Hundreds of thousands of years ago when sea level was higher than its present level, the Upper Keys were a living coral reef. As sea level fluctuated over time, coral reefs have been alternately submerged and exposed, allowing the coral polyps, the small animals that build the reef, to create large structures. When sea level dropped, the coral was exposed forming the islands of the Florida Keys. Over time, the island was colonized by plants from the Bahamas, Caribbean and West Indies as seeds were transported by wind, sea and in the intestinal tract of migrating birds, most notably the white-crowned pigeon. The tropical hardwood hammock that thrives on this island was once common on the highest elevations in the Upper Keys. In 1919, William J. Matheson, a wealthy Miami chemist, bought this 280-acre island and built a caretaker's home with a windmill for electricity and a cistern for rainwater.
Uninhabited for most of its known history, Lignumvitae Key was purchased in 1919 by wealthy chemist William J. Matheson. Matheson built the caretaker's home that currently serves as the park's visitor center. The key was acquired by the State of Florida in 1971.
This aerial photo of Lignumvitae Key was taken before 1960. The old breakwater by the shore, a boat dock and the Matheson House are visible. Note that the shoreline is clear, without mangroves.
Kay Wilkinson, a local teacher, and her friend sit atop a Galapagos tortoise near the Key's planting area and water hole.
The damaged Matheson House, missing its roof, after the 1935 Labor Day hurricane. This hurricane swept through Lower Matecumbe and Islamorada with winds possibly in excess of 200 miles per hour. The barometer dropped to 26.35, which was the lowest reading ever in the Western Hemisphere until Hurricane Gilbert in 1988.