"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.
The end of the Florida East Coast Railway was at Homestead, close to the tip of the Peninsula. Just getting the line there from Miami had been a feat of daunting proportions, lasting eight years, from 1896 to 1904. Every mile meant a battle against sub-tropical heat, alligators, snake-infested marshes, mosquitoes, and largely submerged swampland. As colossal an achievement as the Miami to Homestead route was, however, Flagler wanted more. As early as 1886, he mentioned the possibility of a rail line to Key West, and in 1902, the developer talked to the press about a line that would lead directly to a "deep water harbor." Flagler envisioned the Key West Extension of the Florida East Coast Railway: Rail service extending to the last island in the archipelago.
Consider the obstacles, the skeptics said. The Keys stretched 128 miles from the mainland. The route Flagler proposed would need to cross 75 miles of open water. Most of the route was exposed to Atlantic storms, whose fury had periodically ravaged the Keys since they first rose from the ocean. The islands were virtually all at sea level; there was no natural barrier (nor materials on hand) to form a rail bed. Most of the Keys were sparsely inhabited, if at all. Thick jungle covered many, and even on the inhabited keys, there was little in the way of food, shelter, fresh water, medical facilities, or supplies for the vast number of workers the project would require. Just getting the men to the job would be a formidable task, but that, argued Flagler, was precisely why the Keys needed the railroad. Flagler's dream included transport for a large labor force for railway construction and for building homes, factories, golf courses, and hotels–all of which Flagler had built or attracted in other Florida locales.
And then, there were all those cigars.
How much did Flagler's longtime rivalry with Henry Bradley Plant influence his plan to build a rail line to Key West? Flagler never said, in so many words, but each man kept an eye on the other's progress in developing Florida, and the two-way surveillance had been going on for decades. By 1899, Plant was dead, but the rail line he brought to Tampa in 1885 had directly affected the cigar trade in Key West. Relying on Plant System steam and rail transport, the cigar trade could bypass Key West altogether–as a substantial portion of it eventually did– and that prospect struck fear into the hearts of all who hoped for South Florida's future.
When Henry Flagler and his project chief James C. Meredith began work on the Key West Extension–already referred to in-house as the Over-Sea Railroad– the skeptics were still shaking their heads. After all, Flagler wasn't the first railroad man to envision a line to the tail end of North America. None of them succeeded in getting even a mile of track in place. What made Flagler think he could do it?
"Joe, are you sure that railroad can be built?"
"Yes sir, I'm sure!"
"Very well. Go to Key West."
–Conversation between Henry Flagler and Joe Parrot, Vice-President of the Flagler System, 1904
If he had any fears about the Over-Sea Railroad, Flagler gave no hint of doubt. The project financing alone would have withered the enthusiasm of a lesser man. Initial budgets for the Extension were exceeded dozens of times, and no public funding was used for the job. One 45-mile stretch of the line (between Knight's Key and Key West) cost $4 million to finish. As costs soared, the Florida East Coast Railway issued $22 million of mortgage bonds, secured by Flagler's longtime associates and friends in J. P. Morgan & Company. When all was said and done, Henry Flagler spent two-fifths of his vast fortune between $20 and $40 million–on the Key West Extension. More than one biographer of the developer has suggested that Flagler's career was made up of two phases: The one where he made his money and the one where he spent it on the Over-Sea Railroad.
The project's financing was mind-boggling, but the engineering was even more so. Belgian cement had to be barged in from Northern ports, and mixing stations were set up near every bridge construction site. Concrete viaducts had to be built to span the 75 miles of open water between keys. (The longest bridge–Bahia Honda, so-called because of the deep water it spanned–was 5,100 feet long.) Enormous boom derricks were transported to the site by ship, sometimes in pieces, and reassembled in the Keys, operated from floating platforms. The keys offered no solid ground on which to build rail beds or embankments to anchor bridges. Accordingly, hydraulic pumps and steam dredges were shipped in and utilized– wherever the water was not too deep for their operation–to dredge 49 miles of sea bottom. Massive oak ties nearly a foot square and eleven feet long– were cut in Northern locales and, along with steel rails, shipped by rail and steamboat to the start of the line. They then were installed laboriously, a few at a time, to advance the track. Key marl and New York State rock were brought to the site and packed solidly to support the rails in the beds. Where pilings were necessary, creosoted wooden pillars were used. Pile drivers pounded deep holes in the coral rock, and workers poured concrete to reinforce them further.
And the labor force? Between four and six thousand men were employed to build "Flagler's Folly." They came from all over North America and Cuba, as well. One group– described as "thoroughly familiar with their work" by the St. Lucie Tribune– were Native Americans from New York State, near Flagler's birthplace of Canandaigua. Work camps on floating platforms, like the heavy equipment, were often segregated by language or race but more often by type of employment. Housing was thrown-together shanties or, more usually, platform tents. Potable water was very scarce. Project engineers provided much of it from one freshwater well they dug on Key Largo. The gigantic, polyglot crew was paid $1.50 a day plus room and board. Skilled workers with their own tools earned $2.50 a day. At any given time during the construction of the Extension, more than two thousand workers were on the payroll, and they were paid in gold coins brought by Flagler System steamers to the Accounting Office near the rail head.
The Key West Extension project got off the drawing board and into construction on July 2, 1904. It was not an auspicious date since it presaged some of the worst and most persistent problems the line would encounter. The heat and mosquitoes were almost unendurable, and malaria and heat exhaustion outbreaks strained the rudimentary medical facilities at the site. (From the outset, disease, and stress wreaked havoc on project personnel. The Project Manager, J.C. Meredith, died in April of 1909, a victim of the prolonged pressures of the job.) The hurricane season was also underway; four large-scale storms would wreck portions of the newly laid track, take many lives, and delay the project by years.
On January 22, 1912, the first passenger cars on the Key West Extension of the Florida East Coast Railway rolled into Key West. The project had run four years over its proposed completion date and so far over budget that most people–including perhaps Flagler himself stopped counting. The developer, frail at 82, died the following year after a fall from a staircase at his Palm Beach mansion. Despite the enormous cost, he considered the Over-Sea Railroad his crowning achievement. No one called it "Flagler's Folly" anymore, and for years, it was generally hailed as a technological marvel outshining any other in North America. Then, the cruelest irony struck the line on Labor Day weekend, 1935.
"I felt something wet and looked down to see water pouring under the sill around my shoes...I put my hand down in it and tasted it just to be sure. It was salt. That meant the water had risen over the whole island. I told my dad, and he shook his head.' We'll have to get out,' he said, 'Or drown.'
He told everybody to grab hold of somebody else and not let go, no matter what. I grabbed my sister, who had her little two-year-old boy in her arms. I told her to let me hold the boy, but she shook her head and wouldn't let go. The noise and the wind were unbelievable. The minute we were outside, the wind took us, and we began to spin around, all three of us. I tried to hold on to them, but I couldn't. We were in midair as I watched her being pulled away from me. She still had hold of her little boy." - Bernard Russell, Key West resident, remembering the Hurricane of 1935
"Lord have mercy." -J. J. Haycraft, at the throttle of a train sent to rescue workers just before a twenty-foot tidal wave swept over the track at Islamorada.
The worst recorded hurricane in history struck the Florida Keys in September 1935. The storm reduced the Over-Sea Railroad–and most of the archipelago– to ruin. In a matter of minutes, the proudest achievement of U.S. engineering was swept into the ocean. Miles of steel rails were twisted and tossed on the landscape like black straw, and massive concrete viaducts crumbled like wet plaster. Hundreds died in the storm, including a group of WWI veterans who had received a federal work subsidy to build road bridges on the Keys. The cost to rebuild the Extension was estimated at over $100 million. In the high-water mark of the Great Depression, with the FEC in receivership, neither public nor private expenditures of that size could be justified.
By the mid-1930s, the automobile, not the railcar, was the transportation choice of most Americans. Just as the thousands laid rail lines in the nineteenth century, roads were being built in the twentieth. One of those roads was the Key West Highway, which used long stretches of the still mostly intact rail bed of the Over-Sea Railroad as its foundation. When rolling along the scenic route today, it's doubtful that any motorists remember the spectacular triumph and tragedy of the rail line over the ocean. However, it is still there, full of whispered memories, connecting one key to another and one page of Florida history to the rest of the book.
CIGAR CITY MAGAZINE- NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2008
Art & Photography Contributors: Hillsborough County Public Library, Tampa Bay History Center, The Florida State Archives, The Tampa Tribune/Tampa Bay Times, University of South Florida Department of Special Collections, Ybor City Museum Society, private collections and/or writer.
MAUREEN J. PATRICK
A Tampa native, Maureen J. Patrick was the President of the Tampa Historical Society from 2006-2009 and Editor of The Sunland Tribune. Patrick holds an advanced degree in cultural history.
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