An Island in Transition

The big red brick building was called the U.S. Custom House, but customs operations only formed part of what transpired inside its walls

A Strategic Island

Key West, along with Florida, became a United States territory after the ratification of the Adams-Onis Treaty with Spain in 1821. In January of 1822, Alabama businessman John Simonton purchased the island for $2,000 because of its strategic location. Geographically, Key West is situated 128 miles southwest of mainland Florida and 90 miles north of Cuba. Its close proximity to trade routes connecting major ports in the United States, the Caribbean and the Americas made Key West an ideal destination for business entrepreneurs such as Simonton, as well as the U.S. military.

Key West's Early Economy

Salvaging, importing and exporting, fishing, sponging and eventually cigar manufacturing formed the backbone of Key West’s 19th century economy. As a result, Key West’s population grew quickly. When the island was initially settled, there were roughly 500 inhabitants, increasing to 5,675 in 1870 which more than tripled during the next two decades, reaching 18,080 by 1890. This made Key West the most populated city in all of Florida.

Early Customs Operations

Key West’s expanding trade operations required a stronger Federal presence on the island. By 1828, Key West had been designated a U.S. Port of Entry, meaning the federal government established the Superior Court of the Southern Judicial District of the Territory of Florida in Key West. In 1833, the government purchased land near the harbor and erected a small wooden structure to house its customs operations. So lucrative were the customs operations, that by 1882 the annual revenue generated in Key West alone was greater than the amount of revenue received from all other Florida ports combined.

Early Custom House
Early Custom House

Plans for The Custom House

Recognizing the importance of Key West’s growing economy, the U.S. Treasury authorized the construction of a larger building in 1885 to accommodate its customs operations. Over the next three years, the local construction firm of McDermott and Higgs laid the foundation for the current Custom House, at a cost of $10,647 and won the remaining construction contract with a bid of $72,555.

Support The Custom House

All donations to the Custom House will be placed in the CFFK’s Custom House Preservation Fund