|This bridge, the Long Key Viaduct, is now part of the US 1 Overseas Highway.|
|Flagler's folly, the East Coast Railroad, arriving in Key West for the very first time, January 22, 1912.|
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.|
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.|
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.|
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!