|Key West Shipwreck Historeum and Museum –
The Shipwreck Historeum in Key West is full of exhibits of real live treasure from the wrecks of Key West’s history. The museum features a famous and lucrative wreck called the Isaac Allerton. The ship got caught in a hurricane and eventually smashed into Washer Woman Shoals in August 1856. She sank in very deep water so salvage was difficult. Nevertheless, the take was big, and around $50,000 worth of cargo was brought up. The ship was 137 feet long and weighed 594 tons and was built in Portsmouth, New Hampshire in 1838. Her usual routes as a cargo ship were throughout the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico and the North Atlantic Ocean. The Historeum has Italian marble from the Isaac Allerton, which was on its way to New Orleans for the Customs house there. You can see pictures of the beautiful Corinthian capitals and large columns in the museum. The guide says there is still some marble down on the ocean floor, but it’s so heavy and what can you do with it so nobody bothers to bring it up.
The Shipwreck Historeum does a good job of explaining the job of the wreckers and how they played a large role in the hisory of Key West. The salvage industry was very profitable and lots of people got rich in the business. For example, a ship carrying a load of one hundred pianos wrecked and suddenly lots of people in Key West had pianos! The museum points out that during the heyday of shipping, around one hundred ships a day passed Key West and at least one wrecked per week on the reef in front of the Florida Keys. The wreckers constructed observation towers, like the one at the Shipwreck Historeum. You can see the tower in the pictures below. When a wrecker spotted a wreck, he’d yell and his crew would race to get out there first. The frist wrecker on the scene was the master of the wreck and got to control the salvaging operations. He also go more of the loot, but wreckers didn’t get all of the loot. Key West had wrecking courts and a judge would decide how much everyone got, and sell the rest for profit at auction.
The salvage industry made Key West one of the richest cities in America. With the invention of railroads and with more navigational aids set up on the reef, the wrecks stopped happening and wrecking died out. The wrecking courts were closed in 1921.
The Shipwreck Historeum displays items from the wrecking courts. They’ve set up the main floor to look like a typical wrecking warehouse from that era. You can even climb the 65-foot observation tower for the best view in Key West. There’s a loud wrecker’s bell up there which kids love to ring. You can see out over the island of Key West, all of Sunset Key, and the streets below in a panoramic view. It’s one of the best spots to get good pictures.