The Conch Republic

By John Vogel

Take Highway 1 South along the East Coast of the U.S. until you start seeing more water than land. Continue on the nearly endless man made bridge system across the Atlantic Ocean and before you know it, you’ll see signs for Key West, Florida. At that point, you won’t know it, but you’ll have left the country.

Well, you’ll know you left after the locals tell you that you crossed into the Conch Republic.

The Conch Republic has a complicated history, not because it is difficult to comprehend, it’s just whether or not the history is legit. Back in 1982, Border Patrol set up a roadblock on Highway 1 hoping to intercept illegal immigrants and illegal drugs. The roadblock caused massive delays worthy of LAX TSA and only managed to piss off the locals of Key West, who relied on tourism. The city council complained to the feds, which was as effective as you would imagine.

But when the going gets tough, the tough get going.

Dennis Wardlow, Mayor of Key West, declared Key West’s independence on April 23, 1982. The city council went along with it because hell, the feds already set up a Border Patrol station, why not be your own country. They called it the Conch Republic. Wardlow christened himself Prime Minister and war was literally declared against the U.S. That war ended within one minute.

The Conchs celebrated, probably with Jimmy Buffet music and enough liquor to drown Congress. For the most part, no one actually took the secession movement seriously (maybe a few residents) until 1995 when the U.S. kinda invaded the questionably sovereign land.

In 1995, the Conch Republic’s naval forces were deployed to a possible invasion of the U.S. Army Reserve, who were conducting training operations in the area. The CR Navy attacked the U.S. military on water, throwing conch fritters, stale Cuban bread and water balloons. Historians debate the sobriety of the flotilla but at the very least, no one was killed and the Army was forced to apologize for any sign of aggression against the island nation. During the government shutdown later that year, the CR Navy was deployed to secure and annex Dry Tortugas National Park since no one from the U.S. government could do anything.

The feds ended up citing them, but dropped the case.

In 2008, the nation decided to annex Florida state property in the form of 7 Mile Bridge—an unfinished section of Highway 1, typically used by Cuban refugees to get onto dry land. It’s difficult to just annex a bridge. Governor Jeb Bush asked them to knock it off (at least he didn’t ask them to clap).

As of 2024, you can still buy a passport and hear war stories from the veterans of the numerous invasions on the Republic. Head south from there on the Atlantic, you will find a buoy on the border between US and international waters alerting you that you are officially leaving, or entering the Conch Republic.

Editor’s note: The lead image shows members of the Conch Republic Navy along with the Conch Republic Speaker of the House participating in the annual burning of the hurricane flags to commemorate the end of hurricane season. 

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