History of Cedar Key 2017-01-26T16:21:41+00:00

Cedar Key aerial shot

Cedar Key is a city in Levy County, Florida, United States. The population was 790 at the 2000 census. According to the U.S Census estimates of 2005, the city had a population of 958.

The Cedar Keys are a cluster of islands close to the mainland. Most of the developed area of the city has been on Way Key since the end of the 19th century. The Cedar Keys are named for the Eastern Red Cedar, Juniperus virginiana, which once grew abundantly in the area.


While evidence suggests human occupation as far back as 500 BC, the first maps of the area date to 1542, at which point it was labeled “Las Islas Sabines” by a Spanish cartographer.

An archaeological dig at Shell Mound, 9 miles (14 km) north of Cedar Key, found artifacts dating back to 500 BC in the top 10 feet (3.0 m) of the 28-foot-tall (8.5 m) mound. The only ancient burial found in Cedar Key was a 2,000-year-old skeleton found in 1999.

Arrow heads and spear points dating from the Paleo period (12,000 years old) were collected by Cedar Key historian St. Clair Whitman and are displayed at the Cedar Key Museum State Park.

The Cedar Keys were used by Seminole Indians, by the Spanish as a watering stop for ships returning to Spain from Mexico and by pirates, such as Jean Lafitte and Captain Kidd.

Followers of William Augustus Bowles, self-declared “Director General of the State of Muskogee,” built a watchtower in the vicinity of Cedar Key in 1801. The tower was destroyed by a Spanish force in 1802.

Permanent historic occupation of the islands began in 1839, when the United States Army, led by General Zachary Taylor, established “Fort No. 4”, which served as a depot and included a hospital, on Depot Key (later known as Atsena Otie Key) during the Second Seminole War.

A hurricane with a 27-foot (8.2 m) storm surge struck the Cedar Keys on October 4, 1842, destroying Cantonment Morgan and causing much damage on Depot Key. Some Seminole leaders had been meeting with Army officers at Depot Key to negotiate their surrender or a retreat to a reservation in the Everglades.

After the hurricane, the Seminoles refused to return to the area. Colonel William J. Worth had declared the war to be over in August 1842, and Depot Key was abandoned by the Army after the hurricane.

In 1842 the United States Congress had enacted the Armed Occupation Act, a precursor of the Homestead Act, to increase white settlement in Florida as a way of forcing the Seminoles to leave the territory. With the abandonment of the Army base on Depot Key, the Cedar Keys became available for settlement under the act.

Augustus Steele, U.S. Customs House Officer for Hillsborough County, Florida and postmaster for Tampa Bay, received the permit for Depot Key, which he then renamed Atsena Otie Key. In 1843 he bought the buildings on the island, and built some cottages for wealthy guests.   The Florida legislature chartered the “City of Atseena Otie” in 1859.

Cedar Key quickly became an important port, shipping lumber and naval stores harvested on the mainland. By 1860 two mills on Atsena Otie Key were producing ‘cedar’ slats for shipment to northern pencil factories. As a result of the growth, the U.S. Congress appropriated money for a lighthouse on Seahorse Key in 1850. The Cedar Key Light was completed in 1854.

The lighthouse lantern is 28 feet (8.5 m) above the ground, but the lighthouse sits on a 47-foot-high (14 m) hill, putting the light 75 feet (23 m) above sea level. The light was visible for 16 miles. Wood-frame residences were added to each side of the lighthouse several years later.

In 1860 Cedar Key became the western terminus of the Florida Railroad, connecting it to Fernandina on the east coast of Florida. David Levy Yulee, U.S. Senator and President of the Florida Railroad, had acquired most of Way Key to house the railroad’s terminal facilities. A town was platted on Way Key in 1859, and Parsons and Hale’s General Store, which is now the Island Hotel, was built there in the same year. On March 1, 1861, the first train arrived in Cedar Key, just weeks before the beginning of the Civil War.

With the advent of the American Civil War in 1861, Confederate agents extinguished the light at Seahorse Key and removed its supply of sperm oil. The USS Hatteras raided Cedar Key in January 1862, burning several ships loaded with cotton and turpentine and destroying the railroad’s rolling stock and buildings on Way Key. Most of the Confederate troops guarding Cedar Key had been sent to Fernandina in anticipation of a Federal attack there. Cedar Key was an important source of salt for the Confederacy during the early part of the war. In October 1862 a Union raid destroyed sixty kettles on Salt Key capable of producing 150 bushels of salt a day. The Union occupied the Cedar Keys in early 1864, staying for the remainder of the war.


Historical 1884 map of Cedar Key.

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. Repairs to the Florida Railroad were completed in 1868 and freight and passenger traffic again flowed into Cedar Key. The “Town of Cedar Keys” was incorporated in 1869, and had a population of 400 in 1870.

Early in his career as a naturalist, John Muir walked 1,000 miles (1,609 km) from Louisville, Kentucky to Cedar Key in just two months in 1867. Muir contracted malaria while working in a sawmill in Cedar Key, and was nursed back to health in the house of the mill’s superintendent. Muir recovered enough to sail from Cedar Key to Cuba in January 1868. He recorded his impressions of Cedar Key in his memoir, A thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf, which was published in 1916, after his death.

When Henry Plant’s railroad to Tampa began service in 1886, Tampa took shipping away from Cedar Key, causing an economic decline in the area. The fourth storm of the 1896 Atlantic hurricane season was the final blow. At approximately 4 a.m. on September 29, 1896, a 10-foot (3.0 m) storm surge swept over the town, killing more than 100 people. Winds north of town were estimated at 125 mph, which would classify it as a category 3.

The hurricane wiped out the juniper trees still standing and destroyed all the mills. A fire on December 2, 1896 further damaged the town. In following years, structures were rebuilt on Way Key, a more protected island inland, but the damage was done. Today, there are a few remnants of the original town on Atsena Otie Key, including stone water cisterns, and a graveyard whose headstones conspicuously date prior to 1896. There are also many of the Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana subsp. silicicola) trees that originally attracted the pencil company, and for which the community was named.

At the start of the twentieth century, fishing, sponge hooking and oystering had become the major industries, but around 1909, the oyster beds were exhausted. President Herbert Hoover established the Cedar Key National Wildlife Refuge in 1929 by naming three of the islands as a breeding ground for colonial birds. The lighthouse was abandoned in 1952, just as the tourism industry began to grow as a result of interest in the historic community, but it remains in use as a marine biology research center by the University of Florida in Gainesville.

The small, old-Florida fishing village is now a tourist center with several regionally famous seafood restaurants. The village holds two festivals a year, the Spring Sidewalk Art Festival and the Fall Seafood Festival, that each attract thousands of visitors to the area.

In 1950, Hurricane Easy, a category 3 storm with 125 mph winds, looped around Cedar Key three times before finally making landfall, dumping 38 inches of rain and destroying two thirds of the homes. Luckily, the storm came ashore at low tide, so the surge was only 5 feet (1.5 m).

Hurricane Elena followed a similar path in 1985, but did not make landfall. Packing 115 mph winds, the storm churned for two days in the Gulf, 50 miles to the west, battering the waterfront. All the businesses and restaurants on Dock Street were either damaged or destroyed and a section of the seawall collapsed.

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 multi-million dollar industry.

A local museum exhibit displays a reproduction of one of the first air conditioning installations. The system, with compressor and fans, was used in Cedar Key to ease the lot of malaria patients.

Cedar Key is home to the George T. Lewis Airport (CDK).

 National historic status

Cedar Key’s importance in Florida’s history, which began as far back as 1000 BC with pre-Columbian habitation of the region, was recognized on October 3, 1989 by the federal government. At that time, 8,000 acres (32 km2) in and around the town were added to the National Register of Historic Places under the title of the Cedar Keys Historic and Archaeological District.

Cedar Key Museum Building

The Cedar Key Museum State Park depicts the town’s 19th century history and displays sea shells and Indian artifacts from the collection of Saint Clair Whitman. Tours of Whitman’s restored 1920s house are available during museum hours. As the museum photo indicates, the building was constructed to withstand the hurricane conditions that the town is subjected to periodically.

See Cedar Key