the first European visitor to Key West was Ponce de Leon while native peoples populated or at least used the island prior to his arrival. when de Leon’s men arrived, bones covered the island, possibly from a battle or because it served as a burial ground, which prompted them to call it Cayo Hueso, or Bone Island. when Florida became a Spanish colony, the island became a fishing village and small garrison. original Spanish settlers relocated to Cuba following when Britain claimed control, but back-and-forth between the powers resulted in a lack of oversight of the island for a significant portion of the 18th and early 19th centuries. at various points in its early history, the island was sold simultaneously to two men who subsequently fought one another; a military officer controlled the island using martial law as a military dictator; served as a strategic salvage village on a crucial deep-water channel through the Gulf of Mexico.
during the 1800s, immigrants from the Bahamas, known as Conchs, began to populate the island. today Key West is often referred to as the “Conch Republic,” with it’s own flag and strong sense of identity among natives (and accepted “freshwater” transplants). they were later joined by all manner of famous and infamous Americans, from Dr. Samuel Mudd to Ernest Hemingway to Jimmy Buffett to Harry S Truman.
Key West has long served as an important military and shipping outpost, as it sits on the northern edge of Florida Straits, separating the Atlantic from the Gulf. there’s a Naval Air Station on Boca Chica Key, where pilots train; the USS Maine sailed from there to its fate and the outbreak of the Spanish-American War; all number of cruise ships dock in the port before heading to more Caribbean locales. all those non-native short-term visitors certainly don’t help the feeling that the town is something of an unapologetic tourist trap though, as I mentioned before, if you get away from Duval Street and Mallory Square, it doesn’t seem like a bad place to while away some time.
travel is all about trying new things, sometimes simply by virtue of being someplace new, but also because it brings you into contact with all kinds of new people who are involved in all kinds of different activities. take my second trip to Las Vegas, for example (it was the second, wasn’t it? or the third?), friends of the friends I was visiting were heading out to Lake Mead on their boat. those of you who have known me for long enough understand that I grew up in a canoe-outing, fishing-off-a-pontoon-boat type family and this was my first experience on a personal motor boat.
the coolest thing about being on the water was coming up to the back side of the Hoover Dam. on my previous trip to Vegas, we walked across the top of the dam and took in the looooooooong view down to the surface of the Colorado River at the base. construction lasted from 1931-1935 but the location had been scouted as a location for a potential dam beginning at the turn of the century. increasing population resulted in increasing demands for reliable irrigation systems and electricity. at the time construction began, Las Vegas claimed roughly 5,000 residents and somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 unemployed workers descended in hopes of getting a job on the project. at its peak, just over 5,200 people were on the payroll (which, by terms of the contract, expressly prohibited Chinese labor and, by practice, included no more than 30 black people). not surprisingly, extreme weather and harsh working conditions led to the death of 112 laborers during the course of the project; the first man died in 1922 while scouting the location and his son was the last man to die, exactly thirteen years later. the official record doesn’t include deaths marked down as “pneumonia,” which workers claimed the company used to avoid compensating families for what was actually carbon monoxide poisoning from tunnels (which reached upwards of 140 degrees).
it’s been years now since I visited (four? five?) and I wonder how much lower the water levels have gotten. spillways run along either bank but they’ve only been used twice — once in 1941 to test their functionality and once in 1983 due to natural flooding. following both uses, engineers found major damage to the concrete lining of the spillway tunnels and the underlying rock. the cause each time was the same — cavitation — and, in theory that’s now been fixed. like I said, though, who knows if or when the Colorado River will raise to sufficient levels to test the spillways out. not any time soon, judging by how contentious an issue water has become out west.