History of the Island of Key Biscayne
(The following is based on a brief history kindly provided by Bob Bristol of the Key Biscayne Historical and Heritage Society.)
Key Biscayne, Florida's southernmost barrier island, was occupied by the Tequesta Indians of the Calusa Nation who fished and hunted with success. Juan Ponce de Leon found fresh water, called the island Santa Marta and claimed it for the King of Spain in 1513. The King of Spain granted the island to Pedro Fornelis, a native of Minorca.
Florida became a territory of the United States in 1821. Shortly thereafter, Mary Ann Davis of St. Augustine purchased the island from the Fornelis family for $100. The Davis family sold three acres to the U.S. Government for a military reservation for $225.
The lighthouse was first lit on December 17, 1825 by John Dubose, the first keeper. The lighthouse signal was an important navigational tool that aided and protected ships along the Florida coast. On July 23, 1836, Indians forced into South Florida by the Seminole Wars attacked and burned the Lighthouse and caretaker’s home. Fortunately John Dubose and his family had fled to Key West. Only two men were present. John Thompson, who was at the top of the lighthouse, survived the attack tbut his assistant Aaron Carter was killed. The U.S. military built Fort Dallas next to the burnt out lighthouse in 1838. The fort included a hospital for the Army, Navy and Marines. The lighthouse was rebuilt to its current height of 95 feet and relit on April 30, 1847.
The Davis family laid out the first town on Key Biscayne in 1839. A few lots were sold, but development was slow. Pirates used the fresh water and vegetative cover on the Key to raid ships in the shipping lanes. A substantial pineapple plantation and groves of coconut palms were planted. After eight lighthouse keepers, the lighthouse was replaced by the Fowey Rocks Light southeast of Key Biscayne in 1878.
The Cape Florida lighthouse was leased to Ralph Munroe and the Biscayne Bay Yacht Club. Disputes about legal ownership of the Key were long-lived and made their way to the U.S. Supreme Court. James Deering, who had purchased the land from the Davis family, prevailed. Waters Davis repurchased the lighthouse and property from the U.S. Government in 1903 for $400.
William John Matheson, a successful industrialist, purchased land in 1902 in Coconut Grove and built a home. In 1908 he started accumulating land on the Key from the northern line of the Davis property to Bear Cut. Leaving the northern half undisturbed, he developed a coconut plantation and experimental fruit groves in the southern section. W.J. brought down his son, Hugh, to manage the plantation activities. Tropical plant introductions and experimentations were done with the assistance of David Fairchild. Importation of the Maylay (now Malay) Dwarf coconut from the Federated Maylay States was was financed by W.J. Matheson. This disease-resistant palm has proven to be a significant introduction. The Mathesons created a community on the plantation. Schools, a commissary and a zoo were maintained on island and daily transportation to the mainland was available. W.J. built a home for entertaining called “Mashta House” on the western tip of Mashta island. Social notables came from everywhere to the fantastic social events on their yachts.
The Mathesons dug the “dividing canal” which is now known as Pines Canal. It was an attempt to give access to both the ocean and Biscayne Bay for trade and navigational short-cut. Sand moving along the Atlantic coast of the Key repeatedly filled in the ocean access and attempts to keep it open via dredging were eventually abandoned. The canal remained open to the bay.
Key Biscayne has been affected by many hurricanes throughout its history. The unnamed 1926 hurricane submerged the island as the eye passed directly over the Key. Restoring the plantation after natural disaster was costly to the Mathesons. W.J. Matheson died of a heart attack in 1930. He had divided the ownership of his land into a northern half and southern half. Each of his three children, Hugh, Malcolm and Nan (Ana Wood), owned one-third of each section. The plantation was not operating profitably.
The Matheson children made a deal with Dade County, spearheaded by County Commissioner Charles Crandon, to donate the northern half of the Key to the public. In return the County promised to build a causeway to the Key from the mainland. World War II delayed the construction, but the causeway was finished and opened in November 1947. In the 1940s the island was the location for several movies including “They Were Expendable” with John Wayne. The films capitalized on the Key'e appearance of South Seas islands with its groves of palm trees.
In 1950, the Mackle Company purchased Nan’s southern third of the middle of the Key and built 289 cement block homes targeted to veterans with attractive financing. Also built on the ocean were the Key Biscayne Villas, later to become the Key Biscayne Hotel and Villas. A shopping center was built and land was donated for a school. With great success, the Mackle brothers - Frank, Bob and Elliot - purchased more land and developed more homes up to Heather Drive. Hugh Matheson had built a nine hole golf course, a hideway with cottages and the Jamaica Inn. The Mackle Company filled the land north of Heather and built more homes and donated land for the KB Community Church, St. Agnes Catholic Church, KB Presbyterian Church and the Key Biscayne Yacht Club.
The Key Biscayne Hotel and Villas hosted many famous celebrities and politicians. Vice President Richard Nixon stayed there and was part of a famous meeting with John Kennedy occurred when Kennedy defeated Nixon in 1960. When Nixon was elected President he established the “Winter White House”, a compound of Bay Lane properties on Biscayne Bay adjacent to the homes of his friends Bebe Rebozo and Senator George Smathers. Key Biscayne had become the “Island Paradise”.
The fate of the southern third of Key Biscayne took a different turn. José Áleman bought Cape Florida from James Deering in 1948. A seawall was erected on the western and southern waterfront and the low-lying land filled with plans for development. The idea of building a causeway to Elliot Key and Key Largo was discussed. In 1966 Bill Baggs, editor of The Miami News, was able to bring together the Áleman parcel owner with the State of Florida to purchase the land for a state park. The lighthouse was once again lit in 1978 as an aid to navigation.
The northern eyewall of 1992's Category 5 Hurricane Andrew passed over the southern section of Key Biscayne. Andrew was the first storm to significantly inundate the island since Hurricane Betsy in 1965. The storm was a blessing in disguise for Bill Baggs Cape Florida Park as it leveled the invasive Australian pines that had taken over the park in the years since it was filled for development. State naturalists and volunteers spent years removing the pines and other exotics and restoring native vegetation. This restoration has brought back a natural variety of wildlife.
The Village of Key Biscayne was incorporated in 1991. Residents voted to self-govern after 40 years of being controlled by Dade County. The Village was the first municipality to incorporate since XXX.
If you would like to learn more about Key Biscayne's fascinating history, borrow or purchase Key Biscayne by Joan Gill Blank (published by Pineapple Press). Ms. Blank is the Key's resident historian and her book is acknowledged as the best researched and most complete history of Key Biscayne.