Key West has seen many industries come and go, but one of the first industries in Key West capitalized on the very few natural resources we have on the island – sea salt.
Salt has been a prized commodity since the dawn of man and has had its effects on the growth of civilizations, contributed to the power of colonial empires and has been a catalyst for war. Salt preserved food for long voyages and extended the shelf life of everyday food.
Salt was so valued in the Middle Ages that it was contained in a dish called a “neff” and was always placed on the table in front of the head of the household or special guests.
Recognizing a business opportunity, Richard Fitzpatrick, the only auctioneer for the ship wrecker’s auctions, and a wealthy man, started the first sea salt production business in Key West. In 1830, Fitzpatrick leased 100 acres of wetlands on the southeast end of the island from John Whitehead, dubbing it the “Salt Ponds.” The land encompassed most of what is now the Key West High School.
Fitzpatrick divided the land into large, flat, compartments called drying pans. Each pan was divided by two-foot tall coral rock walls with wooden floodgates. The pans were filled with sea water from the incoming tides and held in place by the flood gates.
When the water evaporated, a thin coat of salt film remained in the pans. By repeating this process over the course of several weeks or months, the salt in the pans would increase until you were able to rake it from the bottom of the pans and shovel it into bushels ready for the market.
This could be a very profitable business if you had a season with a below average rainfall. An average year would yield between 15,000 to 25,000 bushels of salt. The highest industry yield was 75,000 bushels in a single year. Nonetheless, it was a tricky business to control. If the pans were hit with rainfall from a strong storm, your profits could be literally washed away.
Fitzpatrick abandoned the sea salt industry after four short years. He was followed by a succession of salt farm entrepreneurs up until the Civil War. Production ceased during the war years but resumed after the battles ended.
Key West continued to produce sea salt for local consumption and export until 15,000 bushels of salt were washed away during the 1876 hurricane. The storm ended the business of salt production through evaporation in Key West.