Thursday, January 12, 2012

Once He Built A Railroad

This bridge, the Long Key Viaduct, is now part of the US 1 Overseas Highway.
On the centennial anniversary of the completion of the Flagler’s famous folly, the Florida Keys Overseas Railroad, the man behind the monumental undertaking, that irascible old millionaire Henry Flagler, is once again in the news. Were it not for his trailblazing tenacity, the Overseas Highway, our well-worn thoroughfare to the mainland, most certainly would not exist. That’s the news. But there’s so much more to the story.
Flagler's folly, the East Coast Railroad, arriving in Key West for the very first time, January 22, 1912.
    Flagler’s railroad cost him $25 million. He’d made his vast fortune in Standard Oil, the company he founded with John D. Rockefeller. Flagler was told that his idea was insane. But he persisted.
    Key West was the very last in a chain of coral rock islands, overgrown by subtropical jungle, mostly untouched by civilization, and separated by varying spans of ten to thirty-feet-deep ocean water. More than half of the planned railroad would have to traverse water. When asked about his crazy plan, Flagler said “It is perfectly simple. All you have to do is build one concrete arch, and then another, and pretty soon you will find yourself in Key West.”
    Five hundred men lost their lives before the job was done. The work was backbreaking and fraught with sub-tropics sun, humidity, mosquitos and disease. Alcohol was strictly forbidden to the men, and so a cutthroat bootlegging industry bustled just outside the worker's camps.
Pineapple harvesting. Rough work.
    Meanwhile, the pineapple growers of the Florida Keys, watched and waited with high hopes for the future, when the railroad would provide them with a trade route for their pineapples to the busy markets of the east coast. 
    The Overseas Railroad chugged into Key West for the first time on January 22, 1912. Soon the train simply drove right onto a ferry that carried it to Havana, where it was loaded down with passengers and . . . pineapples. It was cheaper to ship the Cuban pineapples north than to stop at the Keys stations for their more expensive fruit. Between the cheaper trade from Cuba and the hurricanes, the pineapple growers of the Keys were wiped out. Forever.
     From the very start, the train business was besieged with problems. The train never ran on time, mostly due to weather. The tradewinds made bridge crossings dangerous and slow. Passengers were scarce. The train never began to turn a profit to pay for its construction. It didn’t even make enough profit to pay for its upkeep. Twenty years after its grand completion, in 1932, the railroad went into bankruptcy.
Flagler knew the Panama Canal was coming in 1914. Key West had the closest U.S. deep water harbor.
    Still, the train ran, and those who rode it recall it as one of the most memorable experiences of their lives. Wilhelmina Harvey, onetime Monroe County Mayor and Key West native, once described to me the experience of taking the train to New York. She was a little girl and recalled climbing aboard the train and watching out the windows as the train rode up the Keys. On the bridges, she said, it seemed that the train rode on water, the train and passengers spectacularly suspended between the sky and sea. She would be put into her little berth bed in the Keys, she said, and would awaken to an entirely new vista outside, of oak and fir trees, the train having arrived on the mainland during the night.
    Other frequent passengers on the railroad were the Hemingways, who lived in Key West during the 1930s and traveled often to the mainland.    
This is the end, my friend. September, 1935.
    In 1935 the infamous Labor Day Hurricane, the gargantuan storm that killed hundreds of people, and tore a naked swath through the jungle-like Florida Keys, also destroyed over 40 miles of the roadbed. The Overseas Railroad’s receivers decided that rather than spending several million dollars to repair the damage, they would sell it to the highest bidder. The State of Florida paid $640,000 for all of the railroad property, including the rail bed and its remarkable bridges. One bridge alone cost Flagler over $640,000 to build. There are forty-two of them. Upon the path blazed by Flagler and many millions of dollars, and his workers' gallons of sweat, blood and tears, a highway was constructed and completed in 1938.
    When you drive to Key West, and cross the mighty bridges that have miraculously withstood the test of time, you can thank Henry Flagler for making it possible. And then, you might ask yourself, who was this Henry Flagler who amassed such a fortune in the days before income taxes and had the audacity, at the very end of his long life, to demand the building of a railroad doomed to fail?
    For that information you’ll need to come here next week, when I will tell you the fascinating story of Flagler’s three wives, and the divvying up his great fortune after his death in 1913. 
    See you Thursday!

1 comment:

  1. I love your stories!! Henry Flagler's Hopewell, NY is 2 miles from Canandaigua,NY!!
    They should make a movie of his life and the building of the Overseas Highway!!~~Rebecca S.