Marathon's airport: From mangroves to airstrip

KeysNet contributorMay 26, 2008 

At the beginning of World War II the U.S. military saw a need for a practice landing strip for pilots-in-training. The Civil Aeronautics Association, a government agency, determined that a parcel of land then owned by two Key West men, Norberg Thompson and Maitland Adams would be suitable.

It was a large area located in an almost uninhabited part of the Keys – the middle of Key Vaca. The parcel was 280 acres and sold for $70 per acre for a grand total of $19,600.

The land was low and, according to one description, mostly mangroves. The Civil Aeronautics Association engaged Edward Belcher Jr., owner of Belcher Oil Co. in Miami, as prime contractor. The contract was for about $350,000 and mostly involved moving fill to build up the airstrip to its present height. That fill came from the area now known as Dodge Lake.

The airstrip fill process was a boon for local Marathonites, providing work at a time when the fishing industry was at a relative standstill because of the war. Construction began in the fall of 1942 and was completed in the spring of 1943. Military pilots from Key West and Homestead used the airstrip extensively to practice landings and takeoffs.

At that time, Key Vaca had many visitors, but no tourists. The pilots flew in, landed, turned around and flew out again without ever getting out of their planes. There were no fueling stations at the airstrip or amenities of any kind.

For a time at the beginning of the war, the airstrip property was partly owned by the Florida State Road Department (later Public Roads Administration). After the war, Monroe County petitioned this agency to turn it over to the county for a public airport. In 1958 this became a reality — Monroe County was granted title to the airport property. National Air Lines leased the airport from the county for several years.

Two Key Vaca entrepreneurs also had their eye on the airstrip after the war. Calvin and Wesley Bartelt, WW II bomber pilot veterans, loved to fly, fish and dive. They bought the land where Coconut Cay Resort now stands on U.S. 1 and built a motel on the spot. It was named the Sea Land Air Court.

Their grand plan was to have a motel and rental boats for sportsmen pilots who would fly in to the airstrip and step into a boat and head out to fish. The property was adjacent to the airport — there was no Aviation Boulevard at this time to separate the motel from the airstrip. This road was put in later, and the Bartelt brothers were not happy to see it.

As Phil Sadowski’s development grew at Key Colony, the center of activity of the airport moved to the east end of the airstrip, close to the Key Motel and Key Lounge (now under renovation and last known as the Driftwood Lounge). The Sea Land Air Court’s dream faded away.

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