Miami to Keys Over-Sea Railroad turns 100

This Jan. 1, 2012, photo provided by the Florida Keys News Bureau shows a portion of the original Bahia Honda trestle bridge in the Florida Keys, at Bahia Honda Key, Fla. The bridge was built in the early 1900s to carry Henry Flagler's Florida Keys Over-Sea Railroad on the lower deck. Following the railroad's demise in 1935, a top deck on the bridge was created to carry automobiles. A different and wider bridge for the Florida Keys Overseas Highway was constructed in 1972. The centennial anniversary of the completion of the railroad is Jan. 22, 2012. (AP Photo/Florida Keys News Bureau, Andy Newman)

MARATHON, Fla. - Florida is marking the centennial of Henry Flagler's Over-Sea Railroad, which steamed through the Florida Keys Jan. 22, 1912, carrying residents and tourists from Miami through the once-isolated island chain to Key West for the first time.

The engineering feat, referred to by some at the time as the "eighth wonder of the world," launched the Florida Keys' tourism industry. Its track stretched 251 kilometres, nearly half of it on bridges over water or swamps, built by 4,000 men working 10- to 12-hour days, six days a week.

"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," Flagler is quoted as saying in the book "Henry Flagler: The Astonishing Life and Times of the Visionary Robber Baron Who Founded Florida" by David Leon Chandler.

In the days of cigar rolling, Key West was the most populated city in Florida and the richest city per capita. Flagler hoped to make it a major port, investing some $50 million of his own money (some experts say it was more) into the project that took seven years to complete.

Work began on the Seven Mile Bridge in 1908 with over 500 concrete piers across the route's longest stretch of open water. Innovative tools and machinery were introduced to cut through trees and swamps and work over the ocean.

Pigeon Key, a two-hectare coral island, served as the home base for 400 workers between 1908 and 1912. Most workers came from New York, lured by wages of about $1.60 a day to work in the hot Florida sun, plagued by mosquitoes. They got food, housing, and Sundays off for church services. Alcohol and women were banned.

"They say the two things that slowed down the completion of the railroad were the mosquitoes and the lack of alcohol," said Kelly McKinnon, executive director of the Pigeon Key Foundation, a preservation, education and research non-profit.

Concerns that Flagler, in his 80s, might die before the railway was finished led to marathon 12-hour shifts by workers toward the end of the project, McKinnon said. The efforts gave the Keys city of Marathon its name.

Some 10,000 people turned out to greet Flagler and his family on Jan. 22, 1912, as they arrived by train in Key West.

"It was the most exciting thing that had ever happened," said Claudia Pennington, executive director of the Key West Museum of Art & History at The Custom House. "Everybody from schoolchildren who had never seen a train in their life to people who thought it would be a great way to transport freight and improve the economy was there."

Lamar Louise Curry, now 105 years old and a resident of Coral Gables, was a five-year-old living in Key West when the railway arrived. She rode it over the old Seven Mile Bridge a few times with her parents and remembers the porcelain drinking cups and railway trestle. "We were told to look out the window. There was nothing but water. I was too young and took it for granted," said the former American history teacher.

Passengers could travel from Miami to Key West for $7.18 in 1925 in less than three hours. A one-way trip from Jacksonville, Fla., to Key West was $20.34 and from New York to the Keys was $77. Flagler even offered a 48-hour trip from New York to Havana, by train and steamship, with accommodations in Flagler hotels on the way.

In those days, riders thought the train was flying at 40 kilometres an hour. "It was the idea of warp speed to them," Pennington said. "Passengers were able to get on a train with their winter coats from New York, Boston or Washington and the next day they were in Florida where it was sunny and warm."

Flagler died 18 months after the railway's completion. Thousands of people took the train over the next two decades, but the 1929 stock market crash and the Great Depression took their toll. By the 1930s, the train and resorts scaled back as "the elegance of the Gilded Age was slipping away," Pennington said.

Then the 1935 hurricane wiped out 65 kilometres of track. The railway was never rebuilt, though portions of old bridges stand today over open water and remain among the Keys' most visited spots.

The Keys are marking the centennial of the railway's completion Jan. 22 with a Key West parade, Henry Flagler re-enactor, museum exhibitions, and more. Other exhibitions and events are taking place across Florida, from Jacksonville and St. Augustine in the northeast to Palm Beach and Miami in the southeast.

And even today's vacationers acknowledge the indelible impact the railway had on launching the state's tourism industry.

"I think he set the groundwork for all of this," said Vincent Rich, visiting the Keys this week with his wife from Pittsburgh, Pa. "He had a big influence by bringing life down here."

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If You Go...

OVER-SEA RAILROAD AND FLAGLER CENTENNIAL: http://www.flaglerkeys100.com/. Henry Flagler's rail route is now an "All-American Road" with a bike path along segments. A remaining trestle bridge gives kayakers a unique view from underneath. The Old Seven Mile Bridge and other bridges are popular for tarpon fishing. Advanced divers can explore an artificial reef made from part of the original railway bridge submerged 35 metres deep off Marathon.

PIGEON KEY: http://pigeonkey.net/. The Pigeon Key Visitors Center is at Mile Marker 47 on US1. A 10-minute boat ride takes you to Pigeon Key island, which offers four daily guided tours about the history of the railway workers. Eight buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places; many have been converted into museums and dormitories for student groups and other island visitors. Pigeon Key connects to Marathon and offers spectacular views and photo ops of the ocean, the Old Seven Mile Bridge and the New Seven Mile Bridge. The $12 admission covers visits to museums, round-trip boat ride, guided tour and free use of snorkel gear. You can also walk or bike three kilometres from Marathon to Pigeon Key via the bridges.

BAHIA HONDA STATE PARK: http://bahiahondapark.com/. Located between Mile Markers 36 and 37 on US1, Bahia Honda offers beautiful beaches, swimming, snorkelling and views of the old Bahia Honda trestle bridge, a railway icon in the Keys. Entrance, $8 per vehicle; snorkel gear and kayak rentals available.

CUSTOM HOUSE: http://www.kwahs.com/flagler-exhibit.html. "Flagler's Speedway to Sunshine" exhibit, including a recreated Florida East Coast Railway Car and vintage footage of an early 20th-century trip, at the Custom House Museum in Key West; adults, $7.

FLORIDA KEYS TOURISM: http://www.fla-keys.com/.