"Only the tales and the progeny of the wrecking families remain to perpetuate the memories of the robust era when misfortunes on the reef meant fortunes on land."
From The Florida Keys and the Coral Reef by Oliver Griswold.
During the nineteenth century, hundreds of ships met their demise on the shallow reefs and treacherous shoals off the Florida Keys. From this misfortune, the shipwrecking industry of Key West, Florida was born. The wreckers who recovered the ships' sunken treasure helped to make the southernmost city in the continental United States the richest city in the nation. The Key West Shipwreck Treasures Museum offers a glimpse into the history of Key West and its fascinating maritime heritage.
A Brief History of the Key West Shipwrecking Industry
During the golden age of sail in the mid-nineteenth century, a hundred ships a day passed by Key West through the Straits of Florida, the major shipping route between the eastern seaboard and the Gulf of Mexico. The powerful currents of the Gulf Stream and a preponderance of fierce storms combined for a perilous passage. Ships wrecked off the Keys at a rate of almost one a week. Their misfortune fueled a highly organized and heavily regulated wrecking industry.
Wreckers patrolled the waters in small vessels and watched the reef from observation towers fitted with bells. When spotters saw a ship in distress, bells would ring and the call "wreck ashore" would go out. This signaled the start of a race to the wreck.
The first captain to reach the ship became the wreck master who controlled the salvage operation and determined how many other wreckers were needed to assist. The wrecking crew had to do everything they could to save the passengers, salvage the cargo, and recover the ship. Damaged ships were hauled to Key West shipyards for repair and salvaged cargo was stored in warehouses on the wharf to be sold at auction.
A United States District Court with admiralty jurisdiction was established in Key West in 1829. The presiding judge, or wrecking judge, decided what share of the salvage value would be awarded to the wreckers. Awards of 25 to 50 percent of the value were common. Half would go to the wrecking captains, with the largest cut to the wreck master. The other half was divided among the crews. The divers, those who risked their lives to bring the cargo to the surface, earned the biggest shares.
The industry declined in the late 1800s. The advent of the railroads and highway system meant fewer ships on the seas. Steam engines in place of sails and better navigation equipment enabled ships to avoid the dangerous reefs. Lighthouses further helped ships steer away from danger. In 1921, the federal wrecking registry closed, bringing an end to the era.
Review of the Key West Shipwreck Treasures Museum
The Key West Shipwreck Treasures Museum tells the story of the ship wrecking industry through a combination of actors in period costumes, exhibits, and videos. The museum itself is a recreation of a mid-1800s wrecker's warehouse. The premise is visitors to the museum are being recruited to work in the wrecking operation. An interactive presentation provides a glimpse into the life of a Key West wrecker.
The tour begins outside the museum, where visitors are greeted by an actor portraying a lumper, whose job it was to transport salvaged cargo from the wreckers to the warehouse. He explains there are jobs available for both lumpers and divers. Divers are paid much more but have to meet one important occupational qualification – they must be able to hold their breath for at least five minutes. Anyone in the audience who meets this requirement is welcome to apply for the diver position.
Visitors are then led up the stairs and into the warehouse to meet the owner, master wrecker Asa Tift. An actor playing Tift describes the large wrecking operation he owned in Key West and the house he built with the spoils, which is now known as Hemingway House after its most famous occupant, author Ernest Hemingway.
"Mr. Tift" also shares a bit of shipwrecking history and lore, including the story of the cursed treasure of the Nuestra Señora las Maravillas, a Spanish galleon that wrecked off the Keys in 1656, and invites visitors to try lifting a 64-pound silver bar that was salvaged from the galleon and is on display at the museum. The presentation concludes in no more than 10 minutes, after which visitors are invited to explore the rest of the museum on their own.
It takes little time to get through the small museum, and one soon realizes "Shipwreck Treasures" is a misnomer. Two levels of exhibits offer very little in the way of actual treasure – save the aforementioned silver bar – but are cluttered with a lot of props ostensibly used to create the feel of wharf warehouse.
Among the junk, there are a few interesting artifacts to be found. Many are from the Isaac Allerton, a ship that sank of the Florida Reef during a hurricane in 1856. But the exhibits seem disorganized and younger children who don't have the ability or patience to read the lengthy explanations posted at each display case will become bored quickly.
Several exhibits seem out of place in the museum, leaving one to wonder if they were added simply to fill space. These include a dollhouse replicating the 1850s-era home of a Key West sponge and lumber merchant and movie memorabilia from the 1942 Cecil B. DeMille film "Reap the Wild Wind" starring John Wayne and Paulette Goddard. Granted, the latter may not be too much of a stretch. The movie was based on a story by Key West author Thelma Strabel about a woman running her deceased father's shipping business in 1840s Key West and the wrecking captain who captured her heart.
The basement of the museum is an old cistern sitting one foot below sea level that was once used to hatch lobsters. Not only does it create an authentic fishy smell the permeates the museum, it houses a small theater in which visitors can view a short film about ship wrecking before exiting.
By far the best feature of the museum is the 65-foot observation tower, which visitors can climb for panoramic views of the island and the water. The tower features a bell for alerting wreckers of a ship on the reef and a webcam for having fun with friends back home.
After paying the steep admission price, one can't help but feel dissatisfied upon exiting the museum. Sure, there may have been a few mildly interesting moments in the 30 minutes it took to complete the tour. Yes, there were some great photo opportunities from the top of the tower. But the $15 admission may be better spent at the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum just down the street, where there is real treasure to be found.
Location, Hours, and Admission
The Key West Shipwreck Treasures Museum is located in Key West's famed Mallory Square at 1 Whitehead Street.
Hours of operation are 9:40 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., year-round. Tours start every 20 minutes, with the last tour beginning at 4:40 p.m.
Admission is $15.05 for adults, $6.45 for children, and $12.90 for seniors. Children 3 and under are admitted at no charge. Discounts are available if tickets are purchased online.
How do you rate the Key West Shipwreck Treasures Museum?
Is the View Worth It?
Are the great views from the observation tower worth the steep price of admission? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.
Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on April 22, 2014:
Key west is a great spot to learn about mariner history, Rebecca. Thanks for reading and commenting,
Rebecca Mealey from Northeastern Georgia, USA on April 15, 2014:
Sounds delightful. I love old Marina related museums and lighthouses. If I get to Key West one day, I will definitely look the Shipwreck museum!
Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on February 26, 2013:
Thanks, Dianna. One of the great things about Kay West is the variety. There is something for everyone.
Dianna Mendez on February 11, 2013:
I live only a couple of hours from this place and have yet to take it all in. I always think of Key West as strictly commercial, good to know there are venues such as this to enjoy. Thanks for the share.
Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on January 05, 2013:
I'm not familiar with the curse of the ships, expertscolumn. We did learn about the curse of the treasure, though. The story goes that the treasure was cursed because every ship that carried it would wreck. After it was salvaged and placed on a new ship, that ship would wreck. Thanks for reading and commenting. Hope you get a chance to visit some day.
Stanley Soman from New York on December 30, 2012:
I remember watching a scenic video about Key West, that's how I learned about the place. Didn't know there was a shipwreck museum. Do you believe the curse of the ships?
Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on December 30, 2012:
Thanks, Midget. It's true, you can't beat the view. We were up there late afternoon and the lighting was beautiful, too.
Michelle Liew from Singapore on December 19, 2012:
To answer your question, the view is certainly worth it!! This was a great share, and when I make it to Florida this will be one of the first places I'll visit. Thanks for sharing, I am passing it on.
Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on December 11, 2012:
Thanks for reading and commenting, Peggy, sgbrown, vespawoolf, and Nell. It wasn't a terrible museum, but there are better options nearby. Key West is full of fascinating history.
Nell Rose from England on December 04, 2012:
Hi deborah, I do know what you mean about too much clutter not adding to the story in the museum. over here there are many shipwreck caves or pirate caves that have the story, booty and so much more inside them. but they do tend to over clutter them with irrelevent stuff, but it does sound interesting, but maybe better for older people and not kids as you said, nell
Vespa Woolf from Peru, South America on December 04, 2012:
I've always been fascinated by shipwrecks. Too bad the museum doesn't live up to the hype! My husband, who's not much for museums, would surely be bored. Still, I appreciate the tour!
Sheila Brown from Southern Oklahoma on December 02, 2012:
Hubby and I were at Key West for a very short while a few years back. I really don't remember seeing the museum, but sounds like I did't really miss much. The view is beautiful, but I agree, money would be better spent somewhere else. Very informative hub! Up, useful and interesting. :)
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on December 02, 2012:
I would love to visit Key West Florida someday but after reading your review of the Shipwreck Museum, I think I will save the price of admission. It would seem that they should have many more authentic exhibits displayed of what has been salvaged over the years. I did enjoy your photos! Up, useful and will share.
Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on November 30, 2012:
Thanks, Melovy. Glad you loved Key West, on eof my favorite places!
Yvonne Spence from UK on November 30, 2012:
We visited Key West many years ago and loved it, but didn't see this museum. What a shame you didn't find it value for money, but I really enjoyed your review!
Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on November 28, 2012:
Thank you all for the comments. I really appreciate the shares and votes up.
The shipwrecking history is fascinating and I suppose for someone who didn't already know much about it, the museum would be more interesting. If just seemed a little contrived to me. I hope those of you who have never been to Key West get a chance to visit some day. It's my favorite vacation destination. There's so much history, combined with beautiful water, great seafood, and a cool, laid back vibe.
@Daisy, you definitely reviewed the better museum and I was happy to have your fabulous hub as a link.
@Mary, you must have been there during Fantasy Fest! Maybe you should write a review of that. ;)
Mary Hyatt from Florida on November 28, 2012:
I've been to the Keys several times. The most memorable time was during some festival where the gals marched with no clothes on: only body paint. Pardon me, I digress......
I never saw this museum, and I don't know why. I will the next time I go. Great Hub. I voted it UP, etc.
prasetio30 from malang-indonesia on November 28, 2012:
Very informative hub. I had never heard about Key West Shipwreck Museum before reading this hub. I love all the pictures above. I hope I can see this place in person one day. Voted up!
India Arnold from Northern, California on November 28, 2012:
What an informative article! Much more to do in Key West than I imagined. Good stuff!
jenbeach21 from Orlando, FL on November 28, 2012:
Great information! Shared and voted up.
Daisy Mariposa from Orange County (Southern California) on November 28, 2012:
Thanks for linking to my Mel Fisher's Maritime Museum article. I appreciate it.
I wasn't aware of this museum when I visited Key West. Thanks for showing me what I missed.
Philip Cooper from Olney on November 28, 2012:
very nice and informative hub. Thank you.
SkeetyD on November 28, 2012:
This a wonderful and informative hub. The pictures are great and that view is beautiful. Thank you for teaching something about Key West Shipwrecking
Mary Craig from New York on November 28, 2012:
As always, an excellent hub with excellent information....your pictures are lovely and of course make everyone want to go to the Keys...I think I'd skip the museum too for that price. Thanks for sharing.
Voted up, useful, interesting and shared.
Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on November 28, 2012:
Amy, take Jake to the Mel Fisher Museum instead. That really is worth seeing.
Lisa, I did enjoy the view. Thanks for commenting and sharing.
Liz Rayen from California on November 27, 2012:
Wow, that does seem a bit steep for the entry cost. The view is amazing though. Great review Deb. I like learning about places that I've heard about, but can't afford going to (being on the west coast and all. :-0) Thumbs up and shared! ♥
Amy ganske on November 27, 2012:
Cross that off Jake's next Key West visit to do list!
Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on November 27, 2012:
Thanks, Linda. The Mel Fisher Museum is really worth seeing, though. I've linked to Daisy's excellent review of it in my hub.
Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on November 27, 2012:
Bill, Key West is small enough that if you run all the way around the island, you still have to cross a bridge to another key in order to complete a half-marathon. I know, because I've run the Key West Half Marathon twice. : ) Thanks for being the first to comment.
Linda Bilyeu from Orlando, FL on November 27, 2012:
Outstanding review Deb! I remember seeing the museum when I visited the Keys, but I didn't take a tour. I did now. Thanks!!
Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on November 27, 2012:
Key West is bigger than I imagined. I'll skip the museum but I'd love to see Key West just once. Interesting info, Deb!