The original Florida Reef

The Florida Reef is estimated to be between 5,000 and 7,000 years old. One of the world’s three most extensive coral reef systems in the world, the Florida Reef, comes in third (relative to size) behind those growing off the coasts of Australia and Belize.

The barrier reef system is not one continuous string of corals, but a series of thousands of individual reefs that begin to rise from the Atlantic floor near Stuart, located some 100 miles north of Miami, and trails off at the approximate locale of the Dry Tortugas some 70 miles southwest of Key West.

Like most barrier reef systems, the Florida Reef was built on the backs of a variety of reef structures punctuated by a preponderance of both spur and groove and patch reef formations. Spur and groove reef formations are made up of two components, the groove and the spur. The groove portion of the reef consists of sandy avenues along the ocean floor that are bordered by long rows of spurs, or growths of limestone substrate, that rise from the floor like rugged city skylines. Patch reefs, on the other hand, might best be described as coral oases.

However, what might not be realized is that the modern Florida Reef is not the area’s original coral reef system. The corals creating the original barrier reef system flourished 125,000 years ago. One of the coolest things about that fact is that portions of that ancient reef line were first linked by the tracks of the Over-Sea Railway and are today connected by the asphalt and bridges of the Overseas Highway. Cooler still is the notion that some of those 125,000 year old corals can be seen today.

Anyone who has spent more than a little time on these islands has likely seen the evidence. Not only does it present itself up and down the Upper Keys in particular, but it does so in absolute plain sight. Of course it is one thing to say the islands were once part of a thriving coral reef and another thing altogether to see the fossil evidence firsthand.

Perhaps the most profound place to see the old reef system is at the aptly named and worthy roadside attraction Windley Key Fossil Reef Geological State Park. Located near mile marker 85, the park is the site of a former quarry first mined by those hardy men sent to work for Henry Flagler during construction of the Over-Sea Railway in the opening years of the 20th Century. Today, eight-foot walls of substrate have been left exposed revealing the fossilized remains of brain corals, sea fans and star corals — among others. Like stony coral reliefs etched into the quarry’s walls, it is not hard to imagine their once brilliant colors of mustard, emerald and orange awash in unspoiled turquoise waters.

As a side note, Windley Key was originally represented by two islands known for some time as the Umbrella Keys. It was Henry Flagler’s men who, while building the Key West Extension of the East Coast Railway, filled the narrow channel separating the two islands with pieces of limestone, sand, and marl until the two islands became one.

Benjamin Russell was the first to homestead 127 acres of the substantially larger of the two islands and did so in 1883. Two years later the island’s remaining 97 acres were deeded to the Jackson, Tampa, and Key West Railroad. At one point at least three quarries operated on the island. In addition to the quarry used by Flagler’s men, who used rock to create structure and fill, at least two other quarry operations were utilizing the limestone substrate for more decorative purposes. One of those was the Keystone Quarry operated by Charles Cale, Sr. for the Keystone Art Company out of Miami. The Keystone Quarry closed in the 1960s.

At the Keystone site, quarrymen cut away slabs of limestone that were then shipped to a Miami warehouse where the fossilized stone facades were polished to a sheen. The end result was sold as a decorative art called keystone. Fittingly enough, keystone, as defined by Miriam-Webster, is “something on which other things depend for support.”

In any case, the façade of the Florida Keys Memorial on Upper Matecumbe Key, as well as the polished coral rock used to create the monument’s crypt, is an excellent example of the almost elegantly displayed coral fossils known as keystone. The monument, built as a tribute to the victims of the Great Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 and unveiled two years after the killer storm that took nearly 500 lives assaulted the Upper Keys, is perhaps better known by its colloquial name, the Hurricane Monument.

The next time you find yourself driving over the asphalt ribbon of the Overseas Highway connecting parts of the original barrier reef system consider soaking in a little of the local history firsthand. Stop first at the Fossil Reef Park on Windley Key to see fossilized corals still in the bedrock and second at the Florida Keys Memorial to see some of that beautiful keystone.

Brad Bertelli is a published author of four books on Florida and Florida Keys history. As well as operating Historic Upper Keys Walking Tours, he is s the curator of the Keys History & Discovery Center, located at the Islander Resort. His column will appear every other week in The Reporter. Reach Brad with comments and questions at . @excuse: