Cedar Key is an outlying cluster of islands at the end of Hwy 24, just off US19/98 in Levy County, northwest Florida. It is reached along a causeway that links the islands with the mainland. As its name suggests, Cedar Key was named after the forests of Eastern Red Cedar trees that once grew abundantly in this area.
This quiet Victorian fishing village makes a great day out for visitors, with a scenic drive along the coast before reaching the rather dilapidated buildings arranged over a few short blocks. Cedar Key’s population is still under 1000.
History of Cedar Key
Early 1542 maps show Cedar Key as “Las Islas Sabines”. The islands were originally inhabited by Seminole Indians. An archaeological dig at Shell Mound, 14km north of Cedar Key, uncovered artifacts dating back to 500BC at the top of the 28-foot high mound. A 2,000 year-old skeleton was also recovered from Cedar Key in 1999, and arrowheads and spear tips from the area are said to be 12,000 years old, so it is safe to assume the islands have a long history of habitation.
Cedar Key was a known watering hole for Spanish ships and well-known pirates such as Captain Kidd and Jean Lafitte in the 17th and 18th centuries. The first permanent settlement was in 1839 during the Second Seminole War, when the US Army built a fort and hospital on Depot Key, later renamed Atsena Otie Key. A hurricane in 1842 caused serious damage to the fort and the Seminole Indians left the area, never to return, so Depot Key was quickly abandoned by the Army.
Gradually, Florida settlers moved to the area and a Post Office was established in 1845. Shortly after, the lumber industry began harvesting the cedars for pencils and the cedar slats were shipped from the new port to factories further north. With the growth of the port the Cedar Key Lighthouse was built in 1854. It stood on a 47 foot hill and was 28 feet tall. It now serves as a 26-bed dormitory for the marine laboratory of the University of Florida in the Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge.
In 1860 Cedar Key became the terminus for the Florida Railroad and Parson and Hale’s General Store was opened in what is now the Island Hotel. Although the town flourished for a time, once the cedar trees had been harvested, the lumber warehouses were converted into shops and restaurants and the town fell into decline.
Modern-day Cedar Key
A visit to Cedar Key today will reveal a grid of Victorian buildings along the waterfront that now house small shops and fish restaurants. Practical rather than pretty, the waterfront overlooks run-down, weather-beaten fishing huts on stilts out in Waccasassa Bay. The grid of streets that make up the town are lined with simple wooden homes and small gift shops which are interesting to browse around.
From the docks there are fishing charters and cruises to offshore island beaches for bird-watching within the Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge. Back on dry land the Cedar Key Historical Museum has an eclectic mix of exhibits and is open daily on the corner of D and 2nd Street. It is not terribly scintillating but has some curios.
Cedar Key's very best attraction is sitting on the upper deck of one of the restaurants watching the sun sink down into the Gulf, creating a vibrant sky of rich red, rose, orange and gold in its wake.
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