Aquarium History

In the Beginning…

Key West Aquarium entrance in the 1960s

The Key West Aquarium was a dream of Dr. Van Deusen, a director of the Fairmount Park Aquarium in Philadelphia. It began construction during the Great Depression in 1933 as part of the Works Progress Administration Program which helped to build many of the historic Key West Attractions that inhabit the island today. This provided many jobs to local Key Westers or “Conchs” as they are called today during this hard financial time where jobs were limited and people were in need of income to support their families. The concrete that was used to form the aquarium structure and holding tanks was mixed with sea water from the ocean since fresh water was hard to come by in those days.

The First of its Kind

The Aquarium took two years to complete and opened to the public on February 18, 1935. At that time admission was 15 cents for adults and 5 cents for children. The Key West Aquarium was the first aquarium to use an “open air concept”. This allowed for natural sunlight to illuminate the concrete marine displays. Dr. Van Deusen outlined the future of the Aquarium in his speech on it’s opening day. He stated that it was a valuable institution to biologists and students from all around the world in the hope that it would draw thousands of people annually to Key West.

The Purpose of the Aquarium

One of the purposes for the Key West Aquarium was to be a clearing market for other aquariums around the country. Only seven months after opening, Labor Day of 1935, a hurricane struck the middle keys and destroyed the Overseas Railroad and any hope for the Key West Attraction’s success along with it. At the time the Overseas Extension to the Florida East Coast Railroad was the only way to reach Key West besides by boat. On May 8, 1943 the U. S. Government leased the Aquarium to the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard to use as an indoor rifle range. All the displays were torn down or filled in to make a level surface area for military firearms. In June of 1946, the Aquarium was returned to the city of Key West and restored to it’s former glory. Some believe it was more popular than when it opened in 1935. In the 1960s the roof was added to the once open air aquarium to cut down on algae in the exhibits. More modern methods of illuminating the tanks were slowly being developed and with it came the end of the open air aquarium. Today the Aquarium stands as one of the top Key West Florida Attractions and is home to sharks, turtles, stingrays, tropical and other various fish found in the beautiful waters of Key West. It is actively involved in conservation of the delicate eco-system of the Florida Keys.

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