At 2:00 am on the morning of April 1, 1886 the most devastating fire in Key West’s history was ignited in a small coffee shop next to the San Carlos Institute. This fire was more than an accident, there is evidence that this blaze, costing $2,000,000 in property damage in 1886, was set by the Spanish Empire to try to shut down Key West.
At the time of the historic blaze, the Spanish Empire was entrenched in a revolution against the Cuban people. The Cuban Revolutionaries depended on Key West for the majority of financial support, to keep their soldiers able to fight against the Spanish. Add this to the fact that Spain had to sell Cuban tobacco to the Key West cigar factories in order to fund their own troops, and it created a vicious circle of each side being funded by Key West.
It made sense for the Spanish Empire to shut down the Key West Cigar Industry to make sure that the funding for the revolutionaries was put to an end. They had other places they could sell their tobacco, but the Cuban revolutionaries had no other single place that contributed any where near the support that Key West did.
The blaze was ignited very symbolically next to the San Carlos Institute, the club erected by the cigar manufacturers and the focal point of the Cuban society in Key West. The fire ravaged the downtown area, burning down 18 major cigar factories, 614 houses and government warehouses. Our only steam fire engine was off in New York being fixed at this time, another suspicious coincidence, which explains why it took 12 hours for the fire to burn itself out.
There are 3 large factors which really add to the intrigue of this destructive fire. The first is that the blaze was actually extinguished on Whitehead street in the early morning, but against prevailing winds the fire miraculously re-ignited on Duval street, targeting major cigar factories. The second factor is that the following morning, there was a Spanish flotilla waiting just offshore to take all of the newly unemployed Cuban workers back to Cuba. The third is that it was reported by the Tobacco Leaf, a paper printed back then solely for the tobacco industry, that an article ran in Havana the day prior to the blaze, touting that Key West had burnt down.
This fire truly was one of the worst Key West had ever seen and with all of the circumstantial and suspicious evidence surrounding it, it’s easy for one to draw the logical conclusion. Hopefully through in depth research and with a little luck, concrete evidence will be found to finally prove this blaze was no mere accident.