to Tom Hambright, curator of the Florida History Archives at the Monroe County Public Library in Key West.

“My favorite part was visiting the archives with Tom and delving into the stories of rumrunners, speakeasies and busts during Prohibition,” Albritton said.

In the “Confederate Conchs Enlist” chapter, the authors note the march by Union Capt. John Brannan to occupy Fort Zachary Taylor before the first shot at Fort Sumter. That kept Key West out of the Confederacy’s reach throughout the war.

But a band of southern sympathizers dubbed themselves the “Key West Avengers” and slipped away to join the rebellion. Not all survived. One who did later became Key West mayor.

Most Keys residents know the story of wrecker Jacob Housman and his mini-empire on Indian Key, but few recognize the name of Richard Fitzpatrick, an educated and brash schemer who in 1822 arrived at Key West from Charleston, S.C.

Fitzpatrick soon assumed a number of municipal and court positions, turning many to his own benefit. To secure a return to the Florida state legislature of the time, Fitzpatrick colluded with Housman to split Monroe County in two with Indian Key as the seat of new newly created Dade County.

A street in Key West is named for Fitzpatrick but financial setbacks suffered in the Seminole War caused him to go west where he eventually “would die unheralded and virtually broke, far from the fiefdom he once tried to establish,” the authors write.

The 1907 slowdown in construction of Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway Key West Extension intrigues Wilkinson.

The large bridge-building workforce was cut by more than half when the U.S. Navy stopped the railroad from dredging fill off Key West. Residents of the southernmost city were alarmed that the railroad might never go farther than Marathon. Two years later, the showdown mysteriously resolved itself and dredging resumed.

George Adderley, a black immigrant from the Bahamas, settled in the Middle Keys and through hard work, purchased 32 acres on Vaca Key. There he and his wife built their durable “tabby” home that still stands at Crane Point Hammock.

Adderley’s tract became a small town. When the railroad needed a right-of-way through his property, Adderley negotiated a station stop. His tombstone in Key West reads: “He made Flagler’s train stop at Vaca Station.”

The Florida Keys have always attracted celebrities. Among others, writers Dashiell Hammett and Lillian Hellman canoodled at a north Key Largo resort.

Pinup queen Bettie Page and fan dancer Sally Rand, two mid-20th century women who pushed boundaries of how much flesh could be flashed, both spent quiet years as Key West residents.

Rand raised a son in Key West and visited sick Navy sailors at the base hospital. Page taught school for a time and married in Key West. In the throes of a New Year’s Eve breakup, Page became a devout Christian when she was drawn to a White Street church.

Wilkinson and Albritton previously collaborated on “Marathon: The Middle Keys” and “Key West’s Duval Street.”

“Hidden History of the Florida Keys” now is available online at amazon.com. Plans for book-signings at Monroe County retailers are in the works.

kwadlow@keysnews.com