Henry Flagler’s Railroad That Went to Sea

When Hurricane Donna came through the Florida Keys near Marathon in 1960 with maximum sustained winds of 115 mph, it created quiIMG_0325te a mess. There were large boats and all sorts of debris on the road and telephone poles broken like toothpicks. I remember the day after when people who had lost their homes came to Key West and used the large Casa Marina for temporary housing. At that point, the Casa Marina, built in the early 20’s (photo) for tourists who came down to Key West on Henry Flagler’s train, had lain defunct for many years, had been used by the military and others and was slowly deteriorating.

Flagler started building his railroad in 1906. There was a hurricane that year in the Keys that killed 135 railroad workers and my paternal grandfather, who died trying to secure his boat. It was also the year my father was born. Flagler brought materials from all over the world and employed a large number of men. The railroad was completed in 1912 and there was a big celebration in town when the first train arrived carrying Henry Flagler himself. His luxurious office car had three bedrooms, a kitchen, salon and private bath. FEC13_8_key_west_train-264-600-800-100My father remembered going to the celebration as a child of six and the population in Key West was then about 10,000. There was a parade, banquet, a letter from President Taft read and a short speech by Henry Flagler. Why did Flagler take it upon himself to do this? Well, Miami was just a backwater back then and a swampy one at that. Key West had a deep-water port and the Panama Canal had just opened. So the railroad was his industrial connection to the mainland. I don’t know if it ever made that connection. Henry Flagler died the following year at the age of 83, but his railroad continued to carry tourists to Key West, most of them staying at the luxurious Casa Marina, which flourished during the Roaring of the 20’s.

Then came the 1935 Labor Day Hurricane, the first of three Category 5 hurricanes that the United States endured during the 20th century. The other two were Camille in 1969 and Andrew in 1992. The winds were a one minute sustained 185 mph and it hit the upper Florida Keys just below Tavernier where my Aunt Sarah and Uncle Roger lived with their three teenage sons. We used to visit them in the 50’s. Their house was a big wooden structure and had a well water pump in the kitchen. My Uncle Roger told me that during the 1935 hurricane, there had been a 15 to 20 foot storm surge during the night. The house filled with water up to their waists and was lifted off its foundation. They were floating around in the middle of the night with their children and other relatives who had come to stay with them. He said in the morning when the house settled on land, it had moved a hundred or so feet up the property and had turned 180 degrees. Now the front porch was on the back.

The railroad did not survive and Key West was again cut off from the mainland. In 1938, a land road, the Overseas Highway was completed over the old railroad trestles, which had remained surprisingly intact. There were no breakdown lanes over the bridges, which caused massive backups during accidents. During the 70’s and 80’s when we would drive to Key West, particularly over the Seven Mile Bridge, it was pretty tedious. Sometime in the 90’s, the bridges were all rebuilt or redone, still two lane but with breakdown lanes added. The Old Seven Mile Bridge can be seen from the new bridge. Part is used to provide access to the University of Miami’s Marine Research Facility on Pigeon Key. A large section was cut out of the rest to prevent cars using it. It is slowly being taken over with weeds and deteriorating.

Sometime in the early 90’s, J.W. Marriott & Co completely redid the Casa Marina restoring it to its former glory and more. IMG_0324Peter and I when visiting my parents would go down there to their open air bar near the pool, get a couple of brandies at $10 a pop, and go sit out on the beach under a full moon amid the soughing rhythms of the tropical breeze in the palm trees and the gentle murmer of waves as they washed along the rocky shore.

2 thoughts on “Henry Flagler’s Railroad That Went to Sea”

  1. Loving these! And cannot imagine how the overseas highway was without breakdown lanes. It’s tough enough as it is!!!

  2. There are at least two good books about the Florida East Coast (FEC) RR Key West Extension: “The Railroad That Died At Sea” and “Last Train to Paradise.” They describe in detail Henry Flagler’s last great railroad project, and are available (used) for a few dollars on Amazon.

    One of these books notes that the Miami Herald was not enamored of the rail service, and in its pages sniped at the FEC from time to time. After the hurricane, one set of equipment (locomotive and cars) from the last train to Paradise was stranded in Key West due to track washouts, and was placed on barges and returned to Miami. When it arrived, the Herald showed a front page photo of the arriving train — still on its barges — with the headline “FEC Train 2 Arrives in Miami 3 months, 7 days and 9 hours Late!”

    In 1935, the FEC was bankrupt and in receivership; after the hurricane the $30M Key West extension was sold to the state of Florida for $640,000. Knowledgeable rail historians will note that the remainder of the FEC is still in use, running from Jacksonville to Miami, and has contributed greatly to the growth of the state of Florida. One of its former tourist destination hotels in St. Augustine has been recycled as a private college, and is still worth a visit, IMO.

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