KEYS HISTORY: JOHN GEIGER GOES FROM WRECKER TO WEALTHY MAN
The Key West Audubon House was built after the Havana hurricane of 1846 tore through Cuba, destroyed the Sand Key Lighthouse, and brought the double blast of strong winds and tides to Key West.
John Huling Geiger was responsible for building the house. He was an early resident of Key West and served as a pilot for Commodore David Porter’s anti-piracy squadron after they arrived in 1823.
Geiger was also one of Florida’s most successful wreckers. Eventually, he became one of Key West’s wealthiest residents, building a home worthy of his growing family’s position in the community in the wake of the destructive forces of Hurricane Havana. The house, located at the corner of Whitehead and Greene streets, was built with Dade County pine. The family occupied the house for over a century.
While Geiger left a huge imprint on the history of Key West, it wasn’t limited to his success as a wrecker or the size of his home’s foundation. John James Audubon named cordia sebestena, with its stunning orange flowers, the Geiger tree in honor of the wrecker. The tree has other varieties that produce white flowers and yellow flowers. Geiger is also the name of a small island south of Big Coppitt Key. During the Coastal Survey conducted in 1861, AD Bache wrote of the island: “Geiger Key is 2 miles long and 1 mile wide. It was in good cultivation in 1855, and was inhabited by an industrious German, from whom it takes its name.
Other sources state that the island was named due to the presence of Geiger trees on the island. Today, the island is home to the Geiger Key Fish Camp, one of the best off-the-beaten-path places to stop for some great food and a nice cold drink while enjoying beautiful waterfront views.
John Geiger was also featured in “Along the Florida Reef”, written by Dr. JB Holder. Holder accompanied an expedition to the Keys that traveled between Fort Myers on the west coast and Fort Dallas on the east coast in 1860-1861. Fort Dallas will later flourish in Miami. “Along the Florida Reef” documents Holder’s experiences and sightings during the voyage. Due to its length, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine published it as a serial between the March and July 1871 editions.
In the April issue, Holder not only writes about Geiger, but also provides an image of his face. Holder’s story includes engravings of the sites and people he had seen during his adventure. In the engraving showing what a typical wrecker looked like, one simply captioned “A Reef Wrecker” is John H. Geiger. In the text, Holder describes Geiger as “a man of decided character and a sort of commodore among his peers”.
The Geiger family home fell into disrepair in the 1950s, but was purchased by the Wolfson family, wired for electricity, and restored to its former glory. On March 18, 1960, the Wolfsons dedicated the house as a public museum named Audubon House.
The link with Audubon is tenuous. Stories suggest he stayed home for months while in Key West. This story had two main problems. First, Audubon was only in the Keys for five weeks. Second, Geiger built the house almost two decades after Audubon was there. The stories also suggest that Audubon was once in Geiger’s garden when he saw the brilliant flowers of the Geiger tree, and that is why Audubon gave the tree its name.
While Geiger was building the Audubon House around 1849, Audubon arrived in the Florida Keys aboard the American cutter Marion in April 1832. During those few weeks he was in the Keys, he visited Indian Key, Key West, and the Dry Tortugas. Audubon wasn’t thrilled with Florida as a whole, but he certainly had some nice things to say about the Keys. Arriving at the port of Indian Key, he wrote that his “heart was swelling with uncontrollable pleasure”. In a letter to his wife, Audubon wrote that “the island air was darkened with the hissing of wings”.
In Indian Key, Audubon and his team stayed at John Egan’s boarding house. Egan had just built the boarding house on the edge of the small island – along the edge and just a little above the clear waters of the Atlantic. Egan was also more than a host and served Audubon as a pilot and guide during his short stay on the island.
Audubon wrote some interesting things about Egan both in his role as host at the boarding house and as a pilot and guide while at Indian Key. Those stories, however, will have to wait for another day.