Work on the Overseas Railway started in 1905 to connect Key West with the Florida East Coast Railway. A distance of 128 miles. The rail operated from 1912 to 1935, when it was destroyed by the Labor Day Hurricane, which was a Catagory 5.
The Florida East Coast Railway was already broke, so the rails were not repaired and the infrastructure was given to the state of Florida. The Overseas Roadway was then built, using much of the old rail supports, but adding a second deck in sections where the rail deck was too narrow.
A Florida East Coast Railway locomotive going to Key West in 1928
In the heart of Old Town Key West is the home that Ernest Hemingway owned with his second wife, Pauline. I was overwhelmed by the mass of humanity in Key West, so after Fort Taylor, I parked the car, swung in to the Waterfront Brewery for a pint or two of encouragement, and walked over to Hemingway’s old home.
Hemingway’s house today
Entry is $13, no credit cards, and there was an optional tour, which I joined.
Hemingway lived in the house from 1931 to 1939 with Pauline and second son, Patrick. In 1939, Ernest and Pauline separated, with Pauline staying in the house with the children, but Ernest apparently kept the title.
It was also the home to Snow White, the original six-toed cat.
When Ernest died in 1961, the museum bought the house directly from the estate, which is the reason much of the furnishings are original to the home.
Hemingway’s writing studio
Hemingway wrote several of his best work while living at the Key West home, including: The Snows of Kilimanjaro, The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber, To Have and Have Not and Green Hills of Africa. It should be noted that Hemingway, himself, thought To Have and Have Not was his worst. Film director Howard Hawks bet Hemingway that he could make a film out of his worst work. Howard Hughes paid Hemingway $10,000 for the rights to “To Have and Have Not”, then sold those rights to Hawks for $80,000. William Faulkner wrote the screenplay, which is loosely based on Hemingway’s work. It is the only time a Pulitzer winner wrote the screenplay based on the work from another Pulitzer winner.
The house was the first to have running water in Key West and the first home with a working second story bathroom in all of South Florida, this was due to a cistern on the roof.
It was also the first pool for over 100 miles in the late 1930’s. Pauline had the pool installed, when Ernest was a correspondent covering the Spanish Civil War in 1938. The pool cost $20,000 at that time; they had paid $8000 for the house and property originally. When Ernest returned from Spain, and found out the cost of the pool, he reportedly said, “Well, you might as well have my last cent.” Then promptly handed Pauline a penny. The penny is laid into the concrete near the pool. I did not take a photo of the penny, but I believe it is a 1934 edition.
Amusingly, there is a fountain for the cats installed by Hemingway. The jar is from Cuba, and the tank on the ground is a urinal from Sloppy Joe’s bar down the street, which was going through a renovation when Ernest was in the market for a cat fountain. Sloppy Joe’s is still right down the street.
The house was built in 1851 by Asa Tift. The structure’s walls are 18″ thick limestone, quarried from the property. That gave the house a basement, a very rare thing in the Keys. The house site was carefully chosen; it is the second highest site on Key West at 16′ above sea level. The average height of the Keys is only 5′ above sea level. The house has survived many hurricanes and the basement has yet to see water.
I believe there are 53 cats on the property, all decedents of Snow White. A visitor to the museum in 2009 expressed concern for the welfare of the cats, and Federal litigation ensued. A vet now checks in on the cats once a week.