"Flagler's Folly" is what they called it: A railroad across the Florida Keys. More than a few people thought that the financier and developer, at age 71, had stepped over the line to senility when he proposed the project. Skepticism was enormous despite Henry Flagler's reputation as the man whose railway, steamship, and hotel ventures had brought much of Florida from backwoods to modernity in a few busy decades. Flagler's rail network in the Sunshine State–the Florida East Coast Railway–was his most celebrated work, laying hundreds of miles of track and linking Florida's eastern and southern parts with the civilized world.
In the early days of Tampa, you could stand on the banks of the Hillsborough River, and if the wind was blowing just right, you might smell the thick aroma of cedar permeating the air. As cigar factories from Palmetto Beach to West Tampa hummed with workers, several ancillary businesses sprouted to support the booming industry. Restaurants and boarding houses kept workers fed and housed. At the same time, other companies manufactured the equipment and tools necessary to produce quality hand-rolled cigars.
Billy Sunday has been downtown preaching for the past couple of days, as I’m sure you’ve all noticed,” I began, pausing for the dismissive mumbling and laughter to clear the room. “Indeed, the aptly named Mr. Sunday has come to town to save your wretched souls…at least that’s what he says. Mr. Sunday has a bit of what you might call a colored past.
He arrived in America with his father, Vincent, and two brothers in 1886. He was still experiencing the pain of losing his mother, Sarah, the year before. His father wanted to start a new life with his sons, and America was the place to do that. They first arrived in New York but soon after that settled in Tampa, knowing there were many jobs to find.
“Now is the time to make a decision.” Saying it, I surprise even myself. “The M. Fernandez Factory was called out yesterday, and the workers have joined the picket line. The Tampa Morning Tribune reports that Castange Ficcarrotta and Angelo Albano–two Italian anarchists–were found hanged this morning across the river in Tampa. I wait for this to sink in, and the workers, quietly setting up for a day of rolling or still shuffling into the galleria, all come to a stop. There is no collective sigh, no gasp, just their eyes watching me on the stand, and I can feel them staring; I can feel them beginning to shoulder the weight of what I have just told them. This strike has dragged on since June, the slow Florida summer doing little to alleviate the pent-up tensions. It’s all over the New York papers, too. The New York Times ran a story on Tampa’s “necktie party,” but I can’t bear to tell them that.