Our island was officially recognized by the name Ramrod Key in a Government survey in the mid-1800s. In June 1857, a survey report was filed by US Surveyor C.T. Iardella, who described Ramrod Key as covered with heavy mangrove, palmetto, sea grape and buttonwood with an outer shore of coral rock. The surveyor also noted a lagoon (salt pond) on the western side with depths of five to fifteen inches. By 1878, Ramrod Key was showing on Government charts.
It is said that Ramrod Key got its name from a ship named “Ramrod” that was wrecked out on the coral reef in the early 19th Century (source Jim Kupper, Islamorada Library). According to Webster’s, a ramrod is “a rod used for ramming home the charge in a muzzle-loading firearm.”
Long before our island was officially named and charted it was visited by Calusa Indians, but apparently occupied only as a refuge from the warlike Creek Indians, who were induced by English settlers to make slave raids on the Calusas. Finally, chased by the Creeks and decimated by European diseases, the remaining Calusas escaped to Cuba and were assimilated into the local population. Before the Calusas, there was probably a small population of other Indians occupying some of the Keys islands but there is very little evidence.
The only known prehistoric physical signs of previous occupancy of our BBECA subdivision were remnants of a “native rock” wall near the southeast point of Ramrod. An old-timer reported that there was once a pig farm there.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Lower Keys were sparsely populated, mostly by sponge fishermen and others living from the sea. They lived in primitive conditions – driftwood shacks with palmetto thatch roofs – and supplemented their diets with venison (Key Deer meat). Over the years, small communities would form and then vanish to be replaced by others. Some people came from south Florida but many others from the Bahamas. The 1870 census listed 3 families on Ramrod Key, with a total of twelve people. The 1910 census again listed 3 families, now with 11 people, none of whom carried the same names as in 1870. The 1935 census listed only 3 people, again all different names. Apparently, Ramrod was a hard place to eke out a living.
In spite of our low population, a Post Office and general store was established here in 1917 and remained open at least until 1938. It was located on the higher ground just west of the present location of the FKAA pumping station.
Most Ramrod activity in all the years before 1957 appears to have been centered on this ridge area where both the old auto road (1928) and the railroad (1912) crossed the island. But the train didn’t stop at the Post Office; it merely hooked a suspended bag of mail as it roared through.
There was one not-to-be-forgotten resident of Ramrod in the early years (at least until 1960) who lived in a small house in the woods somewhere. Her name was Nellie Shanahan and she was called by one writer “the pioneer woman” of Ramrod. Nellie embraced “Irish Mysticism” and believed in signs and portents. In August of 1960 she predicted that Donna, the huge hurricane of 1960, would strike Ramrod. It did just that on September 9th.
Although Nellie was a recluse, she was also a poet and wrote Edgar Allan Poe type verses like:
Roads and railroads
About all one could say about Ramrod Key until the 1950s was that “a road ran through it.” Neither Henry Flagler’s famous Overseas Railroad nor the auto road seemed to have much effect on life here. The railroad was a straight run through the Keys, operating from 1912 until the giant hurricane of 1935 crippled it fatally, and it was replaced by Highway US 1 in January of 1938. But the earlier 128.5-mile auto road through the Keys, which opened in 1928, was more idiosyncratic: it ran from Miami only to Matecumbe, where one took a 40-mile ferry ride to No Name Key ($3.50 – $6.50, including dinner), then across the Old Wooden Bridge to Big Pine and across Watson Boulevard, thence by bridge and road across to the Torches and Ramrod before continuing to Key West.
Residential development of Ramrod started north of the present US 1 in the later 50s. By 1959, a grid of roads had been constructed in the middle of north Ramrod and some development had taken place on the west shore.
The Looe Key Reef Resort Motel was being built by Max Bennett. But Breezeswept Beach Estates was still only a vision in the mind of developer Richard Jaffe. In 1959 Jaffe was busy buying up the land (under mortgage from Neil Knowles), getting permits, and creating a “Declaration of Restrictions” (filed December 30th, 1959). Land clearing, reclamation and construction began in 1960 when Jaffe brought in work crews, heavy equipment and dynamite, and began construction of the canals. He envisioned a village of up to 3,000 people!
Eddie (“Captain Eddie”) Williams surveyed the Breezeswept subdivision for Jaffe and laid out the canals. He was hired because he had one of only two survey transits in the Keys.
He said that after the survey lines were drawn an explosives expert from Miami (Lonzo Coffin) came to Ramrod to drill holes within the canal boundaries, maybe five at a time, and then load each with three sticks of dynamite – BANG!
Then the draglines came in and dug out the loosened rock and marl. This material was used to elevate the lots Jaffe was building (about 612 in total) on top of the mangrove and scrub covered lowland. When completed, the lots were scarcely more than 2½ feet above sea level. Most required additional fill before houses were built. Lots sold for $1,490 – $25 down and $25 a month. Taxes ran about $5 per lot per year.
It was a bootstrap operation. Jaffe borrowed large sums and paid his crew partly in lots rather than cash. The roads were dirt; water came through a surface pipe. The first houses, built as demonstrators in 1961 and 1962, were those at 281 and 951 West Indies Drive, one at each of the island’s two open water points. For these, Jaffee dredged shallow channels into Newfound Harbor for boat access.
A single deep canal was built at the southern end of Ramrod to connect the whole canal system (the mile-long main canal and 16 side canals) to the harbor.
In the 1960s rattlesnakes were abundant and worrying residents. So a Mr. Louis Lowe with help of the “Fire Brigade” took charge and burned off numerous lots and shot the snakes as they fled the fire.
By 1973, there were 53 houses on Ramrod Key, and Jim and Elaine Moore were building the Chevron station and store. The water supply came to us through a small unburied pipe snaking along the roadside. In 1981 we had about 100 houses and by 2001 about 290 houses, with several new ones under construction. Today, all modern utilities are now available. The County cooperates well with BBECA on maintenance of streets by the Roads Department and provision of security by the Sheriff’s Department.
A very excellent history can be found at: http://www.bbeca.org/history.html