Book describes magnificent construction, tragic end of the (rail)road

Having spent some time in the Florida Keys recently, I was intrigued enough in the area’s history to pick up Last Train to Paradise: Henry Flagler and the Spectacular Rise and Fall of the Railroad That Crossed an Ocean.

If you haven’t ever driven down the Overseas Highway connecting the Florida Keys to the mainland, it’s worth a week’s vacation to do it sometime (preferably when it’s 40 below zero where you live). It’s a beautiful thrill driving, quite literally, over the ocean.

Today, it’s a highway — not a railroad — that connects the islands trailing Florida’s peninsula.

last trainSo I began reading about entrepreneurial Henry Flagler and his magnificent Key West Railroad knowing the ending — that the railroad no longer exists.

But this compelling book was a page turner anyway.

Flagler earned his fortune with Standard Oil (apparently a wholly different story because it’s addressed here only to explain how divergent were his efforts in Florida compared to his wealth-building in the oil business). It required Flagler’s vision, millions of his dollars and years of perseverance to accomplish his goal.

Key West Railroad was constructed in the early part of the 20th century and torn asunder by a hurricane in 1935. Author Les Standiford’s descriptions of the raw power of hurricane forces terrified me. I will never be the person who sticks around to see a hurricane for myself; I would prefer not to have my face sandblasted off in 200 mph winds, thank you very much.

The book would also delight an engineer as it goes to some lengths to describe the challenges undertaken by Flagler in building structures that had not been attempted, let alone conceived, elsewhere.

I walked on one of the bridges originally constructed by Key West Railroad. After the railroad company’s demise, the bridge deck was turned into a roadway. Then in 1982, the roadway became a pleasant place for a stroll. Nowadays, hundreds of walkers and bikers a day traverse the pathway, which ends abruptly at  Pigeon Key. Looking over the edge into the clear, shallow waters, I saw sharks and stingrays meandering through the seaweed.

end of the road

Here, to the left of the abrupt end of the Flagler’s bridge, you can see the modern roadway. Apparently, one span of the Seven-Mile Bridge was demolished to deter walkers from going further south and possibly to make way for boating traffic.

The Last Train to Paradise was an instructive literary testimony to the terrible sacrifices made to construct a highway one might otherwise take for granted.


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