The highway and the tolls that help pay for it

A toll booth was built on Lower Matecumbe Key in 1938 to recoup the cost of building the Overseas Highway. The Toll Gate Inn is seen in the background.

A toll booth was built on Lower Matecumbe Key in 1938 to recoup the cost of building the Overseas Highway. The Toll Gate Inn is seen in the background.

The Reporter 

Once home to five natural wells, each a reported four feet deep and considered the most reliable source of freshwater along the island chain, Lower Matecumbe Key became an early waypoint for sailors. When the first version of the Overseas Highway opened, several hundred years later, in 1928, the island would again be recognized as a waypoint.

When the highway initially opened, the drive to Key West required a 40-mile ride aboard an automobile ferry operating between Lower Matecumbe and No Name Key where it was possible to disembark and continue the drive to Key West. The ferry departed at 8 a.m. and 1 p.m. daily. A round trip took approximately four hours to complete.

Three automobile ferries, each capable of transporting up to 20 cars at a time, were purchased from Gibb’s Shipyard in Jacksonville for $850,000. The cost to transport a vehicle fewer than 14 feet long was $3.50 and a vehicle longer than 16 feet $6.50. Ticket prices included the driver, but not passengers who cost an additional dollar each. Depending on weather phenomenon or tidal surges, service could prove unreliable, and it did not take long before plans to replace the ferry system with a solid bridge system were considered.

The Army Corps of Engineers investigated the cost of building a continuous solid bridge system to connect the gap in 1930. According to their estimates, the price was $7.5 million for the cheap version of the bridge system and $13.7 million for a first-class version. Plans were submitted to the United States Congress under the project name Oversea Highway. In the meantime, construction of two additional ferry terminals on Grassy and Hog keys, as well as 13.5 additional miles of roadway on the Middle Keys, shortened the ferry ride to two 14-mile trips by 1931. Further efforts to bridge the gap were thwarted with the collapse of the American economy and emergence of the Great Depression.

Because Monroe County officials held on to the belief that a solid bridge system connecting Key West to mainland America could represent a potential boon to the economy, the Overseas Highway Bridge Corporation was formed. In October 1932, the Reconstruction Finance Corporation forwarded a plan for congressional approval of a loan for $10.7 million to build the bridge system. The request was ignored until the 1932 election of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

One of Roosevelt’s first acts as President was the implementation of his New Deal promising the country relief, recovery and reform. Part of his plan was the creation of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), approved by Congress May 12, 1933. The agency’s purpose was to grant relief funds directly to state agencies and, in 1934, construction of the solid bridge system became a FERA project.

Much of the workforce assigned the task represented hundreds of out-of-work World War I veterans housed in three Upper Keys work camps, two on Lower Matecumbe and one on Windley Key. Each camp could accommodate 250 workers. A point of contention among the veterans was that while eight vets were assigned to their cabins, a cabin assigned to civilian workers housed only four.

Camp 5, found at the northern end of the island, was used primarily as a housing camp. Camp 3, the largest of the camps, was located at the southern end of Lower Matecumbe and was home to a mess tent, barber shop, recreation hall, and 64 housing cabins. Camp 3 was also the only camp to have harbor access from the Channel 2 and Channel 5 bridges, allowing it to operate as a seaport servicing the quarterboat Sarasota, dredges, barges, tugboats, a floating concrete plant, and a mosquito control boat. Equipment and building materials were also stored at the camp.

One of the first projects undertaken was connecting Lower Matecumbe to Jewfish Bush Key, known as Fiesta Key today. The project was devastated by the 1935 Labor Day Hurricane. The only modern evidence of the project ever taking place comes in the forms of the series of concrete bridge piers visible from the Channel 5 Bridge that extend out into the shallows off of Lower Matecumbe.

When the Overseas Highway 2.0 reopened with a complete system of roads and bridges in place on March 29, 1938 (official opening July 4, 1938), a toll system to recoup costs associated with construction was implemented. To collect fees, toll booths were placed on Lower Matecumbe and Big Pine keys with a fee of $1 assessed to all drivers with an additional quarter charged for each passenger. Greyhound Bus service between Miami and Key West also became operational.

The Lower Matecumbe toll booth was located near what was then the Toll Gate Inn and today the Boy Scout Camp. Monroe County residents were issued free passes in the form of numbered decals to be placed on the automobile’s windshield in 1953. The first resident to use his pass was David W. Pease.

Tolls were lifted on April 15, 1954 when the toll booths were picked up and hauled away. Signs popped along the side of the road declaring the roadway “The Florida Freeway.” The people of the Florida Keys protested this “renaming” of their road and it once again became known as the Overseas Highway.

Brad Bertelli is a published author of four books on Florida and Florida Keys history. As well as operating Historic Upper Keys Walking Tours, he is s the curator of the Keys History & Discovery Center, located at the Islander Resort. His column will appear every other week in The Reporter. Reach Brad with comments and questions at WhyPanic@aol.com .