Memorial Day in the Florida Keys

Quarry at Windley Key Fossil Reef
Geological State Park

Florida Keystone

South Florida was once the home of a gigantic coral reef, one of the largest living organisms on the planet. Due to climatic changes after the last Ice Age the ocean waters receded, and this giant life-form was exposed to the dry air, causing it to die. Imagine the smell of all that rotting marine life.

When I travel to the Florida Keys, which are really the protruding “backbone” of the “skeleton” of this giant former reef,  I often marvel at the size and complexity of this dead Titan. The bleached white “bones” crunch under my feet. In fact, the Keys have no soil at all; the entire chain of islands is nothing more than this exposed limestone, which, like bones, is sharp and brittle. The most famous of all the Keys of course is Key West, a corruption of the Spanish “Cayo Hueso,” which means “Isle of Bones.”

I am reminded strongly of the Babylonian myth of Tiamat. Tiamat was a giant sea monster who was slain by the hero-god of the new age of civilization, Marduk. He created the world from the bones of her enormous body.  So, also, the great coral reef of south Florida died, and the bones of her body now support our new civilization of technology, roads and railroads.

The skeleton of this reef remains, and has been quarried in the Florida Keys as “keystone,” or “Key Largo limestone,” which when polished resembles a bone-colored marble filled with the ornate forms of the dead coral organisms. (Coral, although a single life-form, paradoxically is composed of millions of tiny coral creatures).

These photos were taken at Windley Key Fossil Reef Geological State Park, a former keystone quarry. The channeling machine is a giant saw that cuts blocks of limestone from the ground. The marks of this saw can be seen on the walls of the quarry, where an observer can also appreciate the depth of the coral. A visitor can view this beautiful coral in many buildings and structures in Florida; the keystone is used as a decorative element in much the same way as marble.

Coral Channeling Machine

Coral Fossils

Brain Coral Fossil

Brain Coral Fossil

History of the Hurricane Monument

On Islamorada, another island in the Keys, is the Hurricane Monument, a memorial made of Florida keystone that is on the National Register of Historic Places.

In the 1930’s, the Florida Keys were still barely accessible. The Overseas Highway only extended to the northernmost keys; the remainder of the chain of islands could only be reached by ferry. The United States had been suffering the economic hardship of the Great Depression at that time, and veterans returning home form World War I could not find jobs.  The US government, which was funding various public works projects to put people back to work, decided to send jobless vets down to the Keys to work on the Overseas Highway and finally connect the entire string of keys with a bridge road. In May of 1935, camps were built in the middle keys for over 600 veterans to begin work.

Over the Labor Day weekend, on September 2 of 1935, a major hurricane hit the keys. In those days, meteorological technology was rudimentary and the workers had very little advance warning of the approaching storm. They had no time to escape. Over four hundred people died in the resulting devastation, most of them veterans. Bodies were collected where found, cremated, and deposited in a mass grave in Islamorada. A memorial crypt was built on the burial site.

Hurricane Monument, Islamorada

Every year on Memorial Day The Matecumbe Historical Trust holds a memorial ceremony at the site. I was there this past Memorial Day, 2012, and as the Trust members laid the wreath on the monument, I felt a sense of history repeating itself. More bones, on which the future of this amazing place is built.

Dedication Plaque on Hurricane Monument, Islamorada

Memorial Wreath at the Hurricane Monument, Islamorada


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