Tift’s Tower

The business part of Key-West. Looking north.

GAZING one last time at a pair of large, unfurled sheets of paper, William A. Whitehead traced with his eye the busy waterfront, the streets and buildings depicted on them. Then, possibly with a faint smile, he again rolled them up carefully to be delivered to their final destination.

License to imagine such an interlude comes from a single source: purely on the authority of Walter C. Maloney can the twin views be identified as Whitehead’s own sketches, carried away to the North when he took his final leave of Key West in 1838, and sent back to their place of origin thirty-four years later.1

There seems no reason to doubt Maloney’s record of “two large pencil sketches … sent to the island in 1872, to be deposited in one of the public offices.” Thanks to the printing of an address he gave in 1876, we have lithograph copies, “reduced” as he called them, from the two drawings. But Maloney remains the sole witness to their original appearance, and even to their reputed homecoming.

Maloney’s address, published in enlarged form as A sketch of the history of Key West, was issued late in 1876 from the presses of the Newark Daily Advertiser. This was the newspaper with which Whitehead was then most closely associated. The sketches in Maloney’s volume, like the image on its frontispiece, were lithographed in New York.2 If the originals were sent to Key West four years earlier, as Maloney asserted, these lithographs would have been made earlier still. Yet no evidence has come to light of copies previously in circulation.

That the originals arrived safely on Key West, but later perished,3 is a plausible scenario but impossible to confirm. Whitehead’s columns Reminiscences of Key West, printed serially in the newspaper Key of the Gulf in 1877, contain no reference to sketches, or any gift of them. Yet Whitehead’s bound volumes of old newspapers–presented, according to Maloney, in 18694–did reach the island and the office of the county clerk, where they were preserved from whatever calamities might have befallen them. (They’re now in the custody of the University of Florida.)

Barring evidence to the contrary, one can rely on Maloney’s attribution of both drawings to Whitehead, who was a practiced draughtsman. His claim of June 1838 as the date of their completion is also reasonable.

The caption of each lithograph names the vantage point from which the sketches were made, and this too seems secure: Whitehead drew what he saw from a lookout tower (“Cupola”) atop the waterfront warehouse of Amos C. Tift & Company.5 “It is understood,” Maloney informs us, “that every building then standing is portrayed, excepting the warehouse from which the sketches were taken, and their peculiarities of structure preserved.”

The view from that height would have encompassed the entire town, virtually its every street and structure, with the surrounding woods, the harbor, the Gulf and the Florida Strait as backdrops. Surely, in the last year of his Key West sojourn, Whitehead made this climb frequently to enjoy the prospects it afforded. For him, they were not just sights of the moment, but scenes of nearly a decade of life.

One of Whitehead’s sketches, as the lithograph preserves it, gives the view to the north and east. It evidently was the work of some hours, as it records in minute detail all the visible buildings, with their fenestration, number of stories, and position with regard to the harbor and to one another. Here in “the business part” of town, the commerce was overwhelmingly maritime, dominated by the storehouses and docks of Key West’s most prosperous merchants. One of these, Pardon C. Greene, the only resident proprietor of the original four, had built probably the first of these complexes: in Whitehead’s drawing, the spire of Greene’s lookout tower punctures the horizon. Schooners and brigs line the wharves and dwarf the workers unloading them.

To the right, or east side of the frame, past the workshops and dwellings that cling to the bend of Front Street, is the inlet to a tidal pond that overspread much of the interior of the town as it then stood. To guard against “malarial influences,” according to Maloney, city authorities were prohibited from filling up streets in this area, and property owners prevented from reclaiming their submerged lots.6 One sees in the farther distance the naval anchorage at Fleeming’s Key, and the army barracks on the north shore, indistinctly rendered but with its lookout tower discernible.

Associated with this panorama is an art-historical puzzle: a scene identical in almost every detail but lithographed in Paris. It features in an 1842 pictorial volume published by itinerant naturalist and diplomat François-Louis Comte de Castelnau, who traveled through middle Florida in 1837 and 1838 but is not known to have visited Key West.7 Possibly the Frenchman borrowed and copied Whitehead’s sketch in 1840 or 1841, when both of them lived and worked in New York. Whitehead could have loaned him other pictures, too: Castelnau’s view of the Key West Arsenal may represent a Whitehead sketch that survives in no other form. And his apparent copy of Whitehead’s panorama may preserve qualities that the one in Maloney’s work failed to capture.8

Key-West. Looking South-East.

The second reproduction in Maloney’s book, equally detailed, portrays what Whitehead saw “looking south-east” from the top of Tift’s warehouse. It shows the continuing bend of Front Street, which formed one side of the triangular open area called Clinton Place. Dead ahead, beginning at the apex of that triangle, runs Whitehead Street. Its mile-long course cuts arrow-straight through the town and the uncleared land beyond, all the way to the south beach.

A number of small buildings cluster along Whitehead Street, plus some larger ones, including the county courthouse, seemingly at the very edge of the town. A stone jail crouches ignobly at the rear of the courthouse lot. Stately residences, including an unfinished one for Judge James Webb, are strung along the intersecting line of Caroline Street.

In this sketch, as in the first, Whitehead seems to have been meticulous in documenting the island’s structures, even if the jail’s inclusion recalled an unsolicited and less than pleasant duty of his early years on the island. But in the foreground and background of this view stand more prominent allusions to his principal responsibilities: the custom house where, as collector, Whitehead presided and resided for most of the last eight years; and the Key West lighthouse above Whitehead’s Point, one of four in his charge as Superintendent of Lights.

On the left, extending east from Whitehead Street to the edge of the image, spreads the placid surface of the tidal pond. Except for a footbridge some 200 feet in length laid across it, the pond is nearly featureless. The line of Duval Street is continued by this bridge, but it could not evolve into the town’s main commercial boulevard until the removal of strictures on filling the pond. Beyond the town limits, the island looks uninhabited, untamed and thickly forested.

However complete these documents of early Key West may be, they couldn’t capture the growth of the town once Whitehead had left it in 1838. Not only would the numbers of people and dwellings continue to expand, but two projects would be initiated on the western shore, of which he’d had a hand in the promotion, and even the conception: a new military base, begun in 1846, eventually known as Fort Taylor,9 and a Marine Hospital, opened a year earlier for the care of sick and disabled mariners.10 Whitehead had departed the island years before these endeavors were begun, ignorant of when or even whether his efforts on their behalf would bear fruit.

In the course of Saturday, 10 October 1846, a barometer kept at Key West–perhaps at the custom house, where Whitehead had made daily observations during much of his tenure as collector–was said to show “evidences of change.”11 No practiced meteorologist could have predicted what was to come. Over the next 48 hours, the Key West that Whitehead preserved in his twin sketches was forever altered by the Great Hurricane of 1846. Much of what we see in those views was simply erased.

No precise measurements exist by which to gauge the storm’s ferocity as it battered the island. Eyewitness accounts differ in details. But barometric readings at Havana, a hundred miles south, corroborate the impression of an extreme and unprecedented weather event.12 One naval officer, who rode out the storm aboard the revenue cutter Morris, described a gale “of fury unexampled,” “a perfect hurricane.”13 Sea water overwhelmed streets and houses, driving residents to higher ground. Those trying to escape were in peril from swift currents and falling, flying debris. The footbridge over the pond was destroyed early on Sunday, forcing some to swim for their lives.14

To a town as diminutive as Key West, the losses were immense. Upwards of fifty people died in the tempest, including fourteen or fifteen who had taken refuge with the lighthouse keeper at Whitehead’s Point, where only a white sand beach was now to be seen.15 The beginnings of the fort to the north were completely demolished. In the harbor every dock had suffered damage or been washed away. Vessels in port were either sunk or driven onto land. Almost every building was unroofed or toppled; Tift’s warehouse lay “prostrate.”16

More than 95% of the houses that Whitehead had sketched in 1838, or that had been built during the next six years, were reported damaged or destroyed. Most were of wood, but stone walls undermined by the surging waters fared scarcely better.17 Stone structures lost or severely damaged included Whitehead’s own former home, the custom house, together with the lighthouse, two churches, and the Marine Hospital. The storm washed away both the Key West and Sand Key lights, two of the four that Whitehead had long supervised, as well as the islet of Sand Key itself.

The topography of the island was altered: according to Maloney, so much sand washed ashore that the pond “ceased to receive its tides,” and would eventually be filled in.18 The salt works to the east were destroyed and had to be rebuilt. The town appeared “truly sad” to one sensitive observer: “The brilliant foliage of our trees is burnt as though the blast of the desert had passed over them, and there is not a green spot upon which the eye may turn for relief from the ruin around us.”19

Stereoview east from Tift’s Tower, ca. 1870.

Sketches, paintings and photographs made decades after the event suggest a town reborn, reconstituted somewhat in its predecessor’s image but oblivious of the disaster that befell it in 1846.20 Survivors of the Great Hurricane who chanced to see Whitehead’s original drawings might have found themselves grieving its losses, even reliving its horrors, whereas in others those views might have stirred an interest, antiquarian at best, in the character and conditions of life before the flood. In ourselves, such antediluvian images, despite the imperfect form in which we have them, will awaken whatever we allow them to. Many years after their creation, the island home that Whitehead looked upon would have seemed to him as vivid and vanished as a dream.

Copyright © 2022 Gregory J. Guderian

Postscript. The Great Hurricane barreled up the eastern seaboard, its remnants reaching Newark, where Whitehead’s barometer registered a low pressure of 29.25 inches at 5 pm on the 13th. Having probably no direct contact with Key West, Whitehead drew from newspaper reports for a succinct report of conditions there, found in his review of the weather for October 1846:

The extreme point of Florida, which was reached on the afternoon of the 11th, suffered in an unprecedented degree; Key West being almost entirely overwhelmed by the sea, or destroyed by the wind.–From the position of its harbor, so immediately upon the border of the gulf stream, vessels within it were greatly exposed, and along the Florida reef, from Cape Florida to the Tortugas, nothing seems to have withstood the violence of the gale; shipping, light houses, wharves, houses, (including many of their tenants) were alike involved in the destruction.21

[1] “Key West in 1838,” in Walter C. Maloney, A sketch of the history of Key West, Florida (Newark, N. J.: Printed at the Advertiser Printing House, 1876; hereafter “Maloney, A sketch”), following page 85.

[2] The frontispiece of Key West’s city hall, for whose dedication Maloney prepared his address, names the lithographers as “Endicott & Co. Lith. N. Y.” One of the Whitehead views adds the address: “59 Beekman St.”

[3] Fifty years ago, and possibly ever since, the sketches were thought to have been lost in a fire: “Front cover,” The Florida historical quarterly 48:3 (January 1970), before page i.

[4] Maloney, A sketch 45.

[5] An illustrated diary of Jacob Schoener preserved by the Florida Keys History Center, Monroe County Public Library, Key West, includes a sketch looking westward “from the Cupola of the Barracks” in 1842; it shows two waterfront storehouses crowned by lookout towers, possibly those of A. C. Tift and P. C. Greene. Dr. Corey Malcom graciously drew my attention to this source.

[6] Maloney, A sketch 49-50. Although Maloney cites public health as the reason for these restrictions, we have the criticism of an anonymous invalid visiting in March 1839: “A thin sheet of water like this, to say nothing of the muddy bottom, exposed to the effects of a tropical sun, sends up an evaporation that must affect the air injuriously, though not to as great an extent as though it were fresh water.”  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) 124.

[7] Francis de Castelnau, Vues et souvenirs de l’Amérique du Nord (Paris 1842) pl. 11. See Comte de Castelnau, “Essay on Middle Florida, 1837-1838 (Essai sur la Floride du milieu),” trans. Arthur E. Seymour, in The Florida historical quarterly 26:3 (January 1948) 199-255, 26:4 (April 1948) 300-324. For biographical details of Castelnau, see Neal L. Evenhuis, “François-Louis Comte de Castelnau (1802-1880) and the mysterious disappearance of his original insect collection,” Zootaxa 3168:1 (23 January 2012) 53-63.

[8] The Arsenal is depicted on plate 10 of Vues et souvenirs. In 1840, Castelnau advertised his services as a legal agent of the French state in New York, with an office at 8 Wall Street. Around this time Whitehead entered the brokerage of James C. Parker at 46 Wall Street.

[9] Throughout his collectorship, Whitehead advocated an enhanced military presence on Key West: see my earlier post Gibraltar of the Gulf.

[10] Whitehead considered the hospital fund, which compensated local families for the lodging and care of sick seamen, to be wholly inadequate: in a permanent hospital, he argued, patients would “receive more systematic and careful attention.” He recommended that it be made out of the local limestone: “Several buildings have been constructed of this material, and they promise to be durable.” W. A. Whitehead, Key West 15 September 1837, to Levi Woodbury, printed in Report from the Secretary of the Treasury, in compliance with a resolution of the Senate of the 20th February, 1837, in relation to the location and cost of marine hospitals on the western waters, and the regulation of the marine hospital fund (12 December 1837), 25th Congress, 2d Session (S. Rep. No. 8, Serial Set 314) 13-14.

[11] “Authentic particulars of the terrific gale of the 11th of October,” The New York (N.Y.) herald 6 November 1846 1:5-6 (hereafter “Authentic particulars”).

[12] The reading in Havana harbor of 27.70 inches of mercury aboard the steamboat Thames on 11 October 1846 set a record for an Atlantic tropical cyclone. José Fernández-Partagás, “Impact on hurricane history of a revised lowest pressure at Havana (Cuba) during the October 11, 1846 hurricane” (unpublished document, Coral Gables, Fla. 9 December 1993), retrieved from NOAA’s Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory, https://www.aoml.noaa.gov/hrd/Landsea/Partagas/. A reading of 27.60 inches was reported elsewhere in Havana: Relacion de los estragos causados por el temporal del once de octubre del corriente año, en el orden que se ha publicado en el Diario de la Habana (Havana 1846; hereafter “Relacion de los estragos”) 5.

[13] “Terrific gale in the Gulf,” The daily picayune (New Orleans, La.) 23 October 1846 2:3 (hereafter “Terrific gale”).

[14] “Authentic particulars.”

[15] “Terrific gale.” The keeper of the Key West light miraculously survived its destruction: Barbara Mabrity went on to tend the lighthouse that replaced it, remaining in the service another eighteen years.

[16] “Further particulars of the terrible gale at Key West–the destruction of life and property,” The New York (N.Y.) herald 1 November 1846 2:5-6. The warehouses’ fate greatly interested merchants who might have merchandise deposited there, but identification was not always so accurate: one account reported the warehouse of “A. F. Teft” as “flat to the ground,” while Diario de la Habana seems to have altered Tift’s name to “Jist.” “The terrible gale of the 11th of October–its tremendous effect at Havana,” The New York herald 2 November 1846 1:6; report of 14 October 1846, reprinted in Relacion de los estragos 26.

[17] “Of about 400 houses, large and small, there is not more than 10 or 12 left standing, or in a habitable condition, and those much shattered … The houses in town (stone as well as wood) were torn piecemeal and scattered away like chaff before the wind….” Report of George Dutton, Key West 14 October 1846, to J. G. Totten, printed in “The destructive storm in the Gulf,” The daily union (Washington, D.C.) 31 October 1846 623:5-6. “The occupants of the Marine Hospital were expecting every moment to go into eternity. A large stone building, surrounded with five feet of water running by six miles an hour, cutting the sand from under the foundation, made the situation awful. Thirty feet of the stone washed away from one corner, fifteen from the other, and the roof blown off. … wood and stone seemed all alike going to destruction. There are not more than 6 out of 600 houses but are unroofed or blown down.” Report of Lt. William C. Pease, published in “Particulars of the late gale,” New-York (N.Y.) daily tribune 2 November 1846 1:3.

[18] Maloney, A sketch 50.

[19] “Terrific gale”; “Authentic particulars”; cf. “The hurricane at sea,” The sailor’s magazine and naval journal 20:7 (March 1848) (193-196) 196. The loss of vegetation was still noticeable after many years: see Corey Malcom, “Understanding the Key West hurricane of 1846,” Florida Keys sea heritage journal 20:4 (Summer 2010) (1-15) 11.

[20] Key West five years after the hurricane, considered the largest town in Florida, boasted “650 houses, 26 stores, 10 warehouses, 4 look-out cupolas, 11 wharves, and 4 churches.” “Commercial cities and towns of the United States, number XXVIII. Key West, Florida,” Hunt’s merchants’ magazine and commercial review 26:1 (January 1852) (52-60) 54, reprinted in “Key West and salvage in 1850,” The Florida historical quarterly 7:1 (July 1929) (47-63) 52. In J. C. Clapp’s picture of a rebuilt Key West, datable to ca. 1855, the pond has not yet been filled in, but no fewer than four towers line the waterfront: J. C. Clapp del., Key West, collections of The Mariners’ Museum, Newport News, Va.

[21] W., “Review of the weather for October, 1846,” Newark (N.J.) daily advertiser 2 November 1846 2:5.

Images: 1) The business part of Key-West. Looking north, and 2) Key-West. Looking South-East, from Walter C. Maloney, A sketch of the history of Key West, Florida (Newark, N. J.: Printed at the Advertiser Printing House, 1876), by courtesy of P. K. Yonge Library of Florida History, George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida. 3) Stereoview east from Tift’s Tower, by American Scenery: The DeWolfe and Wood Collection, Florida Keys Public Libraries.
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