Saturday, November 19, 2011

Last Train to Paradise

Anyone who has ever traveled on that long road from Miami to Key West has seen the many abandoned bridges alongside the highway has to wonder of their story and the era and people who traveled on them, heading south to paradise.

Wanting to learn more of the area, I found this book, Last Train to Paradise by Les Standiford, and braced myself for a potentially boring list of facts and dates. Was I ever surprised! Written by a novelist, it reads as a very interesting story instead of like an 8th grade Florida history textbook.

I was captured by the first paragraph, it starts out with Hemingway securing his boat and house after reading the weather predictions. The description of the hurricane of 1935 (before storms were named) was fascinating, I found myself bracing for the wind.

The story chronicles the life of Henry Flagler, one of the richest men in the world at the time he began his Florida railroad project (around 1905), who partnered with John D. Rockefeller to create Standard Oil Company. Traveling to Florida for his wife's poor health, he fell in love with the east coast beaches and built great hotels from Saint Augustine to Miami, along the course of his railroad south. When he reached the end of the mainland he proceeded on with one of the most difficult engineering projects to date, building the railroad to Key West. It took 7 years, nearly $30 million, 42 bridges. As a businessman, his reasoning was not only tourists who would pay to take his train to the Keys, but the construction of the Panama Canal was underway and he predicted an increase of ships stopping in Key West, offloading their cargo onto his railroad for the trek north.

Folks are probably getting tired of me quoting from the book, as we drive around I point out things...

Casa Marina - built by Flagler and opened in 1920, all concrete and steel, did you know the walls are 2 feet thick at the base, and the military took it over during the Cuban Missile Crisis in the 60s?

Do you know why the bridge at Bahia Honda is so much taller than the other bridges built over the water, it is because the channel is deep there and the engineers figured that for every foot down of water you had to go the equal amount above the water with the bridge for possible water surge.

The Long Key viaduct was based on the design of the Roman aqueduct, the arches are poured concrete, they started out at one shore building one arch at a time, working off of barges, but they didn't build it continuous, they built one arch, then skipped one, then built another one, going back later to build the ones in between. This bridge was one of Flagler's favorites, he was so proud of the way it looked, but was dismayed when he realized the passengers on the train would not be able to see it at all. So he commissioned a photographer to be positioned on a barge to capture the train going by on the bridge, this photo became iconic for the railroad.

Being in a construction family, the construction details were very interesting, which I shared with Buddy as I was reading the book. About the special concrete additive brought in from Europe to strengthen the concrete to stand up to the salt water etc, as 'American concrete' was not good enough, and how they had to bring fresh water down on boats from the mainland to mix with the concrete.

More than 400 people died when the hurricane of 1935 completely destroyed a 30 mile wide swath from Tavernier to Vaca Key, the storm is the most intense hurricane to ever strike the United States since reliable records began in 1851.

The railroad could have been repaired, replaced, but by that time another engineering feat was well on its way, the automobile. It was decided to build an overseas highway and the railroad right-of-way was sold to the state for $640,000, the end of the railroad to Key West.

Unlike old generals, the old Flagler bridges do not appear to be fading away. The three principle bridges are the Long Key Bridge, the Knight's Key (Seven Mile) Bridge and the Bahia Honda Bridge. They are the only ones currently listed in the National Register of Historic Places. ~Sustainable Visions

So the next time you are driving on highway #1, look over at the old bridges alongside the new highway, see if you can catch a ghostly glimpse of the last train to paradise, don't forget to smile and wave!

1 comment:

Bonnie Jacobs said...

I rode the train south from Chattanooga to Flagler Beach and Daytona. My aunt Bonnie took me on vacation with her, when I was seven (in the fall of 1947). It was shortly after a hurricane, and winds along the beach, and even along the streets, whipped grains of sand against my bare legs. We ended up staying there only one week, instead of two because of the stinging sand. I remember we lodged in a home, a bed and breakfast sort of place. On the way, the rocking train made me "car sick," so I was taken to the dining car, where I was given a lemon! I don't remember if it helped.