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Cedar Key Guide
Some History of
Cedar Key Florida
The Cedar Keys are a cluster
of islands close to the mainland of Florida just south of the Suwannee
River. The town of Cedar Key is about 50 miles southwest of
Gainesville; 135 miles north of Tampa; and 130 miles southwest of
Jacksonville. The small cluster of Islands, or Keys are nestled 2 miles
out into the Gulf of Mexico. Home to warm tropical breezes, quiet
sunrises and some of the best sunsets the West Coast of Florida has to
Most of the developed area of the town has been on Way Key since the end
of the 19th century. The Cedar Keys are named for the Eastern Red Cedar,
which once grew abundantly in the area.
While evidence suggests human occupation as far back as 500 B.C., the
first maps of the area date to 1542, at which point it was labeled "Las
Islas Sabines" by a Spanish cartographer, meaning "The Cedar Islands".
An archaeological dig at Shell Mound, nine miles north of Cedar Key,
found artifacts dating back to 500 B.C. in the top ten feet of the
twenty-eight foot tall mound. But the only ancient burial actually found
in Cedar Key was a 2,000 year old skeleton that was found in 1999.
Arrow heads and spear points dating from the Paleo period (12,000 years
old) were collected by Cedar Key historian St. Clair Whitman and are
displayed at the
Cedar Key State Museum.
The Cedar Keys were used by Seminole Indians for hunting and fishing, by
the Spanish as a watering stop for ships returning to Spain from Mexico
and by pirates, such as Jean Lafitte and Captain Kidd.
Prior to 1896 the city of Cedar Key was located on Atsena Otie Island.
Atsena Otie was used by the Spanish as a way station for treasure
galleons on the way back from Mexico to Spain. Ships would pick up water
and drop ballast in the harbor before circling the tip of Florida on
their return trips with gold from Mexico.
Pirates used the area to raid
the loaded ships. In the late 19th century, a treasure chest was
recovered from the area around Fowler's Bluff on the Suwannee. Rumor and
tales relate that Baird Hardware in Gainesville was started with part of
William Augustus Bowles, self-declared "Director General of the
State of Muskogee," built a watchtower in the vicinity of Cedar Key in
1801. The tower was destroyed by a Spanish force in 1802. If you’ve
never heard of this interesting character, do yourself a favor and look
Permanent historic occupation of the islands began in 1839, when the
United States Army, led by General Zachary Taylor, established "Fort No.
4", which served as a depot and included a hospital, on Depot Key (later
known as Atsena Otie Key) during the Second Seminole War.
Atsena Otie Key became the headquarters of the Army of the South.
Cantonment Morgan was established on nearby Seahorse Key late in the war
and used as a troop deployment station and as a holding station for
Seminoles who had been captured, or for those Indians who had
surrendered. They were held here until they could be sent to the West.
A hurricane that produced a twenty-seven foot storm surge struck the
Cedar Keys on October 4, 1842, destroying Cantonment Morgan and causing
much damage on Depot Key. Some Seminole leaders had been meeting with
Army officers at Depot Key to negotiate their surrender or a retreat to
a reservation in the Everglades.
After the hurricane, the Seminoles refused to return to the area.
Colonel William J. Worth had declared the war to be over in August 1842,
and Depot Key was abandoned by the Army after the hurricane.
In 1842 the United States Congress had enacted the Armed Occupation Act,
a precursor of the Homestead Act, to increase white settlement in
Florida as a way of forcing the Seminoles to leave their territory. With
the abandonment of the Army base on Depot Key, the Cedar Keys became
available for settlement under the act.
Under the terms of the act, several people received permits for
settlement on Depot Key, Way Key and Scale Key.
Augustus Steele, U.S. Customs House Officer for Hillsborough County,
Florida and postmaster for Tampa Bay, received the permit for Depot Key,
which he then renamed Atsena Otie Key (aSEEna Otee). In 1843 he bought
the buildings on the island, and built some cottages for wealthy guests.
In 1844 he became the Collector of Customs for the port of Cedar Key as
well as for Tampa, Florida.
A post office named "Cedar Key" was established on Atsena Otie Key in
1845. The Florida legislature chartered the "City of Atseena Otie" in
Aerial View of Cedar Key 1882
Cedar Key quickly became an important port, shipping lumber and naval
stores harvested on the mainland. By 1860 two mills on Atsena Otie Key
were producing 'cedar' slats for shipment to northern pencil factories.
As a result of the growth, the U.S. Congress appropriated money for a
lighthouse on Seahorse Key in 1850. The Cedar Key Light was completed in
1854. The lighthouse lantern is 28 feet above the ground, but the
lighthouse sits on a 47 foot high hill, putting the light 75 feet above
sea level. The light was visible for 16 miles. Wood-frame residences
were added to each side of the lighthouse several years later.
Seahorse Key Lighthouse seen today from the Air
David Levy was born in 1810 on the Virgin Island of St. Thomas (then a
Danish possession) On May 26, 1845 two months after Florida became a
state, voters elected David Levy to be Florida's first elected member of
Congress. Levy County, and its first county seat, Levyville were named
for him during this same year. Also during 1845 the Florida Legislature
authorized Levy to change his last name to Yulee. Two bills were
introduced in the legislature to change the name of Levy County, but
died on the floor of the House. Except for a matter of timing, our
county would have been named Yulee County.
Levyville was first named Sodom, then Mount Pleasant, but at a meeting
of the Board of County Commissioners in January 1856, it was ordered to
be named Levyville. In 1860 Cedar Key became the western terminus of the
Florida Railroad, connecting it to Fernandina on the east coast of
Florida. David Levy Yulee, U.S. Senator and President of the Florida
Railroad, had acquired most of Way Key (what we now know as Cedar Key)
to house the railroad's terminal facilities.
A town was platted on Way Key in 1859, and Parsons and Hale's General
Store, which is now the Island Hotel, was built there in the same year
on 2nd Street out of cypress and "tabby", a mix of lime rock and crushed
oyster shells. On March 1, 1861, the first train arrived in Cedar Key,
just weeks before the beginning of the Civil War.
With the advent of the American Civil War in 1861, Confederate agents
extinguished the light at Seahorse Key and removed its supply of sperm
oil. On January 10th, Florida seceded from the Union. Most of the
Confederate troops guarding Cedar Key had been sent to Fernandina in
anticipation of a Federal attack there. Later that year, Union forces
occupied Seahorse Key, utilizing the lighthouse as a prison.
The USS Hatteras raided Cedar
Key in January 1862, burning several ships loaded with cotton and
turpentine and destroying the railroad's rolling stock and buildings
that had been built on Way Key.
Cedar Key was an important source of salt for the Confederacy during the
early part of the war. In October 1862 a Union raid destroyed sixty
kettles on Salt Key that were capable of producing 150 bushels of salt a
day. The Union Army occupied the Cedar Keys early on in the battle
staying for the remainder of the war.
Skirmishes were fought between Federal and Confederate forces at Number
Four Bridge on the outskirts of Cedar Key. The Low-Key Hideaway is
located on the small island between Number Four Bridge and right at the
base of Number Three Bridge. Federal forces would also make
frequent raids up the railroad and Suwannee River to confiscate cotton
In the final days of the Civil War, what was left of the Confederate
treasury was brought by train to David Yulee's plantation (named
Cottonwood) near the town of Archer. When Federal troops caught up with
the train it was found empty. Rumors and tales of the treasury's
disappearance still abound in the area.
The Cedar Keys returned to prosperity following the war, with its
economy being driven by sawmills, pencil factories and the fishing
industry. In 1865 the Eberhard Faber mill was built on Atsena Otie Key,
that name might ring a bell from your early childhood school days...it
was written on the side of almost every #2 pencil found in classrooms
across the country. The Eagle Pencil Company mill was also built
on Way Key, and Way Key, with its railroad terminal, passed Atsena Otie
Key in population.
Repairs to the Florida Railroad were completed in 1868 and freight and
passenger traffic again flowed into Cedar Key. The "Town of Cedar Keys"
was incorporated in 1869, and had a population of 400 in 1870.
Cedar Key was one of the primary population centers during the frontier
days of Florida. Produce was shipped down the Mississippi River and then
carried across the Gulf of Mexico to Cedar Key. Here the produce was off
loaded to boxcars and transported across the state to Fernandina Beach
and then north to population centers in the Northeastern United States.
This avoided the dangerous trip around the tip of Florida during
Early in his career as a
naturalist, John Muir walked 1,000 miles from Louisville, Kentucky to
Cedar Key in just two months in 1867. Muir contracted malaria while
working in a sawmill in Cedar Key, and was nursed back to health in the
house of the mill's superintendent. Muir recovered enough to sail from
Cedar Key to Cuba in January 1868. He recorded his impressions of Cedar
Key in his memoir, ‘A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf’, which was
published in 1916, after his death.
David Yulee's railroad company, the Florida Town Improvement Company,
deeded land to the town for a cemetery in 1886. Until the 1900s,
funerals could only be attended at low tide due to restricted road
Prosperity had come to Cedar Key as a port town with more than 30 ships
using it as their home port, including a steamship line that carried
passengers from New Orleans to Havana. In 1880 Henry Plant organized the
Plant Investment Company and purchased the Florida Transit & Peninsular
Railroad, one of the railroad lines which had absorbed the Yulee's
original line. Cedar Key was a major population center at the time, had
a deepwater port, and shipped oysters throughout the Southeastern United
The Suwannee River's mouth was located just to the north and the river
was navigable for quite a distance inland. Plant discovered that he had
purchased all the rail line except the railhead at Cedar Key. When the
owners refused to sell, he abandoned his plans and instead moved his
railhead to the then small village of Tampa, located approximately 100
miles to the south of Cedar Key. When Henry Plant's railroad to Tampa
began service in 1886, Tampa took shipping away from Cedar Key, causing
an economic decline in the area.
Devastation after the Hurricane that Destroyed much
of Cedar Key
- Photo from the Florida Library Archives
The fourth storm of the 1896 Atlantic hurricane season was the final
blow. At approximately 4 a.m. on September 29, 1896, a 10-foot storm
surge swept over the town, killing more than 100 people. Winds north of
town were estimated at 125 mph, which would classify it as a category 3
The hurricane wiped out the juniper trees still standing and destroyed
all the mills. The only surviving original building on Atsena Otie Key,
the Prescott Building, is now located at 210 2nd Street in the town of
Cedar Key. Some of the older homes on 1st Street were floated over from
Atsena Otie following the storm. If the hurricane wasn’t bad enough, a
fire on December 2, 1896 further damaged the town.
In the following years after the 1896 devastation, structures were
rebuilt on Way Key, a more protected island inland, but the damage was
done. However, after a couple of decades of unchecked consumption, the
area’s natural resources were becoming depleted. The majority of the
cedar trees had been harvested, and the supply of shellfish was nearly
Today, there are a few remnants of the original town on Atsena Otie Key,
including stone water cisterns, and a graveyard. There are also many of
the juniper trees that originally attracted the pencil company starting
to make a come back after nearly being wiped out by all the lumber
mills. These were misidentified as cedars by early settlers, hence the
name 'Cedar Key'.
During the brief period of prosperity, the lighthouse was regularly
overhauled and repaired. The lighthouse was whitewashed in 1880 and all
of its woodwork repainted. The gallery surrounding the lighthouse, which
had been damaged by lightening, was repaired in 1882, and then rebuilt
in 1886. At some point, large additions were added to the east and west
sides of the lighthouse, greatly increasing the living space.
Due to the collapse of the local industry, fewer and fewer vessels
called at Cedar Keys. The last keeper, Charles H. Gardner, extinguished
the light for the final time in 1915, after serving eight years at the
lighthouse. In 1929, President Herbert Hoover created the Cedar Key
National Wildlife Refuge by reserving three of the keys as a bird
sanctuary. Seahorse Key was under the
control of the U.S. Department of
Agriculture’s Bureau of Biological Survey until by Executive Order 7484
it was made part of the refuge on November 6, 1936. In 1997, Atsena Otie
Key was added to the refuge, raising the number of islands in the refuge
Since 1951, the lighthouse has been leased to the University of Florida,
for use as part of its Seahorse Key Marine Laboratory. The lighthouse
itself serves as a dormitory with six bedrooms and twenty-six bunk beds.
A laboratory is located near the boat dock. Visit the Seahorse Key
Marine Laboratory website for a virtual tour of the interior of the
In 1950, Hurricane Easy, a category 3 storm with 125 mph winds, looped
around Cedar Key three times before finally making landfall, dumping 38
inches of rain and destroying two thirds of the homes. Luckily, the
storm came ashore at low tide, so the surge was only 5 feet.
Hurricane Elena followed a similar path in 1985, but did not make
landfall. Packing 115 mph winds, the storm churned for two days in the
Gulf, 50 miles to the west, battering the waterfront. All the businesses
and restaurants on Dock Street were either damaged or destroyed and a
section of the seawall collapsed.
After a statewide ban on large scale net fishing went into effect July
1, 1995 a government retraining program helped many local fishermen
begin farming clams in the muddy waters. Today Cedar Key's clam-based
aquaculture is a multi-million dollar industry.
The local museum exhibit displays a reproduction of one of the first air
conditioning installations. The system, with compressor and fans, was
used in Cedar Key to ease the lot of malaria patients where it is
certainly hot and humid in the summer.
Cedar Key School started as a private school in the 19th century. It was
run by Amelia and Eliza Hearn. In their will the school site was given
to Levy County with the stipulation that their grave site locate within
the school property would be maintained. The grave site is directly
behind the current gymnasium.
Looking North over the Cedar Keys towards Gainesville
The original two story high school building built in 1932 was destroyed
by fire on December 21, 1943. It was replaced by a concrete one story
structure that served high school students until February 25, 2002.
The old-fashioned fishing village is now a quaint little tourist center
with several regionally famous seafood restaurants, plenty of
Old-Florida character and dozens of cozy places to kick back and relax.
The village holds two festivals a year, the Spring Sidewalk Art Festival
and the Fall Seafood Festival, both attract thousands of visitors to the
Cedar Key was voted "Best Weekend Getaway" in Florida Monthly Magazine's
Best of Florida competition for 2009. Cedar Key also earned an honorable
mention for "Best Sunset" and if you’ve ever seen one of our amazing
sunsets, then you’ll know what they are talking about.
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