Cedar Key: The Story of What Could Have Been

A look at a small coastal Florida fishing village that was once a major 19th century shipping port and railroad terminus: Cedar Key

With its repairs completed in 1868 and freight and passenger traffic flowing again, the Town of Cedar Key was incorporated in 1869. By the 1880s, Cedar Key had developed into a bustling port that was home to slat mills operated by J. Eberhard Faber and the Eagle Pencil Company. Both found Cedar Key, in search of splinter-free wood to use for the manufacturing of pencils in their factories in Germany and New York City. Alone, Faber manufactured 500 different types of pencils with cedar from the Cedar Keys area. Immense forest of yellow pine, white oak, ash, live oak, red cedar, hickory, magnolia and other woods in the region were suitable for the manufacture of everything made of wood. Due to the amount of lumber and naval stores harvested on the mainland and its railroad connection, Cedar Key had become one of the most important ports in Florida, with only Jacksonville, Fernandina, Pensacola and Key West ranked ahead of it. In addition, Cedar Key became a shipbuilding center with 28 registered vessels were built between 1870 and 1895.

Convinced of the South’s eventually economic revival, railroad magnate Henry Bradley Plant began acquiring southern railroads at foreclosure sales in 1879. Plant’s original plans included for Cedar Key to serve as his Gulf Coast destination for shipping and commerce. Although Plant had successfully negotiated deals to reach Gainesville, Plant was unable to secure access to Cedar Key’s port. Cedar Key folklore suggests and angry Plant responded, “I’ll wipe Cedar Key off the map! Owls will hoot in your attics and hogs will wallow in your deserted streets!”

Instead of Cedar Key, Plant established his own port in Tampa, which was a sleepy community of 720 residents in 1880. Rail service between Tampa and Jacksonville started in 1884 and Plant established his steamship lines to Key West and Cuba at Tampa in 1886. Also attracting Northern manufacturers and the Key West cigar industry to Tampa, Plant effectively ended Cedar Key’s reign as the Gulf Coast’s primary destination for shipping.

The Cedar Keys reached a peak population of 5,000 in 1888 before falling into decline. Down in Tampa, Plant’s investment resulted in Tampa surpassing Cedar Key, with 5,532 residents of its own by the 1890 census. By 1896, with Tampa replacing Cedar Key in importance, Cedar Key’s population had declined to 1,200. Whatever Plant did not finish off in Cedar Key was taken out for good 1896. On September 4, 1896, a hurricane with winds of 125 miles per hour and a 10-foot storm surge virtually wiped out Cedar Key’s timber cutting and milling industry. A few months later in December 1896, a fire destroyed much of what was left. Over logging without an emphasis on replanting, didn’t help Cedar Key’s fortunes either. With the end of its reign as a major shipping port, rail service to the island gradually declined until the last train departed from Cedar Key on July 7, 1932