We’ll be wandering our way back up the Florida keys later this morning before heading home in a couple of days, after one more stop. My internet access will be sporadic so I’ll post this entry a little early and get back to my normal schedule when I return.
Notably, I am not a beach person. I never would have picked Key West for a vacation spot. How that happened is a long, boring story so I’ll save the explanation while noting that I’m here making the best of this subtropical setting and actually having a pretty good time. Generally that involves wandering off for part of the day to see things other than sand and sun. Here are a few non-beach attractions that have kept me busy in addition to what I posted in Part I. As usual, these will be brief overviews with more comprehensive permanent pages to come later.
President Harry Truman’s "Little White House"
President Harry Truman spent a great deal of his terms in office in Key West, staying in what became known as the Little White House. The statistic uttered frequently here was that he spent something like 175 days of his presidency at the facility. That is rather remarkable when one starts translating that into weeks and months. Truman maintained a casual atmosphere to help him relax and unwind from the demands of his office. The building mirrored the attitude. Large louvered windows allowed tropical breezes to circulate throughout the structure. Bamboo and rattan dominated the furnishings to the point it looked more like an outdated beach house instead of the Free World’s center of power. Picnics were held on the side lawn. Fishing trips traveled far out into coastal waters. Poker games continued into the wee hours. It’s no wonder that several subsequent Presidents have also found solace here.
I stepped up to the counter to pay my admission and the cashier confirmed my purchase of two tickets. No, I was visiting alone. She looked confused and said she thought two of us had entered. Nope, just me, the guy who couldn’t find anyone else in his entire extended family of in-laws that wanted to join him (but thanks for making me feel self-conscious about it albeit in a friendly manner). It must have been the ghost, she replied. Some lady supposedly haunts the place. I’m one of the more cynical and skeptical persons around so I answered, "well, I don’t know about any ghosts but she can go ahead and pay for herself if she really wants the tour." And for the record, I didn’t see any ghosts. Maybe Truman had a haunted whiskey glass at his poker table, I dunno. I was feeling pretty haunted by the after effects of mojitos from the previous evening though (Quote of the day from my 3-year-old: "Daddy, why is there a salad in your drink?")
Fort Zachary Taylor
There’s more history in Key West at the Fort Zachary Taylor State Park. You would think an island would have lots of beaches but much of Key West is built-up to the waterline with docks, jetties or other structures, or simply isn’t sandy. The beaches tend to congregate along the southern portion of the island, with Ft. Taylor being the furthest west. It was tough finding a parking space at this very popular beachfront, competing with the hundreds of other people who had the same brilliant idea on this beautiful afternoon.
I deposited the family on the sand by the ocean and wandered a couple hundred yards away to the fort, which I shared with perhaps a dozen other visitors willing to go against the grain of conventional behavior. This fort was part of the chain of coastal defenses built along the eastern seaboard of the United States during the mid nineteenth century to protect shipping channels and repel invasions by sea as happened during the War of 1812. Fort Taylor never sustained an enemy attack but it filled an interesting niche during in the Civil War as an aggressor rather than as a defender. It and the rest of Key West remained in Federal hands for the duration, literally an island deep behind enemy lines. Fort Zach helped enforce the stranglehold on Confederate trade by serving as a base to thwart blockade runners.
USS Mohawk – Coast Guard Cutter and United States Naval Ship during World War II
There are a couple of interesting sites immediately adjacent to the state park but just outside its entrance: the Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center and the USS Mohawk Coast Guard Cutter. Both are fairly recent additions to the Truman Annex waterfront.
The U.S. Government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration operates the Eco-Discovery Center as part of its Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. It’s small but the exhibits are well done, with plenty of interactive displays to keep the kids busy. It also has air conditioning and abundant parking, two rare commodities in Key West that are welcome sights after long days at the beach. Oh, and the price is right. It’s free. You’ve already paid for it through your taxes so go over and enjoy it.
The USS Mohawk Coast Guard Cutter served in rescue missions and as a submarine hunter during the Second World War. Visitors can take a self-guided tour throughout the ship. It doesn’t take very long — it’s not like it’s an aircraft carrier or something — but it gives a good overview of what it must have been like to have been cramped in this vessel while crashing through North Atlantic swells off the coast of Greenland, protecting the convoys and dumping depth charges over the side. The ship is still being restored so all areas may not be open to visitors.
Lighthouse at Key West
Key West has a nice lighthouse and museum right within the historic district near the intersections of Whitehead St. and Truman Ave., and can be combined easily with a visit to the Hemingway House. It seems an odd spot for a tower because of all the development that surrounds it, but consider that the island is relatively flat and an inland location affords some protection from storms and the choice becomes more obvious. Visitors can climb the tower (although not into the lantern room) for some amazing views of Key West. It’s a popular attraction and there’s not much room around the railing so pass on that extra helping of Key Lime Pie before touring. There’s also a small museum in the old lightkeeper’s residence to see what it may have been like to enlist in the old US Lighthouse Service.