WOW, Long time since I have made a post. Melissa has been doing a very nice job posting as of late. My long awaited post on the history of Key Biscayne Florida is here.

The little barrier island of Key Biscayne is right off the Florida coast next to Miami. It is not part of the “Florida Keys”. As you may recall they are at the extreme southern end of Florida and are made up of ancient coral. Key Biscayne is made up of millions of years of sand, and debris deposits, just like most of Florida is. It is also very small about 1 mile wide and 5 miles long.

A thousand years before Columbus sailed, the “Tequesta” inhabited the island. They were coastal fisherman, and navigated in there dug out canoes between the island and the mainland. The first to really discover this area was “Juan Ponce De Leon” in 1513 as he was sailing from Puerto Rico to find cities of gold. He landed here because of the islands distinctive location and the fresh water and firewood here, then claimed it for Spain and called it “Santa Marta”. The king of Spain then gave the island to Pedro Fornelis a native of Minorea.

Ponce De Leon

Ruthless Killer

But 50 years later in 1563 the ruthless Pedro Menendez de Avila took refuge from a hurricane on the Key. Avila had been on an expedition ordered by the King of Spain in which he was to establish the settlement of St. Augustine and massacre any French protestant “heretics” nearby. Avila established relations with the Tequesta. A mission was built, with Jesuit priests and soldiers left behind to ensure the heathen Tequesta became proper Christians. Before long the Tequesta and their new Spanish friends weren’t getting along, and well, you can guess how that one ended. During the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, many a Spanish galleon laden with gold met its demise on the treacherous shoals and reefs off Key Biscayne . Much of the treasure is still yet to be found. At some point, the place became known as Vizcaya (Biscayne) when a sailor from that Iberian region was shipwrecked on the island. Hence the name.

It was a prominent landmark for the earliest navigators in American waters. In the mid 1700’s pirates ruled the area, and made the island there home as it had fresh water and a hidden harbor. Any ships not escorted by war ships were easy prey. Not till the first part of the 1800’s did the fledgeling U. S. navy get ride of them. By that time Spain ceded Florida to the United States in 1821. As a result of this, Mary Ann Davis of St. Augustine purchased the island from the Fornelis family for $100. The Davis family sold three acres to the U.S. Government for a military reservation for $225. 1822 saw the first light house put up at the southern most end of the island. Times were tough then on this tiny island with even the light house being burned down in 1836 as part of the Seminole Indian war down here. In 1847 it was rebuilt farther inland and made 95 feet tall. During the Civil war it went back and forth in Union and Confederate hands till finally just before the war ended it fell into Union hands for good.

Up until almost 1900 there we few people on the island besides the light house keeper and family. However in 1893 a guy by the name of Waters Smith Davis(Son of Mary Ann Davis) inherited the little island. He surveyed the land cut timber down ,and built a house on the southern end called “Cape house”. The first private water front home here. He then planted a huge pineapple and coconut plantation, which covered most of the island. . In the early 1900s, Dr. William John Matheson sailed his yacht from New York to Key Biscayne, befriended Mr. Davis, began buying up land and soon began draining swamps and building roads. A unnamed 1926 hurricane however submerged the island as the eye passed directly over the Key. Restoring the plantation was costly to the Mathesons. W.J. Matheson died of a heart attack in 1930. He had divided the ownership of his land into a northern half and southern half. Each of his three children, Hugh, Malcolm and Nan (Ana Wood), owned one-third of each section. The plantation was not pretty much destroyed. In the 1940s’ then County Commissioner, Charles Crandon, persuaded W.J. Matheson’s heirs to donate 680 acres of the island for a county park called ” Crandon Park” on the northern tip of the island, in exchange for a bridge. When the Rickenbacker Causeway opened, it sparked a boom. Also In the 1940s the island was the location for several movies including “They Were Expendable” with John Wayne. The films capitalized on the Key’e appearance of South Seas islands with its groves of palm trees.

In 1950, the Mackle Company purchased Nan’s southern third of the middle of the Key and built 289 cement block homes targeted to veterans with attractive financing. Also built on the ocean were the Key Biscayne Villas, later to become the Key Biscayne Hotel and Villas. A shopping center was built and land was donated for a school. With great success, the Mackle brothers – Frank, Bob and Elliot – purchased more land and developed more homes up to Heather Drive Even today they make up more than half the single-family houses on the island. The Key Biscayne Hotel opened in 1952. Today the remaining “Mackles” homes are well over a million dollars to purchase.

The Key Biscayne Hotel and Villas hosted many famous celebrities and politicians. Vice President Richard Nixon stayed there and was part of a famous meeting with John Kennedy occurred when Kennedy defeated Nixon in 1960. When Nixon was elected President he established the “Winter White House”, a compound of Bay Lane properties on Biscayne Bay .Key Biscayne had become the “Island Paradise”

As the village grew, it needed more space, a massive sub division was planned for the bottom third of the island. A man by the name of Bill Baggs got wind of this and wrote a series of articles, on why it should be turned into a park, a state park better yet. So the sub division was off, and in 1966 the state bought the lower park of Key Biscayne and opened Bill Baggs Cape Florida State park. A far cry from what it is today however, not many roads into it, not even a good beach, NO BEACH. The park was covered in Austrailian pines which are dirty and nasty trees. The draw however wad the light house, which a lot of people wanted to see. In 1978 it was rebuilt again, modified, a new keepers cottage, and some trails put in. As the years rolled by the village grew, with more people coming in to visit and live.

Proposed subdivision

Then in 1992 everyone’s little quaint world here came to an end. Around here they call it pre 1992 or post 1992, WHY, Hurricane Andrew, that’s why. It decide to pay a visit to the little island paradise, which was not a paradise after it left. The cat 5 hurricane saw the northern eyewall of the storm hit Key Biscayne hit right at Bill Baggs, and inundated the area, wiped out almost all of the invasive Australian trees, along with everything else. However it was a blessing in disguise. Although it took years to get ride of all the trees and set up the park as it is today, it did one fantastic thing, where there was really no beach there became a beautiful sandy beach along the Atlantic side of the island,. today it is still one of the top 10 beaches to visit in the country. How do you like that, Nature at it’s worst and finest.

So there you have a condensed version of the history of Key Biscayne.


  1. Sandy

    I’m so glad the area developed into what it is today. The history of all the early explorers sailing seems like such a chore. I wonder if they ever just enjoyed being on the open water like we do these days. Guess always the unknown of what they’d find would keep them from enjoying the pleasure of the water. Or maybe they did enjoy it. Let’s hope they did.

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