Celebrating the History of Key Biscayne
By Cynthia Terpstra
Six miles off the Miami coast, separated by the crystal blue waters of Biscayne Bay, is Key Biscayne, the southernmost barrier island of the continental U.S. Prized for its tropical landscapes, beautiful beaches, and spectacular coral reefs, Key Biscayne has attracted travelers for centuries and is now considered an idyllic location for both homeowners and tourists. The island’s rich history has also played a fascinating role in the evolution of South Florida. Joan Gill Blank, longtime Key Biscayne resident, historian, and author, recently discussed the island’s history and shared her private collection of artifacts and memorabilia during “Key Biscayne: Island of Shifting Sands,” an exhibition at the Museum of History Miami.
The Tequesta Indians were Key Biscayne’s earliest settlers. Seven-miles long by two-miles wide, this island paradise provided an ample diet of wildlife, tropical fruit, and seafood. Cypress and palms were used to build a string of fishing and whaling villages, and canoes carved from native hardwoods enabled the Tequesta Indians to fish the island’s shallows and offshore reefs.
In 1513, Juan Ponce de León “discovered” the island while searching for the elusive “Fountain of Youth.” He claimed the island for King Ferdinand II of Spain and named it Santa Maria. It was during this era that gold, silver, and other treasures carried by Spanish galleons were lost in shipwrecks caused by the perilous coral reefs off Key Biscayne.
Florida was traded by Spain to England then back again in the 1700s. In 1790, petitions for Royal Spanish land grants were entertained and the first one issued for South Florida was for Key Biscayne. Spaibequeathed Key Biscayne to the Fornell family, who came to the island from Mallorca, Spain, at the turn of the century. In 1821, Florida became a territory of the U.S. and Mary Ann Davis (shown left) and her husband purchased the land from the Fornell family. Davis sold property for the Cape Florida Lighthouse in 1824 to the U.S. government.
The Cape Florida Lighthouse
Built in 1825, the Cape Florida Lighthouse on the southeast tip of Key Biscayne is the oldest historical structure in South Florida and is listed on the National Register of Historical Places. The original 65-foot tower was destroyed during the Second Seminole War. It was 1845 before the new tower was completed and, in 1855, it was raised to 95 feet. In 1861, the lighthouse became a casualty of war once again when Confederate sympathizers smashed its lamp to thwart Union soldiers who controlled the surrounding water.
The lighthouse was taken out of active service in 1878 but was relit 100 years later and is now open to the public. According to Blank, the view from the lighthouse, with its panoramic view over the ocean, down through the Keys, across Biscayne Bay and up the peninsula, was “the best in town before there was a town.”
Waters Smith Davis, son of Mary Ann Davis, returned to Key Biscayne from 1890 – 1913 and built the first waterfront home on Cape Florida. Described as “commodious” by Blank, the house was co-designed by Davis with Commodore Ralph Munroe, an early pioneer of Coconut Grove. The location was chosen as an island retreat with the closest neighbors across Biscayne Bay in Coconut Grove.
By 1908, New York businessman William J. Matheson had purchased the northern two thirds of the island and proceeded to build a coconut plantation, the largest in the U.S. He also brought in flowering and fruiting hardwoods, making the island a more inviting habitat for butterflies and birds. It was at this time that Key Biscayne became known as a romantic paradise thanks to the lush flora and fauna. For many years, the “elite of the winter colony” – Vanderbilt, Mellon, Carnegie – opened the Miami season at Matheson’s plantation house (Mashta House) overlooking Biscayne Bay.
Today, Key Biscayne is home to private residences and luxury resorts. Its beaches are consistently rated among the world’s best, and the island is recognized as one of the nation’s best areas for snorkeling, scuba diving, sailing, and windsurfing. Key Biscayne also hosts the Sony Ericsson Open, held each year at the Crandon Park Tennis Center, and is home to Crandon Golf Course, named one of Florida’s top 10 golf courses.
To learn more about Key Biscayne’s intriguing history, read Key Biscayne: A History of Miami’s Tropical Island and the Cape Florida Lighthouse by Joan Gill Blank (Pineapple Press, 1996).