Florida Waterfront Communities' Commercial Fishing Heritage
Cedar Key lies at the end of a long road tethering it to a mainland shore popularly known as the Nature Coast, one of Florida's most pristine stretches, protected by refuges and jotted with small fishing villages. Located in Levy County, Cedar Key’s population was 790 at the 2000 census.
Prior to 1896 the city of Cedar Key was located on Asenta Otie Island. Asenta Otie was used by the Spanish as a way station for treasure ships on return trips from Mexico to Spain. Ships picked up fresh water and drop ballast in the harbor before circling the tip of Florida on their return trips with gold from Mexico. The area was patrolled by pirates Jean Lafitte and Captain Kidd.
During the Second Seminole War, Cantonment Morgan, a U.S. government military hospital and internment camp for Indians, was located on nearby Seahorse Key. Indians were shipped from Seahorse Key to Indian reservations in the western United States. In 1851, by order of the President, Seahorse Key was reserved as a lighthouse site. On August 1, 1854, the light was first lit to guide shipping in and out of Cedar Key.
The first census of Florida as an American Territory was taken in 1830. Among the first settlers listed was David Yulee Levy. On May 26, 1845, two months after Florida became a state, voters elected David Levy to be Florida's first elected member of Congress.Levy County was named for him during this same year.
David Yulee (his last name being officially changed to Yulee in 1845) was instrumental in the building of the first railroad in Florida. Development for the trans-Florida railroad began in 1844 and was completed on March 1, 1861. The Florida Railroad Company built a 155-mile line that ran from Fernandina Beach on the Atlantic to Cedar Key on the Gulf of Mexico.
During the Civil War, Cedar Key was occupied by Federal forces on January 15, 1862. In March of that same year, Federal forces took Fernandina. The railroad was basically closed down for the duration of the war. Seahorse Key was used to house prisoners. Skirmishes were fought between Federal and Confederate forces at Number Four Bridge on the outskirts of Cedar Key. Federal forces would also make frequent raids up the railroad and Suwannee River to confiscate cotton and cattle. In the final days of the Civil War what was left of the Confederate treasury was brought by train to David Yulee's plantation (Cottonwood) near Archer. When Federal troops caught up with the train, it was empty. Rumors and tales of the treasury's disappearance abound in the area.
In 1865 the Eberhard Faber mill was built on Atsena Otie Key. The Eagle Pencil Company mill was built on Way Key, and Way Key, with its railroad terminal, passed Atsena Otie Key in population.
Cedar Key was one of the primary population centers during the frontier days of Florida. Produce was shipped down the Mississippi River and then carried across the Gulf of Mexico to Cedar Key. Here the produce was off loaded to boxcars and transported across the state to Fernandina Beach and then north to population centers in the Northeastern United States. This travel path allowed avoidance of the dangerous trip around the tip of Florida during hurricane season. Cedar Key again became a shipping point for produce, cedar, and seafood. Its population grew to around 10,000 people. Faber and Eagle Pencil Companiesoperated factories on Asenta Otie and Way Keys. The vast stands of cedar that covered the islands and the nearby coast supplied the companies with the raw materials needed to produce quality pencils for the world.
On September 23, 1896, a hurricane wiped out the town of Cedar Key. All that remains on its original site is a graveyard on Asenta Otie Island. Buildings were floated by barge across the channel separating Asentie Otie and Way Key and the town was reestablished. Unfortunately, Faber and the Eagle Pencil Company moved elsewhere, leaving the forests depleted. Though still shipping seafood over the railroad, the economy of Cedar Key declined and its population moved elsewhere. Cedar Key became a small fishing village.
Commercial clamming has become the primary industry for the community. After a statewide ban on large scale net fishing went into effect July 1, 1995, a government retraining program helped many local fishermen begin farming clams in the muddy waters. Today, Cedar Key's clam-based aquaculture is a multimillion-dollar industry.
The old-fashioned fishing village is now a tourist center with several regionally famous seafood restaurants and has become a haven for artists and writers who find the unspoiled environment inspirational to their work. Retirees and artists from throughout the United States have settled in Cedar Key. Many people visit each year to walk the historic streets browse the shops and galleries, explore the back bayous and enjoy the world-famous restaurants featuring seafood fresh from local waters.
Composed of shallow saltwater estuaries rather than sandy beaches, the island group provides the habitat of choice for fish of many varieties. Once the pencil industry had decimated the cedar population, the region turned its economic attention to fishing and seafood remains its main industry, form of recreation and culinary offering.
The town of Cedar Key itself occupies Way Key, the only inhabited island of the chain. From there, you can catch charters or kayak out to some of the other islands to observe remnants of historic settlement -- a lighthouse and military installations -- and throngs of birds. The rookery at Seahorse Key hosts nesting brown pelicans, egrets, herons and ibis and is off-limits during the nesting season, March through June. In addition to excellent fishing, bird-watching and nearby nature trails, guides are available to take parties for off-shore trips to the outer islands. A public marina with boat docking is available.
Federally protected sanctuaries, the Cedar Keys form a chain of barrier islands ideally suited to a vast range of migratory and shore birds, including the elusive white pelican, roseate spoonbill and bald eagle. The variety of natural habitats, from salt marshes to Indian shell mounds, makes this truly a nature lover's paradise.
Cedar Key, which still looks like a frontier town in places, has developed a reputation for its artisan shops and seafood restaurants along Dock Street. Commercial fishermen farm clams, which have become a culinary icon. Artists and artisans fill galleries with sea-themed works.
Off the waterfront, quiet streets hold a historic inn, fishing cottages, modern condominiums, and Cedar Key Museum State Park, which looks back at the islands' eras of sponging, shipbuilding, fishing and pencil making.
The USDA named the City of Cedar Key as Florida’s Rural Community of the Year for 2009.
Credit for pictures accompanying this article goes to the Cedar Key Historical Society. The Cedar Key Historical Society and the Cedar Key Museum were established in 1977 and 1979, respectively. The Museum consists of two historical buildings (Lutterloh building and the Andrews House) containing exhibits, extensive archives and photographs on Cedar Key's remarkable history.
- Museum of Florida History