Visiting the Key West Shipwreck Museum
"Only the tales and the progeny of the wrecking families remain to perpetuate the memories of the robust era when misfortunes on the reef meant fortunes on land."
From The Florida Keys and the Coral Reef by Oliver Griswold.
During the nineteenth century, hundreds of ships met their demise on the shallow reefs and treacherous shoals off the Florida Keys. From this misfortune, the ship wrecking industry of Key West, Florida, was born. The wreckers who recovered the ships' sunken treasure helped to make the southernmost city in the continental United States the richest city in the nation. The Key West Shipwreck Treasures Museum offers a glimpse into the history of Key West and its fascinating maritime heritage.
A brief history of the Key West ship wrecking industry
During the golden age of sail in the mid-nineteenth century, a hundred ships a day passed by Key West through the Straits of Florida, the major shipping route between the eastern seaboard and the Gulf of Mexico. The powerful currents of the Gulf Stream and a preponderance of fierce storms combined for a perilous passage. Ships wrecked off the Keys at a rate of almost one a week. Their misfortune fueled a highly organized and heavily regulated wrecking industry.
Wreckers patrolled the waters in small vessels and watched the reef from observation towers fitted with bells. When spotters saw a ship in distress, bells would ring and the call "wreck ashore" would go out. This signaled the start of a race to the wreck.
The first captain to reach the ship became the wreck master who controlled the salvage operation and determined how many other wreckers were needed to assist. The wrecking crew had to do everything they could to save the passengers, salvage the cargo, and recover the ship. Damaged ships were hauled to Key West shipyards for repair and salvaged cargo was stored in warehouses on the wharf to be sold at auction.
A United States District Court with admiralty jurisdiction was established in Key West in 1829. The presiding judge, or wrecking judge, decided what share of the salvage value would be awarded to the wreckers. Awards of 25 to 50 percent of the value were common. Half would go to the wrecking captains, with the largest cut to the wreck master. The other half was divided among the crews. The divers, those who risked their lives to bring the cargo to the surface, earned the biggest shares.
The industry declined in the late 1800s. The advent of the railroads and highway system meant fewer ships on the seas. Steam engines in place of sails and better navigation equipment enabled ships to avoid the dangerous reefs. Lighthouses further helped ships steer away from danger. In 1921, the federal wrecking registry closed, bringing an end to the era.
Review of the Key West Shipwreck Treasures Museum
The Key West Shipwreck Treasures Museum tells the story of the ship wrecking industry through a combination of actors in period costumes, exhibits, and videos. The museum itself is a recreation of a mid-1800s wrecker's warehouse. The premise is visitors to the museum are being recruited to work in the wrecking operation. An interactive presentation provides a glimpse into the life of a Key West wrecker.
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The tour begins outside the museum, where visitors are greeted by an actor portraying a lumper, whose job it was to transport salvaged cargo from the wreckers to the warehouse. He explains there are jobs available for both lumpers and divers. Divers are paid much more but have to meet one important occupational qualification – they must be able to hold their breath for at least five minutes. Anyone in the audience who meets this requirement is welcome to apply for the diver position.
Visitors are then led up the stairs and into the warehouse to meet the owner, master wrecker Asa Tift. An actor playing Tift describes the large wrecking operation he owned in Key West and the house he built with the spoils, which is now known as Hemingway House after its most famous occupant, author Ernest Hemingway.
"Mr. Tift" also shares a bit of ship wrecking history and lore, including the story of the cursed treasure of the Nuestra Señora las Maravillas, a Spanish galleon that wrecked off the Keys in 1656, and invites visitors to try lifting a 64-pound silver bar that was salvaged from the galleon and is on display at the museum. The presentation concludes in no more than 10 minutes, after which visitors are invited to explore the rest of the museum on their own.
It takes little time to get through the small museum, and one soon realizes "Shipwreck Treasures" is a misnomer. Two levels of exhibits offer very little in the way of actual treasure – save the aforementioned silver bar – but are cluttered with a lot of props ostensibly used to create the feel of wharf warehouse.
Among the junk, there are a few interesting artifacts to be found. Many are from the Isaac Allerton, a ship that sank of the Florida Reef during a hurricane in 1856. But the exhibits seem disorganized and younger children who don't have the ability or patience to read the lengthy explanations posted at each display case will become bored quickly.
Several exhibits seem out of place in the museum, leaving one to wonder if they were added simply to fill space. These include a doll house replicating the 1850s-era home of a Key West sponge and lumber merchant and movie memorabilia from the 1942 Cecil B. DeMille film "Reap the Wild Wind" starring John Wayne and Paulette Goddard. Granted, the latter may not be too much of a stretch. The movie was based on a story by Key West author Thelma Strabel about a woman running her deceased father's shipping business in 1840s Key West and the wrecking captain who captured her heart.
The basement of the museum is an old cistern sitting one foot below sea level that was once used to hatch lobsters. Not only does it create an authentic fishy smell the permeates the museum, it houses a small theater in which visitors can view a short film about ship wrecking before exiting.
By far the best feature of the museum is the 65-foot observation tower, which visitors can climb for panoramic views of the island and the water. The tower features a bell for alerting wreckers of a ship on the reef and a web cam for having fun with friends back home.
After paying the steep admission price, one can't help but feel dissatisfied upon exiting the museum. Sure, there may have been a few mildly interesting moments in the 30 minutes it took to complete the tour. Yes, there were some great photo opportunities from the top of the tower. But the $15 admission may be better spent at the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum just down the street, where there is real treasure to be found.
Is the view worth it?
Are the great views from the observation tower worth the steep price of admission? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.
Location, Hours, and Admission
The Key West Shipwreck Treasures Museum is located in Key West's famed Mallory Square at 1 Whitehead Street.
Hours of operation are 9:40 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., year-round. Tours start every 20 minutes, with the last tour beginning at 4:40 p.m.
Admission is $15.05 for adults, $6.45 for children, and $12.90 for seniors. Children 3 and under are admitted at no charge. Discounts are available if tickets are purchased on-line.