On a blustery, partly cloudy Sunday afternoon The Conch Tour Train, Key West’s old-time sightseeing tour, pulled out of the station on Front Street and rambled and jangled along the sometimes bumpy roads of Key West’s historic district.
A ticket for the train, actually a car outfitted like a train with passenger cars in tow, is about $30 (plus tip); not cheap, but the most thorough look at the second oldest city in Florida. Key West was incorporated in 1829. The tour goes on for a generous 90 minutes, the time it takes to watch a movie, including a 10-minute stop for a bathroom break. The movie in this case is the history and landmarks of Key West as told in gently rambling vignettes in the wry and quietly compelling voice of our driver and tour guide, Dallas. Each train driver follows a script, and each puts his or her own spin on the stories, fleshing out their favorites. Dallas’ real name is Larry Clearman, and he is in fact from Dallas, a 66-year-old retired firefighter with an appreciation for history.
“To see where you’re going, look where you’ve been,” he said. “It’s a guidebook to the future.”
We looked to the left, and to the right, as Dallas peeled back layers of Key West past. It’s a pleasingly kitschy and low-key trip, a great way to let lunch settle and take a break from the bustle of Duval Street. Later you might be inspired to point out quirky morsels of local history wherever you go with your friends, something they may or may not find amusing.
Did you know that there are no squirrels in Key West? Or that it’s so far from mainstream America? One-hundred and thirty-four miles to the nearest Wal-Mart.
You see the town in a new multitude of colors that reach beyond the rainbow flags of prominent gay culture into origin stories about the scorned wife of a cigar baron who now haunts the town, cockfighting (where Key West’s roughly 3,000 free-wandering chickens came from), and the rather gruesome details about the town’s original name, meaning “Bone Island.” You’ll get a look at attractions both well-known, such as Ernest Hemingway’s house, and more obscure, such as the Trev-Mor Hotel on 314 Simonton where he lived when he first came to town.
A small placard on the side of the Trev-Mor reads mysteriously: “On this spot in 1897 nothing happened.”
The train rolls on through the streets, making a wide loop around town. There’s a story behind everything: the cemetery with its funny epitaphs (“At least I know where he’s sleeping tonight,” chiseled onto one philanderer’s gravestone by order of his wife); homes made by shipbuilders; the sponge industry; a banyan tree “so big it has its own mailbox”; the Naval yard; how Key West once seceded from the rest of the United States and then demanded foreign aid; one of its most famous nude bars; and an escaped slave who founded a church here. And a lot more.
“That’s right, folks,” Dallas said over the intercom as we rambled along. “It’s a true story. Everything I tell you is true.”
Before stopping for a break, Dallas advised us to watch our step getting out of the passenger cars.
“If you fall off the train I’m required by my boss to take a picture of you and put it on Facebook.”
And he advised us not to harm the chickens while we’re here.
“If you harm the chickens, you run afoul of the law,” Dallas said.
More information: conchtourtrain.com. (888) 916-TOUR. ¦