The tiny town of Cedar Key lies on a group of small islands three miles out in the Gulf of Mexico, 50 miles southwest of Gainesville, FL, at approximately the same latitude as Ocala and Daytona Beach. The Cedar Keys are widely known as “the gem of the Nature Coast”.
Federally protected sanctuaries, the Cedar Keys form a chain of barrier islands ideally suited to a vast range of migratory and shore birds, including the elusive white pelican, roseate spoonbill and bald eagle. The variety of natural habitats – from salt marshes to Indian shell mounds – makes this truly a nature lover’s paradise.
Cedar Key lies far away from the neon glitter, noise and traffic that plagues most of Florida’s shoreline. This quaint little fishing village impresses visitors who utter comments such as “this truly is Old Florida” as they explore and enjoy the miles of undisturbed coastline. Canoeing, kayaking, bicycling, bird watching, fishing, sunning, and shelling are a few of the activities enjoyed by nature-lovers visiting Cedar Key. Being so far from the bright lights of the city, the nighttime sky offers tremendous stargazing possibilities; the annual Cedar Key star party is held in January and attracts amateur astronomers from across North America. Rich in natural beauty and historical significance, once you visit Cedar Key, you may become hooked.
Cedar Key’s History
Augustus Steel settled Cedar Key in the early 1840’s. In 1861 with the completion of the Railroad constructed by Mr. David Levy Yulee, the lively port of Cedar Key was connected to the Florida east coast in Fernandina North of Jacksonville. The train carried lumber, turpentine, fiber plant product, cotton, seafood products, sponges, and passengers out of Cedar Key, and brought in all the needed supplies to keep the small community thriving. The train stopped running in 1932. The focus then shifted to the better-protected Way Key, where the city of Cedar Key grew into a booming port.
The Faraway Inn property was once the site of the Eagle Pencil Company Cedar Mill (circa 1870 – 1896). The mill was damaged in the 1896 hurricane and storm surge. The once plentiful stands of red cedar were becoming sparse and brought the end of the enterprise.
Atsena Otie Key, one of the largest islands in the group, was Cedar Key’s first permanent settlement. In 1835 it housed a military hospital and depot, which was demolished by an October hurricane.
Due to hurricanes and mans exploitation of the land, the Cedar Keys saw its once bountiful cedar trees stripped bare, its shellfish running out, and the killing of thousands of palms unable to survive the harvest of their heart buds. These losses lead to the downfall of the sawmills, the local fishing industry, and a palmetto fiber brush factory in the same building where an oyster packing plant was forced out of business.
The Cedar Keys could not compete to the economic growth of the southern Florida Keys and its once bustling port began to decline in the early 1900’s. With the decline of the natural resources and habitats surprisingly much of the wildlife remained.
John Muir, an American naturalist and architect of the National Park system reaffirmed that wildlife continued to flourish around the Cedar Keys. As Muir was on his way to Texas by ship he was forced to layover in Cedar Keys in the house of a mill superintendent. He regained his strength by rowing from island to island and recording the sightings of gulls, terns, pelicans, and immense flocks of coots.
In 1929 President Herbert Hoover established Cedar Key NWR by naming three of the islands as a breeding ground for colonial birds, gaining its 13th island in 1997 when Atsena Otie Key came under refuge management. The local water management district headed off scheduled housing development on the island by purchasing it and entering a management agreement with Lower Suwannee NWR. Refuge islands range in size from 1 to 165 acres.
Cedar Key Today
Cedar Key has become a haven for artists and writers who find the unspoiled environment inspirational to their work. It is also a working community of watermen plying the local waters for grouper, mullet, oysters, and clams. Clam aquaculture is a vital part of the local economy and Cedar Key is the largest producer of farm-raised clams in the country.
To learn more about our historic “Island City”, you must visit The Cedar Key Historical Society, located at Second and D Streets. For under $10 you can purchase an informative 32 page self-guided Old Cedar Key Walking Tour book complete with map and 54 black and white photographs with descriptions of each historic site. Your purchase will greatly help the Historical Society with future displays and additions, which are intended to preserve the past for our children of the future. It’s a great keepsake to take back to show family and friends. Another great historic stop is the Cedar Key Museum State Park, located on Museum Drive. It’s worth the trip.