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Key West Museum Photos Offer Rare Glimpse Of Life In The Keys At Pivotal Time In Their History

A group of bakers at Pigeon Key, the headquarters camp for construction of the Overseas Railway.
A.V. Rabenau
Key West Art & Historical Society
The photos include images of people like bakers at Pigeon Key, circa 1909-1911, as the Overseas Railway was reaching completion.

A new trove of photographs from a crucial time in the development of the Florida Keys are now being seen for the first time at the Custom House Museum in Key West.

The photos were taken by a man named A.V. Rabenau around 1909-1911 — just as the Overseas Railway that connected the Keys to the mainland was being completed. The Key West Art & Historical Society acquired the glass plate negatives from a private collector last year and is now displaying prints of the images.

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The images are remarkably high quality, though the photographer remains a mystery. Curator Cori Convertito said she has consulted photography archives and scholars, as well as genealogy sites — all to no avail.

The images include portraits of workers and residents of Pigeon Key, the island in the bend of the Old Seven Mile Bridge that served as a headquarters for construction of the railroad. And there are images of people in Key West — a young girl reading a book on a porch, two men sitting on a tree branch.

Convertito said that, while many images of the railroad construction exist, few of them focus on the people involved.

"We hear about the railroad and everybody talks about the nuts and bolts," she said. "They never talk about the people."

But in addition to engineers and laborers, building the Overseas Railway required teachers, bakers and doctors.

"Without those people, that railroad wouldn't exist," said Convertito. "The food is important. The wellbeing is important."

The exhibit is open through Sept. 12 at the Society's Custom House museum in Key West.