There is more to Key Biscayne than beautiful beaches and expensive real estate. What many people may not know is that before it became a residential village and popular vacation attraction, Key Biscayne was the site of an Indian attack, a military base, a Civil War raid and a plantation.
The island’s rich history is chronicled in a new book, Key Biscayne. The book is part of Images of America, a series of books about the history of cities across the country.
Key Biscayne is co-authored by Key Biscayne residents James A. Kushlan, an ornithologist and writer, and Kirsten Hines, a writer and photographer. Kushlan spent his childhood on the Key’s beaches and has been a resident for more than 30 years. Hines has worked on the Key for 15 years and has been a resident for five.
Kushlan and Hines have co-authored two books and are writing another book that was supposed to include the history of Key Biscayne, but things got complicated.
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“That story was getting too big and it wasn’t flowing anymore,” Hines said. “We decided to do a separate book, and this came out so much better than what we would have done otherwise because we were able to focus just on the history.”
The book describes Key Biscayne’s recorded history, which dates as far back as 1513 with Juan Ponce de Leon’s arrival. Hundreds of vintage images bring that history to life, depicting coconut plantations, the original Cape Florida lighthouse, the marine stadium and Crandon Park zoo.
“I think people are going to connect more with the pictures,” Hines said. “A lot of times, history books get so bogged down in the writing that they’re hard to follow. We liked that this book was more about the photos.”
The biggest challenge for the co-authors was tracking down the images. Hines said it took months to find an image of Francisco Villareal, a Jesuit brother left in charge of converting the Tequesta Indians living on the Key to Christianity. A small historical society in northern Florida helped her track it down. The image she wanted was on a mural at the St. Patrick Catholic School in Miami Beach.
“That was one of the most fulfilling photos for me to track down,” Hines said.
The book took about two years to complete, from the initial research to the editing phase. Hines and Kushlan spent days in museums and libraries looking through archives and researching from home. They interviewed dozens of residents who shared their personal anecdotes and photo books.
“There are so many things people really care about and lots of good details,” Hines said. “A lot of this isn’t recorded anywhere. That’s what I think is amazing.”
Council member Frank Caplan is a Key Biscayne history buff. He can recall details about the island pre-Ponce de Leon, the nomadic indigenous population that lived on the Key and the Spanish land grants that led to the development of the island.
“Our history and archives are very rich, and having means of disseminating this history is great,” Caplan said.
He said the Key Biscayne Historical and Heritage Society has a large collection of photos and other memorabilia warehoused in an office in the village. Caplan hopes the village can have its own museum filled with the historical collection one day.
“Anything that communicates who we are, where we come from and enables our traditions to be understood by newcomers is good,” he said.