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John Pennekamp State Park in Key Largo, Florida
History of the Park
When David Fairchild was elected the first president of the Tropic Everglades Park Board in 1928, he felt like he was fighting a losing battle. People were not yet conscious of the need for an effort to save the environment, and thought that the Everglades was just a swamp, only good for draining. Ernest Coe proposed the creation of Everglades National Park, whose eastern boundaries were to extend east across Key Largo and out to the reef. A large portion of the park would be in Monroe County and the county commissioners felt that would dilute its tax base. In 1946 the Everglades National Park Commission was reactivated with John Pennekamp at its head. The park's eastern boundary was moved westward to the Intracoastal Waterway, where it is now.
Pennekamp also became equally dedicated to making the Coral Reef Park a success. But protection of the outer reefs was still a problem, and their condition was reaching the crisis level. Barges carried away large quantities of Queen Conch and coral, some of which was even dynamited from the reef. In 1957, Dr. Gilbert Voss, a marine biologist, began a campaign to save the reefs, his first step was discussion with a group of 52 scientists at a biological conference held in the Everglades National Park.
In 1959, Governor Leroy Collins gave the Coral Reef Preserve control of the ocean bottom to the three-mile limit off the coast. Governor Collins then set out to persuade President Eisenhower to transfer the federal land, beyond that three-mile limit, to the state of Florida. This was accomplished in 1960, but there was still no land above water dedicated to the preserve. On December 10, 1960, Governor Collins dedicated and named the preserve "John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park" at the most important gathering of county and state officials in the Keys since Henry Flagler arrived on the first train into Key West in 1912.
Mostly through the efforts of John Pennekamp, the state acquired 74 acres of land in the southwest part of Largo Sound for a base of operations. This land was owned by The Rand Trust and the Radford Crane family who had already received a firm offer of $141,000 for the land from another individual. Pennekamp talked Radford Crane into waiting to finalize the sale until the state came up with its offer.
Although the park then had the submerged land, as well as the land-based area, they needed road access. This was donated and even cleared by Herbert and Donna Shaw. Today this old entrance is closed but you can see it just south of the present park entrance. Several individuals, including Radford Crane, donated more land, all of which became part of the park.
At the same time John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park was gaining acceptance and popularity, an Italian skindiving enthusiast, Egidi Cressi, donated a nine-foot tall bronze statue to the Underwater Society of America. This was a bronze reproduction of "Il Christo Delgi Abissi" (Christ of the Abyss), which rests in the Mediterranean Sea. The Underwater Society offered it to the Florida Park Service, which chose the Pennekamp Park for its final resting place.
Today John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is a very popular tourist attraction. This huge preserve includes The Coral Reef Theater, a giant reconstruction of a living patch reef in a floor-to-ceiling circular aquarium, and snorkeling and diving concessions where you can rent equipment and even get instruction toward dive certification. Cannon beach features an authentic reconstruction of an early Spanish shipwreck about 100 feet offshore. For those who want to see the reef up close without getting in the water, there is a glass-bottomed boat ready to take you there. Canoeing and kayaking are becoming more popular all the time, and Pennekamp has over 2 miles of mangrove wilderness ready for your exploration.
Camping is available, with dumping sites and electricity for an extra fee. As with other Florida State Parks, half of the sites are previously reserved for up to 60 days in advance. The other half are left open for those who take their chances on a first-come, first-served basis. The maximum stay at this type of campsite is two weeks. Bathhouses are clean, as is the rest of the park. An added benefit to the camper is 24-hour access to the beaches and more private areas of the park.
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John Pennekamp State Park - fabulous snorkeling and diving in Key Largo, FL.
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