I wonder how many visitors to Key West realize they are visiting an island that was once a foreign nation.
According to my local friends, the US Border Patrol, in 1982, set up a roadblock and inspection point on US-1 just south of Florida City. Vehicles were stopped and searched for narcotics and illegal immigrants. The Key West City Council complained repeatedly about the inconvenience for travelers to and from Key West, claiming that it hurt the Keys’ important tourism industry. The City Council’s complaints went unanswered by the U.S. federal government, and attempts to get an injunction against the roadblock failed in court. As a form of protest Mayor Dennis Wardlow and the Council declared Key West’s independence on April 23, 1982. In the eyes of the Council, since the U.S. federal government had set up the equivalent of a border station as if they were a foreign nation, they might as well become one. As many of the local citizens were referred to as Conchs, the nation took the name of the Conch Republic.
On April 23rd Mayor Wardlow was proclaimed Prime Minister of the Republic, and immediately declared war against the United States. The Conch Republic Flag was raised over City Hall and the schooner Western Union, under the command of Captain John Kraus, went forth into the harbor and attacked the Coast Guard Cutter Diligence with water balloons, Conch fritters, and stale Cuban bread. The Diligence fought back with fire hoses and thus commenced the Great Battle of the Conch Republic. Prime Minister Wardlow surrendered and demanded foreign aid (which they are still waiting for).
Although the US government never recognized the independence of Key West, the border checkpoint was closed and the Conch Republic was born – at least as a marketing strategy.
In 1995, it was reported that the 478th Civil Affairs Battalion of the United States Army Reserve was to conduct a training exercise simulating an invasion of a foreign island. They were to land on Key West and conduct affairs as if the islanders were foreign. However, no one from the 478th notified Conch officials of the exercise.
Seeing another chance at publicity, Wardlow and the forces behind the 1982 Conch Republic secession mobilized the island for a full-scale war (in the Conch Republic, this involved firing water cannons from fireboats and hitting people with stale Cuban bread), and protested to the Department of Defense for arranging this exercise without consulting the City of Key West. The leaders of the 478th issued an apology the next day, saying they “in no way meant to challenge or impugn the sovereignty of the Conch Republic”, and submitted to a surrender ceremony on September 22.
The Conch Republic actively maintains an Army, Navy, and Air Force whose primary duties are to help re-enact the Great Sea Battle of 1982 and the retaking of Fort Zachary Taylor. The Navy comprises no fewer than 10 civilian boats and the schooner Wolf under the command of Admiral Finbar Gittelman.
The Army consists of the 1st Conch Artillery, garrisoned in Fort Taylor. The Conch Republic Air Force has more than a dozen appointed aircraft in its fleet.
The Conch Republic celebrates Independence Day every April 23 as part of a week-long festival of activities involving numerous businesses in Key West. The organization — a “Sovereign State of Mind”, seeking only to bring more “Humor, Warmth and Respect” to a world in sore need of all three according to its Secretary General, Peter Anderson — is a key tourism booster for the area.
Through their website, the Republic issues souvenir passports. These are issued as souvenirs, but some have evidently bought them in the mistaken belief they are legitimate travel and identity documents.
The Conch Republic is alive and well in Key West. When you visit Key West you see all kinds of references to the “Conch Republic.” Most tourists write it off as a quirky nickname. Very few of them understand the Conch Republic is real – well, sort of.
As a result of my volunteer work on the Coast Guard Cutter Ingham Museum it was my honor and privilege to be certified as a Deck Officer in the Navy of the Conch Republic. Yes, Key West is a unique place to visit and I encourage you to put it on your list of places to explore!