56. Salt Production

Historic Marker #56 is located at 2100 Flagler Avenue between 3rd and 4th Streets. The marker is in front of the sign for Key West High School.

In the 1880s, Richard Fitzpatrick, a local businessman, began an industry that capitalized on sea salt, one of the very few natural resources we have on the island. At the time, before the advent of refrigeration, there was a daily demand for salt because it was one of the few food preservatives available.

Recognizing a business opportunity, Fitzpatrick, the only auctioneer for the ship wreckers' auctions, and a wealthy man, decided to start the salt production industry in Key West. In 1830 he leased 100 acres of wetlands on the southeast end of the island from John Whitehead, dubbing it the "Salt Ponds."

Fitzpatrick divided the land into large compartments called drying pans. Two feet high coral rock walls with wooden floodgates divided each pan. The pans were filled with seawater from the incoming tides. As the water evaporated a thin coat of salt film remained in the pans. By repeating this process over the course of several weeks or months, the salt in the pans would increase until it could be raked from the bottom of the pan and shoveled into bushels ready for the market.

This could be a very profitable business, particularly when there was a below average rainfall. An average year would yield between 15,000 and 25,000 bushels of salt. The highest industry yield was 75,000 bushels in a single year. Nonetheless, it was a tricky business to control, because with any rain the profits could be literally washed away.

Fitzpatrick abandoned the sea salt industry after four short years. He was followed by a succession of salt farm entrepreneurs right up until the Civil War. Production ceased during the war years but resumed after the confrontation ended. Key West continued to produce sea salt for local consumption and export until 15,000 bushels of salt were washed away during the 1876 hurricane. The storm ended the business of salt production through evaporation for Key West.