Now more than 50 years after Fidel Castro’s takeover of Cuba, it remains a mysterious, forbidden and foreign place. Few of us can picture a time when Cuba was a friendly neighbor of the United States, and a place for a quick weekend getaway. When Flagler’s train reached Key West in 1912, some of the trains were loaded onto 300 foot long barges to continue on to Havana for gambling and exotic rum drinks, especially after Prohibition took hold in 1920.
Even up to the late 1950s though, a car ferry service ran from Key West, with a connection for freight in West Palm Beach (see this web page for a great history on freight to and from Cuba from the Port of Palm Beach – http://www.portofpalmbeach.com/photo-gallery/port-rail-history.php). So you could saunter down to Key West in your car, drive to Stock Island and catch the ferry, which was operated by the West India Fruit and Steamship Company.
The ferry left Key West Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays at 11:00AM. The S.S. Havana could accommodate 500 passengers and 125 cars. Arrival in Havana was at 6:00 PM, so the crossing took about 7 hours. The fare was $13.50 one way, or $26.00 round trip (about $190.00 in 2010 dollars). The ship then left Havana for the trip back to Key West at 10:00AM, so you were back in Key West at 5:00 PM.
The ship was air-conditioned and offered snack bars, lounges, a gift shop, and small day cabins. As relations with Cuba eroded in 1959 with the trade embargo emerging in 1960, the ferry service ceased and the ships were sold in 1961.
Could we ever see such a service again in our lifetimes? It could be possible. The Tampa Port Authority has proposed a car ferry service to Havana from Tampa. Approvals would have to gained from both U.S. and Cuban authorities, plus the logistics of taking a car to Cuba…there would be no calling AAA for a tow, and it might be a bit hard to fill out a claim form for your insurance company and list the place of accident as “Havana, Cuba.”
Still, the prospect of visiting a place essentially hidden from Floridians for more than 50 years is quite inviting.
Images courtesy of the website www.timetableimages.com, from the collection of Björn Larsson.