The Florida Keys are an archipelago of 4,500 islands in the southeast United States. They begin at the southeastern tip of the Florida peninsula, about 15 miles south of Miami, and extend in a gentle arc south-southwest and then westward to Key West, the westernmost of the inhabited islands, and on to the uninhabited Dry Tortugas. The islands lie along the Florida Straits, dividing the Atlantic Ocean to the east from the Gulf of Mexico to the west, and defining one edge of Florida Bay. At the nearest point, the southern tip of Key West is just 90 miles from Cuba.

Early History

The Keys were originally inhabited by Calusa and Tequesta Native Americans. They were later found and charted by Juan Ponce de León. "Key" is corrupted from the Spanish Cayo, meaning small island. For many years, Key West was the largest town in Florida, and it grew prosperous on wrecking. The isolated outpost was well located for trade with Cuba, the Bahamas, and was on the main trade route from New Orleans.

Overseas Railway

The Keys were long accessible only by water. This changed with the completion of Henry Flagler's Overseas Railway in the early 1910s. Flagler, a major developer of Florida's Atlantic coast, extended his Florida East Coast Railway down to Key West with an ambitious series of over-sea railroad trestles.

One of the longest bridges when it was built, the Seven Mile Bridge connects Knight's Key (part of the city of Marathon in the Middle Keys) to Little Duck Key in the Lower Keys. The piling-supported concrete bridge is 6.79 miles long.

A new high-speed ferry now takes riders between Key West and Fort Myers, due north on the mainland, along the western edge of Florida Bay.

Keys Environment

The Florida Keys are the exposed portions of an ancient coral reef.

The Keys are in the subtropics. The climate and environment are closer to that of the Caribbean than the rest of Florida, though unlike the Caribbean's volcanic islands, the Keys were built by plants and animals.

The Upper Keys islands are remnants of large coral reefs, which became fossilized and exposed as sea level declined. The Lower Keys are composed of sandy-type accumulations of limestone grains produced by plants and marine organisms.

Keys Wreck Diving

Ships began wrecking along the Florida Reef almost as soon as Europeans reached the New World. From early in the 16th century Spanish ships returning from the New World to Spain sailed from Havana to catch the Gulf Stream, which meant they passed close to the Florida Reef, with some wrecking on the reefs. In 1622, six ships of the Spanish treasure fleet, including the Nuestra Señora de Atocha, wrecked during a hurricane in the lower keys. In 1733, 19 ships of the Spanish treasure fleet wrecked during a hurricane in the middle and upper keys. In the 19th century the Straits became the major route for shipping between the eastern coast of the United States and ports in the Gulf of Mexico and the western Caribbean Sea. The combination of heavy shipping and a powerful current flowing close to dangerous reefs made the Florida Reef the site of many wrecks. By the middle of the 19th century ships were wrecking on the Florida Reef at the rate of almost once a week.

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