Florida State Parks 75th Anniversary Logo
Lignumvitae Key lies in the distance surrounded by clear blue water. The Matheson House was built in 1919 and used as a caretaker's residence. Today, it serves as the park's visitor center. The 2,000-feet long coral wall leads to the bay on the back side of the island. Sparkling blue Florida Bay glistens at the end of the Matheson Trail.
Lignumvitae Key Botanical State Park
Bright green leaves and purple blossoms grace this lignum vitae tree (Guaiacum sanctum).

History and Culture

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.

A park ranger leads a tour group on Lignumvitae Key in the late 1970s.

1970s Tour

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.

Lignumvitae Key before 1960.

Lignumvitae Aerial

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.

Local ladies sitting on a Galapagos tortoise.

Galapagos Tortoise

Kay Wilkinson, a local teacher, and her friend sit atop a Galapagos tortoise near the Key's planting area and water hole.

The Matheson House after the 1935 Labor Day hurricane.

Hurricane Damage

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.

The caretakers of Lignumvitae Key move their car to the island by means of two motor boats.

Car Moving Day

Russ and Charlotte Niedhauk move their car to Lignumvitae Key in a very unusual way. They were the caretakers of the island from 1952 to 1972 and lived in the Matheson House.