76. The Ferry Terminal

Historic Marker number 76 is located at the end of Grinnell Street at the Historic Seaport.

Key West's history is intertwined with the legacy of thousands of ships that traveled from hundreds of countries. For over two centuries they have converged in its world-famous ports and docks.

Before the completion of Henry Flagler's Overseas Railroad in 1912, Key West was dependent on seagoing vessels. All building materials, essentials of life, visitors, and residents traveled to the Florida Keys by water.

In the vast array of magnificent sailing ships, ocean-going steamers, fishing boats and small working skiffs, ferryboats cannot be overlooked. Over the years there have been a number of ferry services that emerged as Keys transportation needs arose.

One of the most noteworthy uses of ferries involved Flagler's Overseas Railroad. A critical component of Flagler's vision of rail service from the mainland to Cuba was the use of large ocean-going ferries that carried train cars and their passengers from Key West across the 90-mile Gulf Stream waters to Cuba.

In 1935 the Middle Keys were hit with the brunt of the Labor Day Hurricane. A large section of the railway was washed away by a tidal surge that destroyed Islamorada and damaged much of the upper Keys.

Ferry service between the damaged islands and along the abandoned train bridges was essential for keeping the Keys mobile and connected until the rail trestles could be converted to a concrete roadway called the Overseas Highway.

In the aftermath of the hurricane, Key West was only accessible by plane or ships. Car barges, pulled by service boats, were employed to span a number of gaps between the upper Keys. However, they proved unreliable, as they were prone to running aground in the shallow waters between the islands.

Eventually, two Mississippi River ferries were used to carry cars, trucks, and passengers between temporary roads that stretched west from Key Largo and east from Key West towards the mainland. It took four hours in open water for the ferries to complete the journey.

Today, Key West's ferry service consists of three catamaran passenger ferries that travel from Ft. Myers to Key West. The trip takes 3.5 hours each way. While the new ferries are geared for tourists, they harken back to a day when ferries were the transportation lifelines of the Florida Keys.