The growth of Key West and the city s eventual naval and transportation influence on the world can be attributed in large part to its ideal maritime location, fresh water, coal, and fire. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution came an engine that would accelerate the rate of expansion and wealth in Key West. The steam engine was the catalyst for change in many industries.
A steam powered ship traveled significantly faster than sailing ships. Steam powered electric plants brought power whole cities. Steam powered trains revolutionized land travel.
Coal powered steam was the fuel of choice in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Coal was imported and stored in dockside warehouses called coal depots. Water tanks like the one in front of you held fresh water for the boilers of steam engines. Coal-fed fires under a boiler filled with water produced steam that powered pistons and turned wheels to provide power for a wide range of uses.
The use of steam power dates back some 2,000 years but wasn t perfected for widespread use until the middle of the Industrial Age. From its beginning days Key West relied on coal. In 1820 commodore Porter had the Sea Gull, the first steam powered ship in the U.S. Navy, as part of his fleet. Thanks to its cutting edge technology, the steam-powered ship helped to end piracy throughout the Caribbean.
There is also evidence that Key West was using steam power during the Civil War. Wide scale electrical distribution began when Thomas Edison switched on his steam powered electric system in New York City in 1880. By 1887, electricity was being generated for general consumption by the Key West Electric and Gas Company in the island s first private steam powered plant.
The importance of a large supply of coal is apparent when you consider Key West s location. Most of the steam powered ships traveling the East Coast of the United States headed for Caribbean, South American or Gulf of Mexico destinations stopped in Key West to provision their ships and stock up on coal and water for the rest of the journey. A good example of this took place with the flight of thousands of prospectors to the California Gold Rush in the 1850s. The fastest way from the East Coast of the United States to California was to catch a steam ship and travel to Nicaragua, cross the continent on foot, and catch a ship on the Atlantic side of North America to continue your trip to San Francisco. One of the few fueling stops for steam ships along the way was Key West.