CELEBRATING OUR PAST

Hail to the Queen has special meaning in the Keys

Florida Keys News ServiceJune 6, 2012 

Wilhelmina Harvey, left, the first woman mayor of the Florida Keys, presents Queen Elizabeth II, center, with a conch shell after the British monarch and Prince Philip, right, visited Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas National Park, May 18, 1991. Photo by Andy Newman/Florida Keys News Bureau

ANDY NEWMAN — Andy Newman/Florida Keys News Bu

As Queen Elizabeth II wraps up her Diamond Jubilee celebration, I am reminded of her 1991 visit to Fort Jefferson, a 19th century fort in the Florida Keys that is part of the Dry Tortguas National Park about 70 miles west of Key West. Our office was involved in some of the trip's logistics including securing the opportunity for Wilhelmina Harvey, the late mayor of the Florida Keys and "Queen" of the Conch Republic, to welcome Queen Elizabeth, Prince Philip and her entourage. I managed to wrangle a spot in the press pool to provide images to the Associated Press, United Press International and other media outlets. After the queen and her party stepped ashore, Mayor Harvey gave her a Honorary Conch Certificate and a conch shell, the symbol of the Florida Keys. During the presentation, I was a bit irritated because Queen Elizabeth had her back to the camera. I so much wanted to get her to turn around, but the British consulate press person had briefed us earlier and said that under no circumstances should we shout or instruct the queen what to do.

So I just kept quiet, but have always been disappointed we didn't have at least one really nice photo for Wilhelmina that showed her with Queen Elizabeth. However, the saga of the Queen's visit to the Florida Keys didn't end quite at Fort Jefferson. Legend has it that if a conch shell is taken inside a home, bad luck will follow.

Prior to her death in 2005, at age 93, Wilhelmina often enjoyed telling the rest of the story about the conch shell given to the queen, even though there was no valid proof of the shell legends impact.

As Wilhelmina told the tale, when the royal couple returned to England the shell was taken inside Windsor Castle, along with other gifts the Queen received on her trip to America.

Wilhelmina often jokingly said that fellow Conchs blamed her for what happened in England after the Queen returned. Her Windsor Castle home was damaged by fire in November 1992 and her two sons Charles and Edward divorced. All from the "curse" of a conch shell taken inside a home.

We'll never know if that's true, but it makes a darn good story.

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