Together apart

City Hall, Key West, on the day of its dedication, 4 July 1876.

CITY fathers in 1876 planned a Fourth of July more memorable than any Key West had yet seen. They would not only mark the centennial of American independence, but use the occasion to dedicate a new city hall. Walter C. Maloney was commissioned to deliver an address on Key West’s history, but with scant forethought was given only two weeks to prepare. As Maloney took the speaker’s platform the day of the jubilee, he began by declaring to the assembled throng that, but for the advantage of “a longer residence in your city than many others,” he felt quite unequal to the task; and that without the groundwork laid by an earlier historian, his own labors would have been considerably more arduous. He was, he said, indebted for much that he was about to say to writings “from the pen of Mr. William A. Whitehead, with whose name, at least, all are familiar.”1

Maloney must still have intended to satisfy somewhat the “critical acumen and literary taste” of his listeners, but fate had a different plan. Word that a fire had broken out over a nearby saloon interrupted the proceedings, emptied the room of many spectators and presumably scuttled the rest of the address. Maloney gathered up his papers, perhaps with a modicum of relief, and after furnishing them with additional “incidental matter”–biographical and historical details and statistics he no longer needed to omit–sent off the entire manuscript to Newark, New Jersey, to the very press that had shepherded much of William A. Whitehead’s recent writing into print.2

Walter C. Maloney.

Key West had seen the last of Whitehead long ago, in 1838, the year after Walter Maloney, a native of coastal Georgia, first settled there. But Whitehead was to take significant precautions so that the island’s history, in which he’d had a conspicuous part, would not be completely lost. In 1869 he shipped to Key West bound volumes of two of its early newspapers, the Gazette and the Enquirer, from the period of his tenure as customs collector. Whitehead had himself edited the second of these papers in 1835 and 1836. A few years later, Whitehead sent a pair of bird’s eye views he had made shortly before quitting the island, showing the town as it then appeared from the top of Asa Tift’s warehouse. For these contributions, Maloney made sure to convey Key West’s gratitude, as well as his own. The drawings might have gone unremarked, had Maloney not incorporated them into the final printed version of his Fourth of July address.3

Whitehead’s response to this publication was to take up his pen again, and draw from “memory’s treasure-house” recollections of a place he was formerly so much a part of, but had now been removed from for so long. Thirteen articles offering “additional facts, and further illustrative matter,” appeared in the newspaper Key of the Gulf between March and July 1877 under the rubric Reminiscences of Key West. Whitehead deposited a letterbook version of the Reminiscences with the New Jersey Historical Society, but a specially rebound volume of Maloney’s book preserves the only known copy of the articles as first printed. Seven years after his last piece was published, Whitehead’s unusually fruitful long-distance partnership with Maloney ended with their deaths, two days apart.4

The Reminiscences spare Maloney much attention, nor are they lavish in their praise: Whitehead describes his counterpart’s address merely as “able and interesting.”5 But in its pages he found sometimes vivid reminders of how small Key West had been in early years, and how isolated: conditions he had seen as deficiencies, and had worked tirelessly to correct.

The 1876 population of some 12,000 would be hard-pressed, he wrote, to imagine the place with just four or five hundred residents. Absent “the restraining and modifying influences of educated and refined females,” Key West’s first inhabitants indulged in frequent drinking, card-playing and carousing, but only a few sank irretrievably into vice. A quiet stillness prevailed, hanging “very heavily upon both young and old” and punctuated only sporadically by receipt of news from beyond the narrow confines of the island.6

Relief came when a vessel arrived in port carrying the mail: this, in Maloney’s words, was a “regular irregularity.”7 Early in 1829 Key West citizens complained to Congress for redress. Whitehead, who was then but 18 years old and only a transient on the island, was among the 139 signatories to their petition.8 The eccentric Dr. Henry S. Waterhouse was appointed that spring as the town’s first postmaster. He advertised for a sea captain to carry the mail twice weekly to and from Charleston, but apparently without lasting effect.

A newspaper notice signed by Key West’s first postmaster.

A year and a half later, the former “inconveniences & privations” were still felt.9 A public meeting aired similar complaints and voted a second petition, but no solution was forthcoming.10 Despite the early demands for more frequent service, it proved impossible to expect the mail more than once a month from Charleston, and according to Maloney “the monthly trip generally consumed nearer fifty days than thirty.”11  Personal communications and commerce weren’t all that suffered from these long delays: even government agents and military authorities sometimes complained of going three months with no mail from their superiors.12

Other avenues and methods were explored. A second mail route was tried through the port of St. Marks, close to the territorial capital Tallahassee, but it proved no more reliable.13 Good intentions could not overcome the vagaries of winds and currents. An overland route down the Florida peninsula was proposed, but the trackless interior and hostile exchanges with the Seminoles largely precluded it.14

Communications between Key West and Cuba being faster and more frequent, there was pressure to establish a regular postal link via Havana. “Loud calls” to that end from a cohort of Baltimore merchants had some impact in Washington, but the cost of such a proposal and the lack of cooperation, both within the federal government and from Spanish authorities, left that idea unrealized as well.15

Eventually the Post Office in Washington put Key West’s mail out to tender: the successful contractor was enjoined to carry it to and from Charleston or St. Marks “with all practicable despatch.”16 Some consistency was thus achieved, but Key West residents continued to watch for the mail boat with “anxiety and longing.”17

Newspapers published elsewhere made up the bulk of the mail, and were subject to all its irregularities. Their arrival was a reminder to subscribers that, as Maloney put it, “other nations existed beside Key West.” The exchange system, which until 1873 carried the papers postage-free to other publishers, permitted extensive news sharing.18 As editor of the Enquirer, Whitehead depended for news on exchange copies from distant cities, and so had more reason than most to lament the late and sporadic appearance of the mail boat.

The mail from St. Marks was particularly inconsistent: a change in “this foolish route” in 1835 left Key West in doubt “whether the intelligence we wish is to be expected by the new route or the old one.”19 But even mail on the more settled Charleston circuit was prone to delays, often compelling Whitehead to go to press without the news it brought. “At the best of times we are much isolated,” he protested, urging better compensation for contractors; “it behooves us to preserve if possible some little system in the only regular line of communication with the Atlantic coast that we possess.”20 Any hope for more frequent, more timely mail service seemed to rest upon a proposed steamer link between Charleston and Havana, with a stop at Key West.21

As collector of customs, and well before he assumed the mantle of editor, it was Whitehead’s practice to receive current and back issues of several out-of-town newspapers at a time. Whenever they came in, the custom house veranda was the place of first resort for merchants and magistrates. One attorney’s diary mentions that, with the arrival of a long overdue mail from Charleston, he was “reading papers all the evening.”22 As the inadvertent host of such marathons, Whitehead witnessed the “sometimes very ludicrous” impression produced: initially starved for news, the parties swelled with self-importance at being able “once more to speak of the affairs of the great world of which for a whole month they had been in ignorance.” They read–and commented–aloud, “each interested in a different topic as his taste or profession prompted.” Whitehead went on:

British-born acting sensation Clara Fisher.

One with an exclamation intended to attract the attention of all the others, would let fall some precious morsel of foreign news, to which would chime from another “a great fall in Cotton”–a third would announce that “Clara Fisher was playing in New Orleans”–a fourth would insist upon all listening to “an excellent anecdote”–and a fifth enunciate with much emphasis an “important decision of the Supreme Court,” the mixture of politics, news, and extraordinary circumstances creating a miniature Babel.23

Occasionally, minds and voices united around “an item of general interest,” and the discourse became less discordant. On the report of a dramatic reduction in the time needed to transmit the mail between New York and New Orleans, one of these custom house commentators, whose pessimism was no doubt justified by the inconsistency of the mail at Key West, asserted that the post would likely never travel any faster. But a man “of a mathematical and scientific turn,” the respected merchant sailor William Bunce, admonished him by sharing a peculiar vision of the future: “‘before many years you will see the mails transported from place to place in almost no time at all. Tubes will be laid in the ground, they will be exhausted of air, the mail bags will be put in at one end, the air will be forced in behind them and away they will go.’”24

No one then believed such an invention could ever be seriously considered, and the affable Captain Bunce joined in the ensuing merriment. But Whitehead was among those who lived to see pneumatic mail delivery discussed in the Congress of the United States, forcefully advocated there by his friend Senator Stephen R. Mallory of Key West as a technology “destined to become the exclusive mail carrier of the age.”25

Detail of a view sketched by Whitehead in June 1838.

Such a postal outpost as Key West in the 1830s was an unlikely nursery of such futuristic notions. The following decades saw communications improve with the outside world, but haltingly. Progress was slowed or reversed by hurricanes and war. Those present for Maloney’s address in 1876 could still begin and end the day with the cry, “The mail steamer is not yet in sight.” An observation Whitehead had made decades earlier evidently retained its kernel of truth: “to know the full value of news, a person should become a resident of Key West for a few months.”26

Copyright © 2020-2023 Gregory J. Guderian

[1] Walter C. Maloney, A sketch of the history of Key West, Florida. An address delivered at the dedication of the new City Hall, July 4, 1876, at the request of the Common Council of the City (Newark, N.J. 1876) 3-4; cf. 44-45. This work was republished in facsimile by the University of Florida Press in 1968 with an introduction by Thelma Peters. Peters’s introduction incorporates information about Maloney’s life and events transpiring on the day of the address. Maloney’s principal source for the island’s early history was Whitehead’s Notices of Key West for John Rodman Esq. St. Augustine, written December 1835, of which a manuscript copy was then bound at the front of the second volume of the Key West inquirer (formerly The enquirer) sent by Whitehead to the Monroe County clerk in 1873. This copy of the Notices is now preserved in the Florida Miscellaneous Manuscripts Collection, P. K. Yonge Library of Florida History, Special Collections, George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida. The text was printed in Rember W. Patrick, ed. “William Adee Whitehead’s description of Key West,” Tequesta: The journal of the Historical Association of Southern Florida 1:12 (1952) 61-72. See Maloney 82.

[2] Maloney 3; Peters reprint vii-ix.

[3] Maloney 45, 82, [86].

[4] W. A. Whitehead, Reminiscences of Key West no. 1. The series in Key of the Gulf (Key West, Fla.) was clipped and pasted into a copy of Maloney’s Sketch now at the University of Miami. It formed the basis for the edition by Thelma Peters, “William Adee Whitehead’s Reminiscences of Key West,” Tequesta: the journal of the Historical Association of Southern Florida 1:25 (1965) 3-42. References to Peters’s text appear in parentheses thus: (Peters 5). The letterbook manuscript copy at the New Jersey Historical Society, part of Manuscript Group 734, supplies some variant readings. At least some of Whitehead’s Reminiscences were adaptations of writings preserved from his days at Key West: see note 13 to my previous post “Fishermen’s friend” concerning the source of Reminiscences nos. 11 and 12.

[5] Reminiscences no. 13 (Peters 39). Whitehead weighed in on at least one detail in Maloney’s work before it was printed, the decision to locate the Key West jail on Jackson Square: see Maloney 58 n.1.

[6] Reminiscences no. 1 (Peters 5).

[7] Maloney 28.

[8] “Memorial to Congress by inhabitants of Key West,” 10 January 1829, in Clarence Edwin Carter, ed. The territorial papers of the United States. Volume XXIV. The territory of Florida 1828-1834 (Washington 1959) 134-137.

[9] “Mail,” Key West gazette and commercial advertiser 2 April 1829 3:1; “Circular,” Key West gazette 23 April 1829 3:2. Henry S. Waterhouse to Delegate J. M. White, Key West 12 October 1831, in Territorial papers XXIV 564-565.

[10] “Petition to Congress by citizens of Monroe County,” 16 November 1831, in Territorial papers XXIV 624-627; Key West gazette 23 November 1831 2:2-3.

[11] Maloney 28. A once-monthly mail was announced in August 1832: Key West gazette 1 August 1832 2:2; Key West gazette 29 August 1832 2:1.

[12] “Petition to Congress,” 16 November 1831; Francis L. Dade to T. S. Jessup, Garrison of Key West 14 August 1835, in Clarence Edwin Carter, ed. The territorial papers of the United States. Volume XXV. The territory of Florida 1835-1839 (Washington 1960) 168-169.

[13] “Memorial to Congress by citizens of the Territory,” referred 2 March 1830, in Territorial papers XXIV (369-372) 370, 371.

[14] Cf. The enquirer (Key West, Fla.) 10 January 1835 3:1.

[15] Baltimore (Md.) gazette and daily advertiser 19 March 1832 2:4; The Charleston (S.C.) courier 27 March 1832 2:3; Key West gazette 25 April 1832 2:3.

[16] Route no. 2483, “Post Route Advertisement,” 10 July 1834, in Territorial papers XXV (35-38) 38; The Globe (Washington, D.C.) 29 July 1834 4:6.

[17] Reminiscences no. 1 (Peters 6).

[18] Maloney 28-29. For the exchange system’s staying power, well after the dawn of the telegraphic age, see Richard B. Kielbowicz, “News gathering by mail in the age of the telegraph: adapting to a new technology,” Technology and culture 28:1 (January 1987) 26-41.

[19] “St. Marks mail,” The enquirer 18 April 1835 3:2. Cf. The enquirer 21 February 1835 3:1; “Charleston vs. St. Marks,” The enquirer 21 March 1835 3:1-2; The enquirer 24 October 1835 2:4.

[20] The enquirer 5 December 1835 2:4. Cf. The enquirer 8 August 1835 3:1; The enquirer 15 August 1835 3:1; “An editor’s troubles,” Key West (Fla.) inquirer 4 June 1836 3:3-4.

[21] “Extension of steam-packet line to Havana, via Key-West,” The enquirer 19 September 1835 3:2-3. Toward the decade’s end, a guide for invalids wintering in the tropics counseled that “the little communication with other places, except Havana, is one of the principal objections to residing at Key West. Let no one trust to the mail, if he wishes to get his letters promptly, but, on the contrary, have them sent by the way of Havana, whereby the evil may be partly obviated.” A winter in the West Indies and Florida; containing general observations upon modes of travelling, manners and customs, climates and productions, with a particular description of St. Croix, Trinidad de Cuba, Havana, Key West, and St. Augustine, as places of resort for northern invalids. By an invalid (New York 1839) 131-132.

[22] William R. Hackley, Diary, entry of 25 March 1831, in Goulding Collection, Special Collections, Florida State University Libraries, Tallahassee.

[23] Reminiscences no. 1 (Peters 6). The wildly popular Clara Fisher (1811-1898) began her second season at the American Theatre of New Orleans in January 1831, just as Whitehead assumed the collectorship at Key West. “Romeo,” “American theatre,” The courier (New Orleans, La.) 21 January 1831 1:1.

[24] Reminiscences no. 1 (Peters 6-7). For more about Captain Bunce see Dorothy Dodd, “Captain Bunce’s Tampa Bay fisheries, 1835-1840,” The Florida historical quarterly 25:3 (1947) 246–256. Of the postal improvements that prompted this discussion Whitehead wrote, “The number of days is not now recollected, but it far exceeded the number now required.” The news item referred to, however, may have concerned assumption of part of the New York-New Orleans route by mail contractor James Reeside, nicknamed “Land Admiral” for the prodigious speed of his operations. The required time on the route dropped from fifteen days in 1830 to twelve in 1831, according to Leonard V. Huber and Clarence A. Wagner, The great mail. A postal history of New Orleans (State College, Pa. 1949) 36.

[25] In 1854 Mallory recommended testing Ithiel S. Richardson’s “atmospheric telegraph” along the Washington-Baltimore mail route, predicting that this invention would eventually reduce the postal schedule between Washington and New York from twelve hours to two: The reports of the committees of the Senate of the United States for the First Session, Thirty-third Congress, 1853-’54 (3 vols. Washington 1854) no. 331. Pneumatic tube mail was not adopted in the U.S. until the 1890s, and then only for service within cities.

[26] Maloney 28; The enquirer 15 August 1835 3:1.

Images: 1) City Hall, Key West. Frontispiece to Walter C. Maloney, A sketch of the history of Key West, Florida. An address delivered at the dedication of the new City Hall, July 4, 1876, at the request of the Common Council of the City (Newark, N.J. 1876). 2) Walter C. Maloney. Photograph in interleaved copy of A sketch of the history of Key West, Florida, Special Collections, University of Miami Libraries. 3) Mail arrangements. Key West (Fla.) gazette 29 August 1832 2:1. 4) Portrait of Clara Fisher, by Henry Inman, 1828. Oil on canvas. Acc. 63.1. Indianapolis Museum of Art via Wikimedia Commons. 5) The business part of Key-West. Looking north. Reduced from a pencil sketch by W. A. Whitehead. Taken from the Cupola of the Warehouse of Messrs. A. C. Tift & Co., June 1838. Detail. Endicott & Co. Lith. 59 Beekman St. N.Y. “Key West in 1838,” from Walter C. Maloney, A sketch of the history of Key West, Florida.

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