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Old Custom House

CIRCA 1833

Historic Marker number 42 is located between at 124 Duval Street between Greene and Front Streets. The history of ship wreck salvage is closely tied to the Old Custom House. Ever since man began sailing the open seas there have been shipwrecks. With 200 miles of natural reefs and shoals traversing the Florida Keys, it's no place to make a navigational error. Over the centuries, scores of ships have lost their way or were blown onto the reefs by unforeseen storms and hurricanes. The advent of Spanish treasure galleons navigating the unknown waters of the Keys during the 16th and 17th centuries made ship salvage an enticing and lucrative business. Maritime commerce increased in the 19th century and so did wrecking opportunities. By the 1840's there was an average of a ship wreck a week. The burgeoning business of wrecking brought competing wrecking ships from Florida, Spain, Cuba, the Bahamas, New England fisherman, and opportunists from all walks of life. It seemed that everyone had a day job until a wreck was announced and then it was everyone for themselves in the dash to become the first boat to arrive at the wreck site. Tensions and conflicts over salvage rights grew between the competing wreckers. In 1825, Congress passed a set of laws requiring all goods salvaged in U.S. waters be taken to an American port of entry. With the acquisition of Florida in 1821 and the settlement of Key West in 1822, Key West was officially named the port of entry for South Florida. Under this mansard roofed structure the licensing of all wrecking vessels and distribution of salvaged goods and boats was strictly governed under Admiralty Law. By the late 1830's Key West's wrecking industry accounted for 60% to 80% of goods exported from Florida. The government outgrew the building and replaced it with an imposing red brick Richardsonian Romanesque structure in 1891. Visit Historic Marker #71. In an effort to save the original building, the Old Custom House was moved on rolling timbers pulled by donkeys to its present location on Duval Street. The building has been many things to many people in its more than 100 years but first and foremost it reminds us of the island's international influence and prosperity in the 19th century.