Cedar Key – An oyster story that ended with clams!
Can you imagine the largest cities in Florida as bright stars in the sky? Miami, Tampa, Jacksonville, Tallahassee and the ever-developing Orlando area would be as bright as a full summer moon. But that wasn’t always the case with these metropolises. In the early 19th century those bright stars would have been Fernandina, St. Augustine, Key West, Pensacola and a little protrusion into the Gulf known as Cedar Key. The major cities as we know them today weren’t more than a thought! This Florida road trip takes us to Cedar Key, one of the big commerce spots of the 1800s.
Cedar Key History
In fact, by 1865 Cedar Key was a major port and railhead for the shipping of wood, naval stores, fish, oysters and other goods. The Florida Railroad built by David Yulee ran between Fernandina (on Amelia Island north of Jacksonville) and Cedar Key with stops in between. One of the biggest commodities shipped worldwide was pencils made from the cedar trees around Cedar Key. By 1870 Cedar Key had 400 people.
Then in the 1890s the bright light of Cedar Key started to fade. Pencil factories closed as wood became scarce. Henry Plant built and/or acquired a railroad from Savannah, Georgia all along Florida’s east coast with a southern terminus at Tampa. Plant also had a major sea transport company that shipped goods from Tampa to other Florida ports and Havana, Cuba. Further dimming of Cedar Key’s brightness was a hurricane in 1896 that killed 100 people.
Cedar Key was left with just its sponging, oystering and fishing. The railroad shut down. The town rebuilt, but the economy was shattered leaving only the hearty soles who lived by the sea. The town survived without growth. By 2010 there were 701 people continuing to share their love of the sea. Along the way, they suffered through damaging hurricanes (1950, 1985, 2017), rebuilding each time.
Through most of the 20th century, Cedar Key remained a quiet fishing village that developed as a respite for writers, artists, and quaint shops. Tourists visited and the town maintained reasonably well until the voters in the state of Florida decided that gill nets for commercial fishing should be abolished. There is much debate over the impact or necessity to put individual fishermen out of business overnight, but it happened. Fishing families were devastated. Dozens left Cedar Key.
By the late 1990’s it was clear that sustainable fishing methods were exhausted in Cedar Key. Something had to be done! Along came aquaculture.
By the year 2000 there were 950 acres dedicated to leases for aqua farming clams. By 2010 there were over 1350 acres. Today, the clam business is a 50 million dollar resource and there is better news.
The depleted oyster beds have been seeded with an oyster species known as Eastern oyster (Crassostrea virginica) found from the Yucatan to Canada. The oysters can grow to maturity in two years. This new industry is flourishing! Perhaps the former oyster capital of Florida, Apalachicola should take notice.
One of the restaurants serving locally raised oysters and clams is Steamers. This second-floor seafood restaurant has an excellent water view and a rustic atmosphere typical of Cedar Key.
The Future of Cedar Key
The success of oyster farming is the impetus for this article. Those who know oysters can tell you that one of the most famous raw bars in the state is The Half Shell Raw Bar in Key West. On a Florida road trip to our southernmost point a few weeks ago, we ordered some oysters at The Half Shell. After a couple of the succulent bi-valves, we noted they tasted and looked like some oysters we had in Cedar Key about two years earlier. The bartender confirmed my suspicions.
We visited Cedar Key and ordered both the aqua-farmed clams and oysters. They were fresh and surprisingly better than expected. However, at the time, based on the information then available, it was unlikely that two years later there would ever be enough produced to satisfy a large Florida market. Hence, my latest surprise in Key West.
Welcome back, yet again, Cedar Key. The town is once again full of fishermen and jobs are there for those who want to work. Those who live by the sea seem to always find a way to survive and flourish.
More about Florida’s shellfish industry and history is here. http://shellfish.ifas.ufl.edu/
Visit the website of a Cedar Key aquaculture oyster and clam company here.
Cedar Key is about a two and a half hour Florida road trip from Tampa and a three-and-a-half-hour road trip from Orlando, Florida. Updated September 2022.
You can find more Florida road trips here.