Marathon (on Key Vaca)
The first historical mention of Key Vaca is its appearance on a Spanish map of the Keys in the 1500s. Vaca is the Spanish word for "cow", and it is thought that the island was named for the manatees or "sea cows" that lived in abundance there.
About 50 years after Columbus' first voyage, a thirteen-year-old Spanish sailor by the name of Hernando Escalante Fontanada, on his way to Spain from Cartagena, was shipwrecked near "Cayo Vaca" and was captured by the Indians who lived there. After about eighteen years in captivity, he was freed by some crewmembers of a passing ship and returned to Spain where he wrote an account of his experiences with the Indians. Although this is the only written account we have of that period in the Keys, historians believe that Fontonada wrote his story many years after leaving the New World when his memory of events may have faded. Much of what he wrote is very puzzling. He tells us that the Indians of the Keys were a large people and the women were attractive. The men wore loincloths woven of palm and women wore short skirts made from Spanish moss.
In the early 1800s, Marathon was settled by a group of Bahamians and several families from Mystic, Connecticut involved in fishing. In the 1820s, a small group of wreckers moved in and Key Vaca became known as one of the first three settlements in the Keys, along with Key West and Indian Key. The Bahamians were there to farm the land and produced sea island cotton as well as several different types of fruits.
One of the most prominent pioneers in the Florida Keys outside of Key West was Captain Temple Pent who, because of the respect people had for him, was also known as Squire Pent. Born in the Bahamas in 1794, he began his career at sea at a very early age. Because he served aboard several Bahamian turtling and wrecking boats, he soon became familiar with the waters of southern Florida and the Keys. In fact, when he was only sixteen, he began to clear and cultivate a tract of land in the area below Miami now known as Coconut Grove.
Although he married and began to raise his family in Nassau, he became a U.S. Citizen in 1821 and moved his family to the land he was cultivating south of Miami. During this time, Capt. Pent's reputation became known to Commodore Porter, who was head of the antipiracy squadron of the U.S. Navy, based in Key West. He engaged Capt. Pent as the official pilot for local waters in the Keys.
When government pressure to remove the Seminoles to a reservation in the west mounted, the Seminoles became very hostile toward the settlers of southern Florida. Capt. Pent decided to move his family to the safety of Key Vacas (as Key Vaca was then called), where there was a growing community of Bahamian farmers and fishermen.
In 1836, Capt. Pent and the other settlers of Key Vacas received news that Jacob Housman, a disreputable wrecking captain and owner of Indian Key, had lobbied the state legislature to divide Monroe County into two parts. The northern part was named Dade County and began at Bahia Honda and extended into the Miami area. The Key Vacas settlers found themselves, without their consent, under the control of a new set of county officials, many of them lackeys of Housman. Pent and others signed a petition to have the county division rescinded, but they were unsuccessful. That same year, Capt. Pent was appointed Inspector of Elections, and began to assume a position of leadership in the community.
Although all the Pent men were mariners, they also farmed to supply their families with fresh vegetables and fruits. In 1839, Dr. Henry Perrine, a temporary settler on Indian Key, visited Key Vacas and interested them in experimenting with commercial crops. They began small, but Perrine was hopeful that their example would interest the rest of the Bahamian settlers to invest get involved with the project. By 1840, their population numbered around 200.
But Dr. Perrine's life, as well as his dream, ended with his murder during the Indian Key Massacre of the Second Seminole War. In 1840, most of the settlers abandoned Key Vacas in fear of their lives, after hearing of the massacre on Indian Key. But the Pents were among those who decided to remain there.
With the destruction of Indian Key, Key Vacas became the population center of Dade County, and Capt. Pent was a principal contributor to its growth. In 1841, he was elected delegate to the territorial House of Representatives and served three successive terms. In 1845, he was elected representative of the Southern District of Florida in the territorial Senate. In later years, although he maintained his residence on Key Vacas, he was appointed as principal keeper of the Cape Florida Lighthouse on Key Biscayne. The population began to dwindle until, when the census was taken after the Civil War, there were only two residents left on Key Vacas.
Then came Flagler's railroad, and the workers who came along with it enlarged the population and named their small town Marathon. By 1910 there were 600 people living there and on nearby Pigeon Key . Marathon became an administrative center for the growing railroad which by 1909, was operating between there and Miami.
The small town of Marathon boasted a two-story hotel, built near the sight of the current Marathon Yacht Club. In order to reach Key West, Cuba, or other islands in the Caribbean, passengers would head for the ferry that left the Knight's Key terminus of the Overseas Railroad to complete their journey. Then, in 1912, the Overseas Railroad finally made its way into Key West and the settlers of Marathon began to leave. By 1920, only a few residents remained.
Still, Marathon remained an important fishing area as the Miami Ice and Fish Company bought catches from hundreds of local boats operating in the area, quickly iced them down and loaded them on the trains headed for Miami.
The Great Hurricane of 1935 destroyed the Overseas Railroad and it was decided to use the remaining railroad bed to build a highway connecting Key West to the mainland. It's completion in 1938 enabled tourist traffic to again enter the Keys and Marathon became a resort and sport-fishing destination.
Today, the residents of Marathon maintain a laid-back attitude, strive to maintain the Keys natural habitat, and are proud to be far removed from the tourist areas of Key West, Key Largo and Miami.
Originally called Rattlesnake Key by the Spanish explorers, Long Key was deeded by the Spanish government to Don Francisco Ferreira, a St. Augustine resident, in 1814, as a reward for his service to the crown. Ferreira sold the island to Charles Howe, a resident of Indian Key, for $1500 in 1827. Howe, who in 1938 was the postmaster at Indian Key, went into partnership with Dr. Henry Perrine, a botanist from the mainland. They planned to plant a mulberry grove in hopes of starting a silk industry in the Keys. Dr. Perrine was killed in the massacre at Indian Key in 1840 before anything developed.
Two men purchased the island in 1880 and planted it with coconuts. In 1884, two brothers from New York bought the island which, by then, boasted of 17,000 coconut palms growing there. And in 1906, when the new Overseas Railroad reached Long Key, Henry Flagler thought the plantation so beautiful, that he bought it and created a fabulous fishing camp. The camp had a lodge, clubhouse, post office, and fourteen guest cottages connected by wooden boardwalk. Among the famous fishermen who stayed there were novelist Zane Gray, Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt.
The Long Key Fishing Club, the beautiful coconut grove, and the Overseas Railroad were destroyed in the Labor Day hurricane of 1935, and the fishing club was later rebuilt near the original site. It continued to attract many celebrities like Ted Williams, Jackie Gleason, Arthur Godfrey, Mike Douglas, and President Jimmy Carter. The Club met its end when Long Key was turned into a state park in 1969. The Long Key Fishing Club is remembered with a historical marker, located on US1 around Mile Marker 66.