This is the end of the line, Land’s End, the last stop in the last resort.
The Southernmost Point of the Southernmost City in the continental United States of America lies here in Key West, where Whitehead and South Streets intersect.
By 10 a.m. Labor Day morning, about 50 tourists were lined up to have their pictures taken next to signs that say so.
Except that it isn’t. Not exactly.
The real southernmost point is on private Ballast Key a few miles south and west. Any map shows a section of beach at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park and a point in the part of Truman Annex still owned by the U.S. Navy that are farther south.
Furthermore, Cuba is 94 miles away, not 90 miles, as the famous painted marker says.
A further nitpick? This isn’t Mile Zero of U.S. 1, as many people think. The 2,209-mile stretch of road leading sinuously south from Fort Kent, Maine, ends (or begins, depending on your point of view) a few blocks west on Whitehead Street.
But if you’re stickler for facts, maybe Key West isn’t your kind of town.
People here prefer an entertaining yarn, as their reverence for former storytellers-in-residence Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, even Jimmy Buffett attests.
The Southernmost Point? It’s the local story and the locals are sticking to it.
Most photographed spot
As Florida tourist attractions go, the Southernmost Point is an odd one.
When I first visited in the 1970s, fishermen sold conch shells laid out on low tables. Sometimes, there was a sea turtle shell for sale, before turtle hunting was outlawed.
The only historic structure here is a tiny 1917 concrete cable hut from which a telegraph cable led underwater to Havana. (In 1900, the first international call over a similar Key West telegraph line resulted in silence at the Havana end. Finally, someone in Cuba said, “I don’t understand you.” Not much has changed in that regard.)
These days, there’s nothing to buy at the Point. It may be the only place in town where you can’t buy a “Conch Republic” T-shirt. There’s no admission. No ranger keeping the peace. And, unusual for Key West, no beer for sale.
There is only an ever-replenished line of people waiting 30 minutes or more to have their pictures taken next to a painted concrete structure with a Southernmost Point sign and a Conch Republic symbol on top.
Defying logic, which is a frequent pastime in Key West, everyone, even the tourist agencies, blithely calls the cone-shaped structure a “concrete buoy.”
But buoys float. Concrete? Hardly ever.
The buoy-shaped thing is actually a huge, heavy concrete sewer junction road workers found beneath the road in the early 1980s. Someone must have said, “Hey, that looks like a buoy.” Someone else might have said, “And I don’t want to move it.”
Since the old “Southernmost Point” signs kept getting stolen, the structure was painted in seaworthy stripes of black, yellow and red in 1982. Voila! The Southernmost Point “buoy” was born.
Today it’s the most photographed site in Key West, according to the Key West Visitors Center.
Few tourists realize they have a repurposed sewer junction in their vacation photos.
Closer to Cuba than Miami
Some visitors are brought to the Point by dreams dashed and the bittersweet dreams of refugees saved.
To the right of the marker, a plaque reminds visitors of the Cuban rafters who drowned out there beyond the seawall in the milky blue-green Florida Straits.
Even from here, you can’t see Cuba on even the clearest day.
But on this steamy September morning, Pedro Nunez can feel it.
He points out into the humid, cloud-speckled distance.
“Alli,” he says. “There. It’s over there.”
His wife, mother-in-law and a visiting cousin from Cuba crowd around him, staring quietly south.
At this street corner, they’re closer to Cuba than to their home in Miami.
“Most of my family is still there,” says Nunez. “We take pictures here and send them to Cuba to say, ‘See, we’re near to you still’.”
A babbling Babel of languages rises from the slow-moving line at this intersection, once the main beach of Key West’s African-American residents.
Native-born Americans take a quick selfie and are gone. Another checkmark on the tourist to-do list.
Caribbean Americans come as if prompted by an inchoate yearning to feel close to their home country, if only for a moment.
Santia Narcisse, a Lake Worth resident born in Haiti, came to see “one end of the world,” she said.
Her boyfriend, Joshua Madeus, also born in Haiti, said, “I wanted to show her the place where you can’t go any further south.”
As for Nunez, he and and his family can’t seem to tear themselves away from the almost-most-southern point, despite the growing heat. They stand off to the side, conversing in Spanish and gazing at the ocean yawning widely before them.
“My father is over there,” he said. “So is my wife’s father. Here, for a moment, we feel close to them.”
THIS IS THE END
Five facts about the Southernmost Point
1. In 1917, the underwater Key West-Havana telephone cable left Key West at this spot. The cable hut that protected the connection is still there, to the left of the concrete marker.
2. When the Navy fenced off government-owned beaches during World War II, this became the black community’s beach. Fishermen kept boats here and sold their catches.
3. A tourist attraction sprung up at the site by the 1960s, with locals selling shells and sponges. Rowdy visitors frequently stole the wooden sign.
4. In the early 1980s, a concrete sewer junction was discovered during road work. Instead of moving it, the city painted it like a buoy in 1983.
5. Today, the Key West Visitors Center says the Southernmost Point market is the most photographed site in Key West.
Bonus tip: To avoid the crowds, go early in the morning.