Key West’s Maritime History at the Bight
Sponge Fishermen in KW Bight ca. 1920
The Key West Bight, now known as the Key West Historic Seaport, is the site of a 200-year-old global maritime trade base in Key West.
Industry: Sponges | Turtles | ShrimpThe Sponge Fleet 1900
On Key West’s north shore there is a natural recess in the coastline called a “bight,” which has served as one of the island’s best anchorages for centuries. It is known that since at least the 1700s, fishermen from Cuba and The Bahamas used the Key West bight as a base for seasonal fishing. When Key West began to be settled in the 1820s, the bight became the epicenter for the community’s fishing, turtling, and sponging fleets, a situation that would remain largely unchanged for the next 150 years. During that time, fish houses, turtle canneries, and sponge auction docks lined the shore. In 1912, the Overseas Railroad ended at the bight and made the area an international port.
Archaeological evidence shows proto-historic native Key Westers relied heavily on sea turtles as a survival food source. Turtling was an early and long-running business. From the mid-1800s to the early 1970s, turtles were brought in to be turned into soup and meat. You can learn more about the history of Turtling in the Keys at the Cannery Museum.
The Key West Turtle Cannery Museum, located at the foot of Margaret Street in the Key West Bight, recounts the story of how the Sea Turtles were driven to the brink of extinction in the Florida Keys.
Key West Bight with Shrimpers, 1955
In the late 1940s, vast shrimp beds were discovered in the areas to the west of Key West, and this led to a rush on the “pink gold” that would transform the bight in many ways. To accommodate the 100’s of shrimp boats that fished out of the bight, new docks were built and a stone breakwater was installed to improve the natural shelter. Large shrimp processing plants and packing houses were constructed, along with ice plants to keep the shrimp chilled and fresh for transport, and many of these buildings are still standing. Large-scale shrimping ended in the 1980s and with that, the bight began to transition to tourism.
Key West Bight ca. 1960
Key West Historic SeaportToday, the bight is still Key West’s maritime heart, with fishing, snorkeling, and pleasure boats of all types docked there. The area is now called the Key West Historic Seaport, and much of the feel of the old Key West can still be found there.
We hope you enjoyed a historical look back at the Key West Bight and invite you to explore our beautiful island and Key West’s Maritime History at the Seaport. #lovethemarker