Sunday, April 23, 2006

Henry Flagler and the Overseas Railroad

I've been burning the midnight oil, finishing Last Train to Paradise, an account of Henry Flagler's greatest project, the railroad to Key West.

Essentially, Flagler was the architect of modern-day Florida. He built railroads and hotels, and towns grew up around them. Key West was the exception--it was the most developed city in Florida at the time Flagler first discovered St. Augustine and decided to embark on his development projects. But Key West could only be reached by boat, and Flagler conceived of an extension of the East Coast Railroad to connect the Southernmost City with the mainland.

It took seven years and $30 million to construct. Hundreds of workers died in the process. The effort was comparable to a contemporary engineering feat, the construction of the Panama Canal. But when it was finished, in 1912 a passenger could board a train at Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan, and three days later step off the train in Key West.

Hurricanes plagued the project in its construction phase, and in the end the devastating Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 destroyed the railroad. The Overseas Highway was able to use many of the bridges and the foundation that was created for the railroad.

Standiford's book is fascinating reading for many reasons. The narrative follows the route south from Homestead, detailing the history of the Keys and the adventures and challenges of the railroad project. My friend, Marilyn, who gave me this book, told me, "you'll never see the drive to Key West the same way after you read this." She is certainly right. It's easy to take the road for granted since I can't remember a time when it wasn't there. But now I have a greater appreciation for the effort and ingenuity that went into creating the route.

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