By Jerry Wilkinson

(Click on images to enlarge, then Back.)

     Even the name Rock Harbor is a mystery in itself as there was no deep-water harbor to justify this name for the community. The first substantiated use of the name began in 1909 as a railroad depot. In the railroad days the community of Rock Harbor spanned about five miles, using the present mile markers from MM 96 to 100. Today, Rock Harbor is slowly being absorbed by the community of Key Largo even though neither are incorporated as of 2000. 

     Offshore of Rock Harbor are two keys. Both are uninhabited and the first is Dove Key. Bernard Romans described the key from his 1766 voyage as a "very small, gravelly and rather high, with a few bushes on it; during rainy seasons it affords good fresh water and a few doves; we also find purslain growing on it." 

     The second and larger is Rodriguez Key and is thought to have been named after Captain Melchor Rodriquez of the ship La Salvadora which sunk somewhere "in the Bahama Channel" loaded with pearls" in 1582. Presently, Rodriguez Key is probably best remembered as a proposed site to raise monkeys for experimental laboratory use. Locals were successful in stopping the venture. 

     The most believable explanation for the name Rock Harbor comes from the surrounding shallow harbor with its rocky shoreline, used to ship construction materials from her bayside waters. One factor supporting this contention is "Rockharbor[sic]" was shown as a designated railroad stop on the 1909 F.E.C. Railway time tables. 

     Flagler’s construction crews used barges throughout the Keys to support land operations. Key West and Knight’s Key had the only deep water harbors, therefore ships had to anchor offshore and barge material in and out. Because of lack of a barge mounted concrete plant combined with the unstable fill across Lake Surprise, Flagler’s first construction train was barged across Jewfish Creek to lay track southward on Key Largo in November 1906. About the same time, Engineer Dusenbury dredged Dusenbury Creek deeper to support inside passage of larger construction boats. 

     Stepping further back in time, a report written by R. M. Munroe of Coconut Grove in 1893 told of a Captain Benjamin Baker who "settled on the lower end of Key Largo in 1866" and started growing pineapples. Baker applied for and operated a post office named Cayo Largo from 1870 to 1871 somewhere in the Rock Harbor area. The post office location is not specific as Key Largo was not surveyed until 1872. Baker's 1882 approved 160 acre homestead was in the MM 97 area, therefore one may assume the post office was near the same location.

     Most likely, this Capt. Ben Baker was the same "King of the Wreckers" Ben Baker of Key West fame. He also operated pineapple plantations on Key Largo and Plantation Key, where he farmed while awaiting a shipwreck. Most shipwreck salvors had second occupations, generally fishermen. In one of his wrecking reports, he stated that he spotted the wreck from his porch on Key Largo. Miss Lamar Louise Curry played in this area as a young lady and remembers seeing the grave of Ben Baker on her father's property at mile marker 97. Capt. Ben Baker is credited for starting the pineapple farming industry in the Upper Keys. Wreckers are discussed in the General History page 'Wrecking'.

     Mary Baker of the 1870 census homesteaded 142 acres in 1883 at the north end of Rock Harbor. Her relationship to Ben Baker remains unclear however. Sylvanus Pinder, who was not listed on the 1870 census, homesteaded 136 acres in the middle part of Rock Harbor. It appears that the two Bakers and Sylvanus Pinder owned most of the entire Rock Harbor area. These were relatively large land tracts, and were divided into smaller parts to form the community of Rock Harbor. Benjamin Baker’s 1870 post office application stated he expected to provide mail for 17 families. 

     In the intro I stated that the name Rock Harbor is illusive. In the 1890 school board records are details of a school at Rocky Bay. The board generally listed schools from south to north. The October 4, 1894 lists Upper Keys schools as :
    East End Matecumbe School
    Plantation Key School
    Planter School
    Rocky Bay School (Mrs. Sarah Whigham is the teacher)
    Basin Hills.
Planter was on the south end of Key Largo and Basin Hills far to the north. Therefore, could Rocky Bay have been in the Rock Harbor vicinity and illustrate the use of 'rocky' as a term referring to the area?

    Postal records show on June 7, 1915  a post office established using the name Rock Harbor. Ellen L. Cribb is listed as the first postmaster. A copy of the 1870 Census can be accessed from the General History page. 

     As time passed, the names Baker and Pinder were replaced by Albury, Bethel, Curry, Johnson, Felton, Thompson and Sawyer. From 1927 to 1941, F. E. Kelly plotted the Mandalay subdivision on the ocean side of Rock Harbor. Mandalay was the local center of commercial fishing and the location of the original 1915 Rock Harbor post office. This location could have originated the name Rock Harbor. C. O. Garrett, a later postmaster, built a four story observation tower nearby.

     One of the oldest remaining houses still standing in its original location is that of William Beauregard Albury in the highway median at mile marker 98.2. Beauregard was only three weeks old when his father, William Dunham Albury and mother, Mary Jane (Pinder) Albury, moved from Key West to Key Largo in 1886. It is thought that they first settled in Basin Hills on North Key Largo before moving to Rock Harbor. The large wooden tank next to the house, privately used as a cistern, is similar to the Flagler Railroad water tanks used to bring water into the Keys. 

     Like the rest of Key Largo island residents, the Albury family first grew pineapples until the hurricanes, blights and importation of Cuban pineapples by the railroad ruined the Keys' pineapple market, which is when they switched to growing limes. The lime market also soured when the Florida mainland grew the Persian lime which shipped and showed better than the smaller and yellow Key lime. The now grown up Beauregard became a charter fisherman, his occupation for the next 30 years. People brought in by the railroad and the pristine fishing waters established the demand for charter fishing guides throughout the Keys. In 1913, he with the help of his father built his conch-style house just south of the railroad depot. In 1923, he donated the land to build the coral-rock Rock Harbor grammar school at MM 98.8. The school later became the Getman Methodist Church, the Tobacco Road Tavern and the RBC Lumber Company. Today, it is the rock portion of the Moose Lodge. 

     The family of J. Bunion Bethel and wife "Ma Lilly" (Sands) moved from Abaco, Bahamas to Planter in 1896 to farm. Seeking their own land, they moved to the Basin Hills area before permanently settling in Rock Harbor. George Wellington (Inky) Sawyer moved from Cherokee Sound, Bahamas and married Emma Elizabeth Bethel to begin another branch of the Sawyer family in Rock Harbor. The house that he rebuilt after the 1935 hurricane remains in the highway median. Its water cistern has been sawed open to permit entry as a storage room. The cross-section view of the doorway sides reveals early "tabby" concrete construction. Tabby concrete was locally made by using powdered-baked conch shells in place of portland cement as a binder.

     Another prominent Rock Harbor family was that of Edmund and Elizabeth Albury who moved from Abaco, Bahamas. The 1920 census shows seven children. Probably the best known was Calvin, who was a prominent fishing guide. He and his brother, Henry, built many of the local structures. The recently relocated Everglades Park Ranger Station was a late 1920s built house for William Johnson. His son Cleveland was the Rock Harbor constable. Another of the older homes recently burned and was the Harold Russell home. Harold was the teacher of the aforementioned Rock Harbor coral-rock school. 

     The concentration of Bahamian families, and the resultant marriages, account for local kinship in many early Keys families. An extensive comprehensive genealogical reference would be needed to follow these pioneering family names. For example there are two Rock Harbor Albury families, two Tavernier Albury families, one Plantation Key Albury family and one Islamorada Albury family who are not related except possibly through later marriage. 

     Another family to leave Planter on southern Key Largo was Norman and Ellen (Bethel) Curry. This Curry family was from Green Turtle Cay, Bahamas. Born with only one arm, their son John worked for his father until 1931 when he became Key Largo's school bus driver, despite his disability. After the 1935 hurricane, John built a house from scrap lumber for himself at mile marker 100 and married Elizabeth Bethel. Later they added a grocery store and post office. Rock Harbor remained the name of the post office and the associated area until it was renamed Key Largo, effective June 1, 1952.

     A note about the Bahamanian word "Cay" meaning island. The English spealking world pronounces the word "Cay" as we pronounce the word 'Key.' Therefore, this could have been the origin of calling small islands "Keys." There is an  American court record of the "Libel of Dennis and Allen vs the snow St. Fermin alias Britanis" in 1744 used the word spelled as "Keys." See the Admiralty Papers, Vol. 2, 1743 -1744.

     Rock Harbor is slowly vanishing from non-usuage. Many maps no longer place the Rock Harbor location.

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