Historic City on the Nature Coast
Cedar Key is a charming, hospitable and historic city on Florida’s Gulf Coast. Home to around 700 people, it is a popular destination.
Today’s city is located on Way Key, one in a cluster of islands that are collectively known as the Cedar Keys. The other islands in the group include Seahorse Key, Atsena Otie (Depot Key), Snake Key, Scale Key and North Key.
These islands had been used by Native Americans for thousands of years before European vessels began to visit in the 17th century. Merchant and pirate ships saw them as a place of refuge. Fresh water was available and the surrounding waters teemed with shrimp, oysters, fish and other seafood.
The U.S. Army occupied the Cedar Keys during the Second Seminole War. Fort No. 4 was built on the mainland side of today’s No. 4 Channel and the Florida Militia established a depot on Depot Key. The army added a hospital to the military depot in 1840.
Lt. Col. William Davenport established Cantonment Morgan at Seahorse Key on May 6, 1841. His troops from the 1st U.S. Infantry Regiment were being ravaged by fever at Fort Armistead (today’s Sarasota) and Davenport had them moved to the Cedar Keys in hopes of improving their health.
The island also served as a detention camp for Seminole and Creek families that were either captured by or surrendered to the army. The Native Americans boarded ship there to begin their long, tragic journey west on the Trail of Tears.
The military activities at Seahorse and Depot Keys came to a dramatic end with a hurricane on October 4, 1842. A storm surge estimated at 27 feet swept over the islands and demolished the army installations. The U.S. government subsequently opened the Cedar Keys to civilian settlement under the terms of the Armed Occupation Act. It did not take long for a handful of individuals to stake claims on Depot, Way and Scale Keys.
Augustus Steele is generally credited with establishing today’s city of Cedar Key in 1843 when he purchased the surviving buildings of the army post on Depot Key and renamed it Atsena Otie Key. Steele was already the customs collector and postmaster at Tampa when he founded his settlement on Atsena Otie and he retained those positions when he was named customs collector for Cedar Keys in 1844. The town’s post office was designated in 1845, the same year that Florida became a state.
The city was not incorporated until 1859 by which time more than 200 people lived at Atsena Otie. Many of them worked in two lumber mills there that turned the eastern red cedar trees of the islands into slats for shipment to pencil factories in the North. Ships were guided into the harbor by the Cedar Key Light, a 28-foot lighthouse atop a 47-foot hill on Seahorse Key. It was completed in 1854.
Development of today’s city of Cedar Key began in 1859 when a town was platted on Way Key by U.S. Senator David Levy Yulee. The first Jewish member of the U.S. Senate, Yulee was the president of the Florida Railroad. His new town would become the western terminus of the first railroad to connect Florida’s Atlantic Coast with the Gulf of Mexico. A general store built in 1859 still stands today as the historic Island Hotel.
Yulee’s railroad became a reality when the first train rolled into his new community on March 1, 1861. He was no longer a U.S. Senator by that time, having resigned his office on January 21st due to Florida’s secession from the Union.
The Union military moved quickly to shut down the two ends of the Florida Railroad. The USS Hatteras raided Cedar Key in January 1862, destroying railroad facilities, cargo and several buildings. Amelia Island, the Atlantic end of the railroad, was captured two months later.
Union forces came and went from Cedar Key while blockade ships stood guard offshore, but the islands were not fully occupied until 1864 when Federal troops came ashore to establish a base of operations. The Battle of Station Four, which resulted from a raid inland by soldiers from the islands, was fought on the mainland side of the channel on February 13, 1865.
Troops from Cedar Key also took part in the Battle of Natural Bridge near Tallahassee on March 6, 1865.
Cedar Key rebounded quickly following the end of the War Between the States (or Civil War). Eberhard Faber built a new mill on Atsena Otie in 1865 while the Eagle Pencil Company picked Way Key for the location of its operation. The Florida Railroad resumed operation in 1868 and the town was incorporated two years later. The community had a population of 400 by 1870.
The Hurricane of 1896 spelled the end of the original town on Atsena Otie Key. The surviving structures were moved to Way Key and salvaged materials used to expand the city there. The hurricane also devastated what remained of the cedar forests that once covered the island and Cedar Key’s days as a manufacturing port soon came to an end.
The 20th century, however, would see the city reborn in an unexpected way. Naturalist John Muir may have glimpsed this future when he stood on the shore of the Gulf of Mexico in 1867 and gazed out “on the burnished, treeless plain!”
Muir had ended his 1,000 mile walk from Louisville, Kentucky, to the Gulf of Mexico at Cedar Key. He remained there working in the mills for a time but contracted malaria and was nursed back to health in the home of the mill superintendent. He traveled on to Cuba after recovering his health but his book A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf (see below) remains an American classic.
It is the beauty of the natural environment and historic charm of the island that brings visitors to Cedar Key today. President Herbert Hoover established the Cedar Key National Wildlife Refuge in 1929 and it provides vital habitat for herons, brown pelicans, egrets and other birds.
Museums include the Cedar Key Museum State Park and the Cedar Key Museum (two different facilities). There are historic homes and structures, some of the best seafood restaurants in the world, places to stay and a variety of shops and other attractions.
For more information, please visit the Cedar Key Chamber of Commerce at www.cedarkey.org.