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Feel the exhilaration as you climb 65 feet in the air to the top of the observation tower for panoramic views of Key West. Inside the Key West Shipwreck Treasure Museum, you’ll have that opportunity and more. Find out how those who made their living off shipwrecks in the 1850s watched and waited for ships sinking off the coast in Key West.
Journey back in time and experience Key West’s 400-year history of shipwreck salvage operations, which provided careers for many of the island’s residents. Designed to emulate the feel of a 19th-century wrecker’s warehouse filled with bounty and equipment, the exhibits of this interactive museum combine artifacts, actors and films to bring Key West’s colorful heritage to life. You will discover how the southernmost point in the continental U.S. became one of the richest cities in America. The museum also features the 1985 discovery of the wreck of the Isaac Allerton. Sunk off the Florida Keys over a century earlier, the vessel yielded the highest salvage award in history. Listen as master wrecker Asa Tift and his crew entertain you with tales of sunken treasure. You can explore two floors of exhibits and climb the 65-foot-tall observation tower to try to spot your own salvageable wreck.
The History of Wreck Salvage in Key West
Beginning with the galleons that plied the Spanish Main, more than 100 ships a day ventured past Key West filled with valuable cargo. During the Age of Sail, these were some of the most treacherous waters in the world; at least one ship a week would wreck on the nearby reefs. Wrecker captains would climb lookout towers to watch the reef day and night in an attempt to be the first to claim the salvage rights. The recovered goods would be sold at auction with the wreckers earning between 25 and 50 percent of the profits, which was based on the difficulty of the salvage operation. The advent of the railroad and better navigational aids significantly reduced the number of wrecks. Due to this change the salvage court closed in 1921, ending the era when the cry “Wreck Ashore” sent adventurers into the crashing waves in search of sunken riches.
Must-See Exhibits at the Museum
The exhibits inside this amazing museum chronicle the men who risked their lives for fame and fortune. You will experience the adventures of a daring wrecker crew as they battle the elements to save lives and a ship’s precious cargo. Hear tales of dangerous wrecks on the treacherous reefs, daring rescues and amazing recoveries that were often performed without diving equipment. Get a glimpse into 19th-century life in Key West and the influence that the wrecking industry had on the island. View recovered sunken treasure from various ships that were lost at sea, including a 64-pound silver bar salvaged from the Nuestra Senora de las Maravillas. Hear the mesmerizing tale of the Isaac Allerton. Many of the artifacts on display come from her watery grave. In addition to listening to interviews, you can view film clips and actual undersea footage related to the life of a wrecker in the below sea level theater. Climb to the top of the observation tower for a wonderful bird’s-eye-view of the surrounding area.
Rated as one of the best attractions in the city, the Key West Shipwreck Treasure Museum is open 365 days a year from 9:30 a.m. until 5 p.m. You can also enjoy a self-guided tour throughout the day. Senior citizen discounts are available and children 3 and under are admitted free of charge. On-street parking at Mallory Square is limited and a parking garage is also situated close by. The museum is located across the street from Stop #1 of the Old Town Trolley tour. Explore the sunken treasures, then hop aboard the trolley for more history and sightseeing of Key West.
Things to Do Nearby
Hosting the daily Sunset Celebration and live entertainment, Mallory Square is also the setting for the Memorial Sculpture Garden. The park features 36 cast bronze busts of men and women who have made a significant impact on Key West. Honorees include Henry Flagler, Ernest Hemingway and Ellen Russell Mallory.
The Key West Aquarium houses several exhibits that highlight marine animals that live in the surrounding waters of the Florida Keys. The aquarium has a touch tank and galleries designed to enlighten visitors about tropical fish, sharks and rays as well as the nearby mangrove forest habitats.
Adorned with period furnishings, the historic Audubon House and Tropical Gardens was the residence of the famed ornithologist John James Audubon in 1832. The home also displays several works of art and images by Audubon. The lush 1-acre tropical garden features bromeliads, orchids and an 1840-style nursery.