Mystic’s ties to early Key West

You might think that places like Mystic and Key West — 1,550 miles and four climate zones apart — wouldn’t have a shared past, but they do. This was brought to mind in September when our family was riveted to the news, watching Hurricane Irma approach Florida. At one point, the curator of the Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum in Key West was interviewed about his refusal to evacuate the island, and I suddenly recalled that Hemingway’s house was built by a Mystic native, Asa Forsythe Tift.

Asa’s grandfather, Solomon, was a Revolutionary War soldier, wounded at Groton Heights and held captive on a British prison ship, where he contracted typhus. Years later, Solomon told his grandchildren that when he overheard a British officer say that he was as good as dead, he resolved to live. Solomon’s grit characterized other Tifts who embraced the challenges and opportunities that their new country offered.

Florida was designated a U.S. Territory in 1821, and Key West, with the deepest port between Norfolk and New Orleans, became a shipping hub. Amos Tift, one of Solomon’s sons, saw the area’s potential and pioneered its early development. He ran a general store and used his schooner, the Lily, to transport mail and freight between Charleston and Key West.

One of the perils of island life was yellow fever. Amos caught it and died in Mystic in 1829, during what was meant to be a brief visit home. His funeral was held in the Mariners Free Church, forerunner of the Union Baptist Church on Baptist Hill in Mystic.

Amos’s son, Asa Forsythe Tift, was even more successful in Key West than his father. Asa owned a warehouse, a ship chandlery, a dry goods store, and an ice-house. The primary source of his wealth was his salvage company that dealt with the wreckage of ships caught in hurricanes or damaged on coral reefs. The salvage business was so lucrative that Key West quickly became the richest city per capita in the nation.

Tropical storms have always targeted Key West, and in 1846, a particularly vicious one wreaked havoc. Two lighthouses and 592 houses (out of 600) were leveled. Eight feet of water flooded the streets. A few years later, when Asa built the house where Hemingway would write many of his masterpieces, he situated it 16 feet above sea level and used limestone quarried there on the site. (The house is one of the few in town with a dry basement, where the museum staff apparently sheltered during Irma.) Tragically, Asa’s home could protect against storms but not disease; three years after its completion, his wife and three of their children died of yellow fever.

As a Confederate sympathizer during the Civil War, Asa refused to refuel a Union troop ship stopping to take on coal. As a result, the government ordered him off Key West, but he eventually returned and died there in 1889.

Bringing this story back to Connecticut, one of Asa’s brothers became a successful Mystic merchant; he built the elegant Amos Chapman Tift House that still stands on High Street. Amos’s daughter, Annie, married a local man, Frank Buckley, who changed the name of his business establishment from the Buckley Block to the Tift Block to honor his new wife. If you visit its retail tenants today (at 36-44 West Main Street), you can access an informative video by using your smartphone and the building’s QR code. Videos about the Tift Block and other Mystic landmarks were created by local middle and high school students for the GeoHistorian Project sponsored by the Mystic River Historical Society. The MRHS website has links to these videos as well.

It will take courage for everyone who suffered tragedy and loss during this unprecedented hurricane season to rebuild their lives, but it will happen because grit is an enduring aspect of the human spirit.

 

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