- Historic Sites
The Carpenter-architects Of Key West
February 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 2
Key West was centrally involved in 1873 in the first serious international incident arising from the efforts of filibusters—private armies of exiles and adventurers—to free Cuba. This was the case of the Virginius , an American-flag steam-powered commercial vessel. Its commander was Captain Joseph Fry, a New Orleans man who had lived in Key West as a child. The Virginius was allegedly a gunrunner or a transport for mercenary revolutionaries. Ignoring the U.S. flag and non-Spanish nationality of the majority of the men on board, Cuban colonial officials, quite without valid international precedent, pursued her into Jamaican waters, captured her, and brought her back to Santiago. There, over the protests of the American and British consuls, the local governor declared the ship a pirate and began to execute its officers and crew, killing fifty-two of them before the arrival of a British warship put a stop to the massacre. American newspapers screamed for revenge, and President Grant was persuaded to demand an apology and reparations. To back his threats he assembled the North Atlantic fleet, consisting of obsolete and deteriorated equipment left over from the Civil War. Key West, of course, was the closest port to Cuba, and the fleet limped there, with some of the older vessels, particularly the ironclads, scarcely able to make their way down the coast. Ultimately, the Spanish, perhaps moved by this threat, agreed to give back the Virginius —not much of a prize in herself, since she could not make it back to Key West under her own steam. The whole unsatisfying affair, however, threw Key West into prominence as the port most likely to provide a threat to Spain in Cuba and to provide a haven for Cuban refugees.
They soon came in droves, bringing an industry with them. Already, Francisco Marrero, a Cuban who had been arrested in nearby Havana in 1869 on a charge of treason and imprisoned there, had won his release and come to Key West. He opened a cigar factory on Front Street in Key West; many more such businesses followed his. By the middle of the decade of the seventies there were twenty-nine cigar factories in Key West, employing, according to an 1876 count, nearly 2,100 people. In the 1880’s the number rose even higher. Naturally, the growth of the cigar business and its employment brought revenues into the city that in turn sustained a demand for other goods. In 1874 more American vessels entered Key West than entered Charleston, Savannah, Mobile, and St. Johns, Florida, combined, a statistic somewhat lessened in impressiveness by the fact that unlike those cities, Key West could not be reached at all by land.
The cigar factories provided more than employment for the Cubans. They provided gathering places where support for revolutionary activities could be mobilized. A revolutionary junta in New York City coordinated such undertakings. Its mainspring was José Martí, a writer and orator jailed by the authorities in 1868 at the age of sixteen and thereafter, during a short lifetime, dedicated to freeing Cuba. It was he who was primarily responsible for organizing work among Cuban exiles in Key West and Tampa. Marti was killed in 1895 on a revolutionary expedition. But disorganized and sometimes totally disconnected efforts at armed filibustering against the Spanish regime in Cuba persisted. Key West was of peculiar importance in all of these paramilitary ventures, because it supplied either the funds or the vessels or the equipment or, best of all, a haven for retreat when the filibusterers were chased out of Cuban waters by Spanish warships. Key West was the port of refuge, for example, to which Napoleon Bonaparte Broward —later to become governor of Florida—brought his tugboat, The Three Friends , after a comparatively successful expedition in March, 1896, during which he claimed to have put ashore in Cuba some sixty-five men with a modest quantity of arms.
It cannot be claimed that providing a base of operations for filibusterers was an important source of revenue to the citizens of Key West in the eighties or nineties, but it was a valuable demonstration of the importance of effective municipal publicity. The cable to Havana, laid in 1867, made Key West the natural center of news from that island; and any rumors passing through Key West, even if they originated no closer to Cuba than the cigar factories on Duval Street, carried a measure of plausibility. There is some evidence also that the illicit gun-and-soldier trade—like the rum-running trade that came thirty years later—kept busy some of the vessels that otherwise might have lain idle.
In any case Key West’s participation in the episode of Spanish, Cuban, and American affairs reached its climax during the Spanish-American War. As the telegraph station nearest to Cuba, it was the place where correspondents hurried, on private yachts chartered by newspapers, to file their dispatches—a practice that had been initiated before the war’s actual outbreak in order to avoid the Spanish censors in Havana.
During the war itself, limited land access to Key West meant that Jacksonville and Tampa served as more important ports of embarkation for the Army, but the port of Key West was still important for naval supplies and fuel.