How about some Florida Keys style Big Pine Key History?

Beginning with the ground Big Pine Key is different from the Upper and Middle Keys . The bedrock is oolitic limestone. This formation contains water. The Key Largo and Dade limestone are found from Key Largo to the Seven Mile Bridge, it doesn’t contain water.

Big Pine Key is named for the large pine trees that grow there and hardly anywhere else in the Florida Keys. It’s home to the Key Deer .

Big Pine Tree growing on Big Pine Key

The first detailed map of the Florida Keys was made in 1733 by the Spanish. They did this because of all the ships that had sank with their treasures on them. They needed to have a reference for trying to locate the ships after they sank.

Many names have been given to this same piece of land. The Calusa Indians called it Islands of Cauchiaga. It’s also been called Cayo Pinero, Cayos de Cauchiaga, New Castle Island, and Pine Island. On a British chart in 1772 it was called New Castle Island. In 1848 it was finally named Big Pine Island.

Early accounts of Big Pine and the Lower Keys are from a sole survivor of a ship wreck. He was 13 at the time the ship crashed into the Keys. He lived with the Calusa Indians for 17 years. At the age of 30 he was discovered and rescued. The year was 1566. His name was Hernando D’Escalante Fontaneda.

Key Deer on Big Pine Key In a census of 1870 it shows only one family living on Big Pine Key. Surprisingly it shows 44 people living on No Name Key.

The first patented land deed was issued January 25, 1882 to William F. Wood. Most folks were homesteaders or squatters. It was first surveyed for the State of Florida on March 21, 1873. Homesteading was allowed all the way up to the late 1920's. Florida became a state in 1845. Land was given for selling to residents, for building railroads, and homesteading. The state collected just over $2,000 from the sell of the land on Big Pine Key. Today the same land is worth more than one billion dollars.

No Name Key Sign

The main occupation in those days was wrecking, farming, and being a seaman. Their was one charcoal making establishment on Big Pine Key.

When the Henry Flagler Railroad was under construction thru the Florida keys they needed a fresh water station. A fresh water collection area was built here. It consisted of two seepage or collection ditches and a 100,000 gallon storage tank. The water was pumped from the ditch up into the storage tank. As much as 50,000 gallons a day was pumped. It was said to have leaked very badly and had to be filled daily.

Soon metal window and door screens came to the Keys. This was about 1912. The mosquito population was so horrible here that it kept some people from settling here and it drove some people out.

In a 1910 census Big Pine Key showed a population of 17 and No Name Key had a population of 22.

Key Deer eating They got their first postmaster in 1915, his name was John T. Knowles. From 1914 thru 1925 ten subdivisions were filed on the property here. Sands Subdivision as we know it today was filed in 1922.

In 1923 Big Pine Key was the location of a shark oil plant. It was built by Hydenoil Products Co. It employed 25 people and had a fleet of six fishing boats. By 1930 they caught and processed around 100 sharks a day. On a December day one of the boats brought in a mackerel shark. It measured 14' in length and had a girth of 10'. It weighed 1,752 pounds. On that same day 111 sharks were brought in each weighing over 300 pounds. Almost every part of the shark was processed for something. The processing sent an odor into the air that was said to be choking. The Ocean Leather company sold shark leathers. This leather was called “shagreen.” Oil was taken from the shark liver. The fins were sold for Shark Fin Soup. After 8 years the plant closed, that was 1931.

Old Ferry Landing on No Name Key The first Overseas Highway opened in 1928. It connected Big Pine Key to Key West . The Ferry landing was located on No Name Key that carried automobiles and people to Lower Matacumbe Key. A small airstrip was built on Big Pine Key. Construction began on the new Overseas Highway after the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935. It washed away 40 miles of railroad tracks.

The Blue Hole on Pine Key was the major source for fresh water for the surrounding islands. It came into existence around 1930. To this day it is not known who dug it. The fresh water was held by the oolitic limestone rock.

Pilings Ferry Landing

The first school was established in 1928. Mrs. Hilda Sands was the teacher. School was on and off due to problems getting students there from Sugarloaf and Ramrod Keys.

The Big Pine Prison is a product of the Overseas Highway. A work camp was established after the Labor Day Hurricane. It was on West Summerland Key. The workers were needed to place the rip-rap along the approaches to the bridges of the new Overseas Highway. When the highway was finished the work camp was abandoned. The Florida Department of Corrections purchased it and turned it into a prison road camp. These were the days when “chain gangs” were used for railroad and highway work. In 1950 the prison moved to where it is today.

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Around 1951 the roads had been improved in the Florida Keys. Soon after that electricity came to the Keys. Fresh water was next to be piped into the Florida Keys from the mainland. The population began to grow. A 1966 census showed the year round population for Big Pine Key to be 181 and in the winter that number grew to 1,496.

Blue Hole

Around 1950 the first signs of conserving wildlife appeared. The Key Deer population had dwindled down to 30. A National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1957 for the Key Deer. Jack Watson was a U.S. Fish and Wildlife agent that came to the Florida Keys in 1946. He hung the first “No Spearfishing” signs up in the Keys. They felt a real need for conservation as far back as the 1950.

The first Lower Keys Chamber of Commerce was established in 1959.

The population of the area was growing. New businesses were being established. More full time residents were moving to the area. New development was everywhere. In 1972 a moratorium was placed on all dredging. The new development involved dredge and fill to build up the land.

In 1970 Big Pine Key had the only glass bottle making business in the Florida Keys. It was the Big Pine Bottle Works. Glass bottles were made for all of the other Keys. They could be embossed for a specific client.

culvert for Key Deer to cross under highway In 1975 all of the Florida keys were designated an Area of Critical Concern. This was done to slow the development that was getting out of control. Land use Plan and Rate of Growth Ordinances were developed. Both of these are constantly changing and being challenged by those who would have the whole Florida Keys become sea to sea condominiums.

Big Pine Key now has a traffic light and US 1 has been elevated to allow the Key Deer to pass thru the under-highway culverts to get to the other side of the road. This keeps them off the highway and out of traffic where they often get killed.

Big Pine Key and all the Florida Keys have under went many changes and still are. Some Keys people seem to have no sense of its beauty and history. I think its because we have so many transplants whose real home is somewhere else.

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