58. Wreckers

Historic Marker number 58 is located at 402 Wall Street on the corner of the Historic Memorial Sculpture Garden.

Wrecking is the name of an industry that we commonly call marine salvage today. Its origins can be traced back to man's first attempts to travel the oceans of the world.

The Florida Keys and Key West are well situated for a wrecker. A line of reefs and shallow shoals run parallel to the Florida Keys from the southeast of the Florida coast to southwest of Key West. If that isn't enough of an obstacle for a mariner, dangerous shoals run from Key West to the Dry Tortugas. The reefs and shoals are 200 miles long and have taken their toll on many an unlucky ship.

Ships of all types started wrecking along the Florida Keys as soon as Europeans reached the New World in the 1500s. For many centuries wrecking proved an important economic activity for the Florida Keys. The success of the wrecking industry is key to how a small island located 140 miles from the mainland had the largest population in Florida and amassed the greatest wealth per capita in the United States from the Civil War until the turn of the twentieth century.

By the early 1600s, the Spanish started losing ships traveling to and from the New World along the treacherous reefs. Many of the ships were large treasure galleons headed from South America to Spain.

The most famous ship wreck was part of a twenty eight ship convoy of Spanish treasure ships blown onto the reefs by a hurricane in 1622. The Spanish government spent twenty one year's salvaging the fleet but never located the Nuesta Senora de Atocha.

Mel Fisher, a modern American wrecker, discovered the ship on July 20th, 1985. His company has been salvaging gold coins, jewelry, and precious stones from the wreck ever since.

The standard tools of a wrecker was a fast ship with a shallow draft, chains, grappling hooks, heavy anchors, rope, block and tackle, along with supplies to make emergency repairs to refloat a ship or cargo for transport to Key West.

During the mid-nineteenth century there was an average of one shipwreck a week. In 1848 there were a total of forty eight ships recorded that became victim to the reefs or strong storms.

Wrecking was a very lucrative business. Salvaged ships and cargo was brought to market in Key West and a portion of the auction proceeds, approximately twenty percent, were awarded to the wrecker and his crew. By the 1830s, sixty to ninety percent of all exports from Florida came from the wrecking industry.

There is a popular fable that unscrupulous wreckers were known to use “false lights” to lure a ship onto a reef at night. The reality is that mariners interpret a light in the distance as indicating land and avoid them if they cannot identify the source of the illumination. In hundreds of admiralty court cases heard at the Custom House, (see Historic Marker # 71 for additional information), no captain of a shipwreck ever charged that he had been led astray by a false light.

In 1822, in an effort to curb the loss of ships, the United States appropriated funding to build a series of lighthouses and position light ships to warn mariners of the submerged dangers of the Florida Keys. The number of shipwrecks were greatly diminished but were not eliminated. Even with modern navigation and a series of lighthouses along the coast, ships are occasionally grounded. While the reefs provide a vital link to the beauty and prosperity of Florida Keys, they have a history that all mariners have come to fear and respect.