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Wrecker King Of Indian Key — John Jacob Housman

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One of nine children, John Jacob Housman was born in 1799 Staten Island, New York. The son of an oysterman, the young sailor became captain of his father’s 56-foot schooner William Henry as a teenager. Rumor says the young captain stole his father’s ship when he set a course for adventure in the West Indies. If so, no court documents back up the claim.

What seems more than likely is that Housman grew bored with the “coasting and packet along the shores of Staten and Long islands, also up the North River” and sailed the William Henry to warmer latitudes. While much of the history of Housman’s young life has been left open for interpretation, it is clear he was both ambitious and an independent thinker.

The William Henry departed Charleston Harbor in 1822, the same year John Fleeming moved to Key West from Mobile, Alabama and built the island’s first house. On his way south, Housman experienced a life-altering encounter with the Florida Reef. His schooner ran afoul of the corals and while they did not deliver a fatal blow, the ship was sufficiently damaged to warrant a stop in Key West for repairs.

While marooned in Key West, Housman witnessed the entirety of the wrecking industry. He learned wrecking was not just about rescuing people out on the reef or salvaging a vessel and its cargo. Half of the wrecking industry occurred back at the dock where not only were workers needed to offload ships, but warehouses to store the salvaged goods. Carpenters and blacksmiths were hired to make repairs as auctioneers sold off cotton, china, tropical hardwoods, dyes and so much more. Hotels, too, were needed to house sailors, crews, and passengers—as were restaurants and saloons to provide food, drink, and entertainment.

During Housman’s time in Key West the only two legal ports-of-entry along Florida’s east coast were Key West and St. Augustine. Housman was keen to establish a third and set his sights on Indian Key where he invested in excess of a reported $140,000 developing the island. Not only did he see to the construction of two three-story warehouses, he saw to it that additional wharves were built to accommodate increased traffic. He purchased the general stores, Tropical Hotel, restaurant, bar, nine-pin bowling alley, billiards room, and more. Housman attended to the island’s aesthetics as well, importing fertile topsoil and planting rows of flowering shrubs and fruit trees.