It seems like a straightforward question: How long is the Overseas Highway? It is not, at least according to countless travel guides and magazine articles, printing numbers from 106 to 127 miles in total distance. Some accounts name Jewfish Creek as the end of the line, while others the top of the 18-Mile Stretch.
There have been several versions of the road connecting Key West to the mainland. J. Otto Kirchheiner, chairman of the Monroe County Commission at the time, is credited as being the first person to drive the length of the highway. He left Key West on July 18, 1927. State Road 4A, as the first version of the Overseas Highway was officially known, opened to public traffic on Jan. 25, 1928. The road had little in common with the path taken by today’s road. Besides traveling along what is today the Card Sound Road route, the first version of the road required a 40-mile trip aboard an automobile ferry between Lower Matecumbe and No Name keys.
The second version of the Overseas Highway would incorporate a series of solid bridges, instead of relying on a ferry system, when it opened to traffic on March 29, 1938. The official opening was celebrated on July 4, 1938. A toll road during this incarnation, it had toll booths on Lower Matecumbe and Big Pine keys.
When it opened May 16, 1944, the third version of the Overseas Highway had abandoned the Card Sound Road route and followed what has become known as the 18-Mile Stretch. The road, too, was now officially called U.S. Highway 1 and connected Key West not just to the mainland but to Fort Kent, Maine. It is this version of the road that most closely resembles the modern Overseas Highway.
While the start of the highway is ceremoniously marked in Key West, near the corner of Whitehead and Fleming streets, with the designation Mile Marker O, where does the highway officially end? While U.S.1 stretches between Key West and Maine, the Overseas Highway officially stretches from Key West to the Monroe County line. On the Monroe County side of the line, the road is the Overseas Highway. This is the general area of Manatee Creek, as well as Sea Hunter Marina and Pelican Cay RV Park, near Mile Marker 113. On the Dade County side, the road becomes the South Dixie Highway.
Brad Bertelli is curator of the Keys History & Discovery Center.