Key West owes much of its success to the island’s location. For example, if you were traveling from Europe to South America in the sixteenth century or on your way from the East Coast to California to claim your riches in the 1840 gold rush, you were bound to end up in Key West.
There were no railroads to the West Coast and traveling on foot or by wagon were the only other land options. The shortest route was by taking a sailing or steamer ship to Key West. Steamer ships would load up on coal and water and continue through the Gulf to Nicaragua. There you would disembark and walk or ride across the narrow finger of land to a waiting ship that would take you to the coast of California. Remember that the Panama Canal wasn’t finished until 1914.
Charles Henry Mallory of Mystic Connecticut formed the Mallory Ship Line in the 1860s. By 1873 the Mallory Line offered passenger and freight service from New York, Key West, and Galveston. Starting in 1876, the ships also started delivering mail to ports along the Atlantic and Gulf Coast.
Mallory started with sailing ships with average travel time taking nine days each way from New York to Key West. Steam powered ships reduced traveling time to four days. When a Mallory Line ship left New York City for Key West, a tandem ship would leave Key West for New York. That meant that six steamers were necessary to maintain the weekly service schedule desired.
At their zenith, the Mallory steamship line operated as many as seventy ships for their many routes. Their routes were known as the Clyde Line, Porto Rico Line and the Ward Line. All disembarked from New York and stopped at various ports along the East Coast, Gulf Coast, and numerous Caribbean ports.
The cost of passage was not necessarily cheap. In 1898 a first class, one-way ticket could range from $20.00 to $60.00 or more depending on the destination.
Today, the only remains of the Mallory Steamship Line are the ticket office built after the Great Key West Fire of 1886. The ticket office was built on the site of the former office and observation tower of Asa Tift’s Company in Mallory Square (directly behind the Wall Warehouse). The building was moved to the corner of Mallory Square in 1962.