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Two weeks ago I wrote about Historic Flagler College in Saint Augustine, Florida which was built in 1888 by Henry Flagler whose development of railways along the east coast of Florida spurred rapid development in the late 19th and early 20th centuries which became the Gilded Age in Florida.
When I wrote that piece I thought it would be interesting to tell the story of Flagler's final link in The Florida East Coast Railway, or the first Over-Sea Railroad train and it's sad demise from the great hurricane of 1935. What I did not realize at the time, was that January 12, 2012 marked the 100th anniversary of the day that Henry Flagler made his inaugural trip to Key West via a 128-mile extension, with about 19 miles over water, of the Florida East Coast Railway.
In 1879 the Jacksonville, Tampa and Key West Railroad was incorporated in Florida to push a line southward through the state. In 1898 National Geographic Magazine published "Across the Gulf by Rail to Key West" giving an accurate forecast of future developments and concluded by saying that a railroad built to Key West would some day be "one of man's greatest achievements."
Florida's east coast was already being transformed by Henry M. Flagler at this time. He and Julia B. Tuttle had already joined hands to bring the City of Miami into existence and the first train reached that city on April 16,1896.
Construction of the overseas railway finally began in 1904 with a right-of-way through the Everglades and the swamps and jungles and shark-infested waters over the 128 mile route from Homestead to Key West. The end of the project came in 1916 when the last of the majestic concrete viaducts was completed to form the permanent structure-a structure which today carries the Overseas Highway across the Keys-a structure which has stood firm and unshaken against the onslaughts of wind and sea for nearly half a century.
The Seven-Mile Bridge is the longest and most well known portion of the structure. It consists of 335 80 foot and 60 foot deck plate girder spans of steel, resting on concrete piers, a concrete viaduct one-and-three-quarters mile in length, consisting of 210 53-foot arches, and a drawbridge 253 feet in length. Altogether, the bridge contains 546 concrete foundation piers-far exceeding the number in any other bridge in the world. Each of the piers in the main structure rests on bedrock as much, in some places, as twenty-eight feet below the water line.
Henry Flagler rode in his private rail car on the inaugural trip to Key West in 1912. He was 82 years old, blind and in frail health. He died 18 months later.
Here is a four minute video detailing the workforce used to build this railway. These men were housed in Pigeon Key and there was a great loss of life in this project.
I added this 1:45 video that briefly tells much the same story,but offers some excellent images not used in the previous video.
In 1935, the Florida East Coast railway offered a special Labor Day holiday excursion to Key West. Round trip tickets sold for $2.50 and many took advantage of the offer. The train departed for Key West on September 1, 1935
On September 2nd, tragedy struck. The Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 was the first ever Category Five Hurricane on record to hit the United States. The results were horrific in loss of life and total loss of the railroad.
In a rescue effort, a 10-car evacuation train, was sent down from Homestead, but washed off the track by the storm surge and high winds on Upper Matecumbe Key. Only the locomotive remained upright on the rails, and had to be barged back to Miami several months later. The National Weather Service estimated 408 deaths from the hurricane. Bodies were recovered as far away as Flamingo and Cape Sable on the southwest tip of the Florida mainland.
The United States Coast Guard and other state and federal agencies organized evacuation and relief efforts. Boats and airplanes carried injured survivors to Miami. The railroad would never be rebuilt but temporary bridges and ferry landings were under construction as soon as materials arrived and, within a few years, a roadway (Overseas Highway) linked the entire Keys to the mainland.
The Overseas Highway was completed in 1938 and in 2009 was designated an "All-American Road".
Here is a listing of my sources as some of you may be interested in reading more about this subject: