Key West Shipwreck Treasures Museum: Wreck master's desk.
About The Museum
Key West was once known as the Isle of Bones, because of a mysterious discovery of skeletons found on the island by early explorers. The southernmost point in the continental U.S. has always been associated with romance, adventure, and pirate lore. The great age of sailing ships in the 1800’s saw, not only a concentration of sailing traffic in the island’s waters, but a steady stream of shipwrecked vessels. Shipwrecks actually stimulated the Conch Republic's economy for a century, and salvaging the wayward goods made the island one of the richest of the era.
The Shipwreck Treasures Museum is located at 1 Whitehead Street in Old Town Key West, Florida directly in the middle of the island's action. The museum is adjacent to both the popular Sponge Market, and the famous Aquarium and is easily spotted by the tall wooden observation tower that is one of the highest points in the city.
The museum features the tower, a display of salvaged shipwreck treasures, and actors in period costume who provide history and a tour. Museum hours are from 9:40 AM to 5:00 PM, 365 days a year. Current ticket prices are $15.04 for adults, $8.59 for children, $12.90 for seniors, and free for kids 3 and under. There is also a discount of 10% for buying tickets in advance from the museum’s website at keywestshipwreck.com.
Key West Shipwreck Treasures Museum: 1930's Diving Suit
Step Into Wrecking History
The Shipwreck Treasures Museum provides visitors with the opportunity to not only learn about the history of salvaging shipwrecks in the Florida Keys, but to feel as if they have stepped back in time. The attendant at the ticket booth will tell you when the next show begins, and visitors wait as others arrive and the time to begin the tour grows near.
The show begins when the host, dressed in period clothing, gathers everyone around an outdoor courtyard near the museum entrance. This wrecking mate explains the history and lore of salvaging shipwrecked cargo in the middle and late 1800s in Key West. On my visit this host never broke character, and even acted confused by a teenage guest fiddling with a smartphone, and made polite fun of a few people’s modern clothing or shoes.
At the end of his colorful introduction, another actor appeared from high above on a balcony. This fellow portrayed the wreck master, and would have been (in the 1800s) the person who auctioned off the goods salvaged from a shipwreck. The wreck master invited the guests into the museum, and presented the tour group with a detailed history of the wrecking business in the Florida Keys during the age of sailing ships.
I found this part of the Museum tour to be fascinating and authentic. The wreck master’s clothing and demeanor really put everyone back into another time. He was very well informed, and even gave us the opportunity to ask questions. In fact, after hearing how much wrecked treasure has still never been found, I felt the urge to go treasure hunting myself.
After the Wreck Master’s presentation, guests are given a treasure map which is really a rough map of the streets on the island, and includes a 10% off coupon for future visits to the museum. If you did follow the dotted line to the “X” on the treasure map, it would lead you along Front Street to the Key West Treasure Chest, which is a retail store that sells treasure-themed gifts and such.
Explore On Your Own
After the Wreck Master’s detailed stories of shipwrecks, salvagers, and wheeler-dealers of days gone by, the group is allowed to wander the museum at will. There are displays of treasure, a recreated video of the bygone waterfront salvage markets, and artifacts from the history of scuba diving (used to recover treasures from the depths).
All throughout the exhibits there are signs and plaques that explain or describe many of the items displayed. For example, one such plaque near an upright piano explains that a particular wrecked cargo consisted of dozens of pianos that were salvaged and in turn sold. This fortuitous event caused a trend of piano music and lessons to sweep the island.
Everywhere you look in the museum is another treasure. From the vintage nautical instruments to the blown glass buoys, the entire atmosphere is enchanting. Anyone interested in maritime history or even nautical decor would surely be able to spend hours exploring the museum displays. There is even a collection of wooden rum barrels which I’m sure were salvaged with enthusiastic care. (Why is the rum gone?)
Visitors also have the chance to hold a genuine silver bar minted in 1656 and salvaged from a nearby shipwreck. Once you make your way around and up through the museum, you can climb the tower for a magnificent view of Key West.
Key West Shipwreck Treasures Museum: Rum Casks (Why is the rum gone?)
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(price as of Jan 14, 2015)
Not just for show, the tower is a replica of the same type of tower that wreckers would have used to keep watch for ships that ran afoul of the reef in the 1800’s. During the middle and late 1800’s, as many as a hundred sailing ships per day passed by Key West waters. In those days it was not uncommon for a shipwreck to occur as often as once a week. Men would keep watch from towers like the sixty-five foot high tower replicated at the museum. In the days of sailing wrecks, it is said that the highest towers were ninety feet tall!
As you ascend the tower, the views of Key West become more and more dramatic. Three-quarters of the way up, there is a brass bell that museum visitors can ring. Ringing such a bell is exactly the way wreckers in the 1800’s would have sent out the alert that a ship was wrecked on the reef. Ring the bell today, and Key West locals and merchants within earshot of the chime will still call out, “Wreck Ashore! Wreck Ashore!” just like they did in the old days. (To me that was one of the coolest parts of the entire experience.)
360 degree video view from the Museum Tower
This short video shows a 360 degree view from the top of the Key West Shipwreck Treasures Museum tower, in Key West, Florida.
Key West Shipwreck Treasures Museum: View from the tower
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(price as of Jan 14, 2015)
Was It Worth The Entry Fee?
The Key West Shipwreck Treasures Museum is centrally located at 1 Whitehead Street in Old Town Key West, Florida. It provides an authentic, interactive, and informative look into the history of shipwrecks in Florida, and the business that salvaging cargo provided in the 1800’s. There is a guided tour by actors in period dress who play the parts of wrecker’s mate and wreck master, and provide entertaining history and a tour of the museum. Visitors are also allowed to explore the museum on their own and climb the sixty-five foot lookout tower. The tower provides some of the most dramatic views available in Key West. Overall I found the Key West Shipwreck Treasures Museum to be fun, educational, and well worth the price of admission.
Key West Shipwreck Treasures Museum is located at 1 Whitehead Street in Old Town Key West, Florida
1 Whitehead Street, Key West, FL 33040, USA