Visit the Conch Republic in the Florida Keys
Excerpt from Single White Female Backpacker part of the Teresa the Traveler series of books. By day two in Miami I knew I wouldn’t be staying long. Unable to escape the annoying thump of the dance music emitting from the lounge of my hotel and my neighbour’s room I knew I had to get out of dodge. I tried to find another affordable hotel but to no avail so I booked an all day tour of the Florida Keys followed by an early morning bus to Orlando – the land of budget hotel rooms and families where I hoped I could finally get some peace and quiet.
The Florida Keys are an archipelago of 1700 islands beginning at the tip of the Florida peninsula 15 miles south of Miami. Before 1910, they were only accessible by water but this all changed with the construction of Henry Flagler’s Overseas Railway which extended from the mainland across to Key West. In 1935, new bridges were being constructed to run a highway through the keys and that same year the Labor Day Hurricane destroyed the railway tracks killing over 400 people. The railway tracks were never rebuilt and the new highway replaced the railway as the main transportation route from Miami to Key West. The largest of the highway’s bridges called the Seven Mile Bridge spans…yes you guessed it…7 miles.
A four-hour bus ride brought me to Key West, the southernmost island of the Florida Keys and the southernmost point in the United States. The 4 mile long and 2 mile wide island is only 90 miles from Cuba which explains the large Cuban population. Many had moved to the island to work in the 200 cigar factories which produced over 100 million cigars annually.
After the Cuban revolution of 1959, the island was flooded with Cuban refugees, many of whom came over on small overcrowded boats to escape the communist regime. The ferry and air service which once connected the two islands was cancelled and remains closed to this day but hopefully not for much longer.
As we approached the small city, our tour guide pointed out a number of flags representing the Conch Republic and told us how Key West got its nickname. Many of residents of Key West were immigrants from the Bahamas known as Conchs and in the 20th century, many of Key West’s residents began to refer to themselves as Conchs. On April 23rd 1982, in response to a United States Border Patrol inspection point (looking for illegal drugs and immigrants) set up on the highway leading to Key West, the city mockingly declared itself independent of the United States in an effort to lift the roadblock which they claimed was hurting tourism in the area. They called themselves the Conch Republic and immediately declared war against the United States by breaking a loaf of stale bread over the head of a man dressed in a US naval uniform then quickly surrendered and applied for one billion dollars in foreign aid.
The event generated great publicity for their plight and as a result the roadblocks were lifted. As a result, tourism boomed spurring the city to celebrate their “independence every April 23rd.
The bus dropped us off in the middle of town where we were given 7 hours to explore on our own before returning to Miami. After getting my picture taken at the Southernmost Point Monument, I visited the nearby butterfly sanctuary before making my way to the public beach to enjoy some much needed down time.
I had visited Miami hoping to spend some time on the beach but found it too busy for my liking. The beaches of Key West however, where just right reminding me that the Universe always gives me what my heart desires just not in the way I expect it.