Shipwrecks have been an integral part of Key West almost since its discovery by Ponce de Leon in 1521; not only because of storms and hurricanes but because of the Great Florida Reef which lies just offshore. Countless ships have been wrecked and sunk off the shores of Key West for centuries and up until the early 1920s these wrecks were a huge source of wealth for the island. That’s because residents of the island specialized in salvaging ship wrecks and for their efforts they received a large share of whatever the ship was carrying, be it gold, silver, foodstuffs, or any other cargo.
As noted above, most of the wrecks stopped early in the 20th century because of implementation of modern navigational tools which keep the ships and their cargo safe. That doesn’t mean that shipwrecks aren’t forgotten by the islanders. Take any tour of the island and you’ll see homes built by wreck Captains with architectures from Bermuda, the Bahamas and all the way to New England. Also you’ll find several museums that preserve artifacts from shipwreck museum salvaging; two of which we visited.
Key West Shipwreck Museum
Just a few steps away from Mallory Square is the Key West Shipwreck Museum which displays hundreds of artifacts salvaged from the waters around Key West. Our visit began with an introduction from a guide dressed in a period costume. He gave us an overview of shipwrecks and Key West, then he let us browse through the museum at our leisure.
It’s amazing what is here…china, pottery, elephant tusks and so much more. I guess it stands to reason since back then the only way to get to get to Key West was by sea so everything had to be shipped here. Plus the fact that just on the other side of the Great Florida Reef is a primary shipping channel that led between the New World and the Old World.
After looking around we climbed up the 65 foot tower. This is a replica of towers that used to be scattered throughout Key West and which were manned by spotting who would shout “Wreck Ashore” after spying a ship in distress. The view from the tower is awesome and you can see for miles. (This is also where I was inspired to do my chicken crowing. Playing Chicken in Key West)
More information on the museum can be found here: Key West Ship Museum.
Mel Fisher’s Maritime Museum
About a block away from the Shipwreck museum is Mel Fisher’s Maritime Museum. It seems like I’ve been reading and watching documentaries about Mel Fisher all my life so it was a special treat to get to visit his museum.
In case you didn’t know: Mel Fisher was a treasure hunter and his big passion in life was to find the wreck of the Spanish treasure ship Atocha which wrecked off the coast of the Keys in 1622. In the museum you’ll learn about Mel’s life story and how he was inspired to hunt for Spanish treasure after reading “Treasure Island” as a child. It took Mel over 16 years of searching, but at last he found the treasure of silver bars, gold, emeralds and artifacts worth over 450 million dollars.
The lower floor of the museum tells Mel’s story and lets you see many of the treasures brought up from the Atocha. I even got to pick up one of the bars of silver recovered from the wreck! Totally cool! It was amazing to see things like pieces of eight, emeralds, and gold from a genuine Spanish treasure ship….things I’ve only read about! The upper floor has more Atocha artifacts and then something I didn’t expect: an exhibit focused on the slave trade of the Atlantic.
The exhibit is based upon artifacts recovered from the slave ship Henrietta Marie which sank off Key West in 1700 and which was found by Mel Fisher in 1972. Artifacts recovered from the ship bring home the horrifying way the Africans were treated. This is a very moving exhibit and it made us sad to think of the pain and suffering caused by this shameful part of our history. As I said, I wasn’t expecting this exhibit, but it is excellent and needs to be seen by more.
We highly recommend visiting Mel Fisher’s Museum while you’re in Key West and here’s a link to their site: Mel Fisher Museum.
Both museums are small and should take you an hour or so to visit. However, my favorite was the Mel Fisher Museum. Perhaps that’s because of my long-standing enthrallment with Mel!
If you’re looking for more information about Key West: Florida Keys Info