Toilet Seat Cut, a bona fide tourist attraction, is in the waters of Florida Bay around mile marker 90 in Islamorada. About 250 decorated toilet seats line a 60-feet-wide manmade channel near mangrove islands and seagrass flats enabling boat travel between the western end of Plantation Key and the eastern end. A five-foot-tall pirate and mailbox are part of the decorations planted in the marl as well.
How Toilet Seat Cut began was a mystery — even for 40-year residents of the Upper Keys — until a phone call came from a woman claiming to know its story.
Cheryl Lamp shed light on the history of the useful shortcut, verified by a longtime Florida Keys family, the Wrenns, who have a street named after them near Coral Shores High School.
A Miami-based architect, Vernon D. Lamp, built a second home in 1956 on three lots in the Plantation Key Colony neighborhood of the Keys. He enjoyed fishing and was a member of the Miami Rod and Reel Club. His children, Steven and Cheryl, loved coming to the Keys. They participated in the Elks Lodge sailing races, and Cheryl recalled going to Rusty’s Bait and Tackle, which doesn’t exist anymore, and collecting starfish and sea urchins from the Bay and painting some of them to sell to tourists. Ted Williams, baseball hall of famer, was a guest at the Lamp’s “Key House,” as they called it.
When Vernon departed in his boat from his home on Coconut Palm Boulevard to have dinner at the Plantation Yacht Harbor at mile marker 87 bayside, he grew tired of having to take a long, slow and circuitous journey out to Cow Pens to get to the restaurant that was a mere three miles away as the crow flies. So, little by little, he carved a throughway in the wavering seagrass on the flat close to his neighborhood.
According to his daughter, Cheryl, her father attached a 50 horsepower motor to his boat named “Bucktail” and dredged through the grassy flat. With persistence, he eventually created a five-to-six-foot wide channel, wide enough for a small johnboat or flats skiff to motor through. Then, he added posts to mark the way.
In 1960, along came Hurricane Donna, which passed over the Florida Keys. On one of the posts that Lamp had installed in his cut, a nail jutted out, and after the storm had passed, Lamp motored through his favorite shortcut and received a surprise. On that nail hung the rim of a toilet seat. There had been much damage in the Keys, and household belongings like this toilet seat simply blew away in the storm. “He washed it, disinfected it, painted it and hung it right back where it had landed after Donna,” Cheryl said. “My father had a sense of humor.”
Tom Wrenn graduated from Coral Shores High School in 1966 when it was one building for Kindergarten through 12th grades and was friends with Steven Lamp. “There were 39 kids in my graduating class,” he recalled.
“Vernon was an absolute character. He was a teaser. He put that toilet seat with no hinges on one side of the cut and the toilet seat lid on the other end so he could find his way home after dark with a spotlight. Back then, there was no protection for the seagrass like there is now.
In the 60s, it was only wide enough for a single propeller. Every time, I went back to the Keys after moving to New York in 1971, it kept getting wider and more elaborate. It’s a tourist attraction now.”
Keys residents and visitors quietly commemorate events like birthdays, weddings and spring break by hanging toilet seats now. It is not legal, but that hasn’t stopped the tradition that began 56 years ago.
Jill Zima Borski is a 21-year-resident of Islamorada. She is board chair of the Florida Outdoor Writers Association which celebrates 70 years this year.