|Big Pine is relatively close to Key West so there was a nearby market for goods and services. Much of Big Pine was still available for homesteading in 1900. There are recorded homesteads on Big Pine as late as 1926. Usually, this type of unused government land could be squatted-on by almost anyone in those days. With warm climate and ground water available, food could be grown for family sustenance. Occupations of farming and seamen were popular throughout the Keys, but charcoal making was not. Key West had a population of 5,675 in the same 1870 census. People needed to cook and this required fuel – charcoal. Big Pine was the last Key going north that listed a charcoal burner or woodcutter in 1870.
A note on the beginning of land ownership on Big Pine Key. When Florida became a state in 1845, the US government gave Florida land for its use such as schools and selling to residents. From 1845 to 1915, the US government gave Florida 3,208 acres for its use. Some was given to railroad companies to build railroad on the mainland. The US kept 2,608 acres for its use, one being homesteading. By the end of the aforementioned 1926 homestead, here is the tally of land distribution: State sold = 1,427 acres; railroad enticements = 1,781; and homesteading = 2,585 acres. From all the state land sold, Florida collected $2,214.32. Big Pine is probably appraised at close to one billion dollars today.
Charcoal making was labor and time intensive in the Keys. Note the sole inhabitant of Big Pine listed in the 1870 census was George Wilson, charcoal burner. Briefly, the process was wood, usually buttonwood, being cut, hauled and stacked in a pyramid or tee-pee fashion. The pile was covered with canvas, seaweed, sand and/or marl to contain the heat. A fire was started in the bottom-center and the burn rate controlled by small openings in the top or sides, plus by the oxygen/air intake openings at the bottom. The process took days and had to be monitored or the fire would burn the wood, or go out. The finished product was bagged and shipped to Key West. Considerable charcoal was made on Cape Sable also.
Ships wrecked off shore and salvaging was an early occupation, although the home base was usually Key West. One may choose to read now or later the general history web pages in this web site of farming and wrecking in the Keys.
As with all the Keys the coming of the railroad affected Big Pine, but not to the extent as the Keys where permanent railroad facilities were built. For one reason, there was not the population on Big Pine.
Henry Flagler, during the construction phase, built a fresh water resource on Big Pine. I use the word resource as it was not the typical deep well. It was two large open seepage ditches called “collecting ditches” with a pump and a 60,000 gallon storage tank (The tank was larger but leaked badly over 60,000 gallons). It was started in late 1906 and in use early 1907. It easily pumped 50,000 gallons a day. After the construction of the railroad was completed, the facility was abandoned. See the photo.
There is little press about this operation even though photos exist. In fact Big Pine received little press during railroad construction. One Florida Times-Union article dated April 11, 1907 was “The extension camp at Big Pine Key, which is the largest now in operation, will be broken up this week and the entire force of nearly 400 men will be moved to Sugarloaf Key where a new camp will be established.” The first train ran to Key West on January 22, 1912. No other significant quantity of fresh water was found on the Keys, except at Manatee Creek on Cross Key. This was about the same time that metal window and door screens began to become common in the Keys. (Before mosquito control, mosquitoes had a limiting effect on population.) As a point of reference in 1910 the population of Big Pine was 17 and No Name was 22.
John T. Knowles was Big Pine’s founding postmaster doing so on 9 February 1915. Familiar surnames of early Big Pine residents, such as Sands and Shanahan, were subsequent postmasters.
Early settlers of the Keys. John Gomez and his wife at their thatch house on Panther Key.