Friday, January 15, 2010

Flagler Station

Flagler Station is a modest but informative little museum located on Caroline Street not too far at all from the spot where the first railroad landed in Key West on January 22nd 1912. I'm betting no one will notice the 97th anniversary of that particular date when it comes around next week.It took a great deal of slog over many years for hundreds of navvies with steam dredges and massive amounts of ingenuity to build the Florida East Coast Railroad Extension to Key West. I find the story of the railroad to be fascinating not simply because it was the first continuous connection to the mainland but also because it was done for love not money. Indeed the Over-The-Sea-Railroad never turned a profit between 1912 and 1935 when it was shut down by a major hurricane.Henry Morrison Flagler made a fortune as a founding partner of Standard Oil and he got into the railroad business as a millionaire. While Henry Plant was busy running his railroad down the West Coast of Florida to Tampa, Flagler was developing his line down the East Coast. His idea was to create a chain of resort hotels to allow New Yorkers to become snowbirds, and take winter vacations under the Florida sun. It's important to remember that in those days Florida was largely undeveloped thanks to the heat and humidity of summer (affordable air conditioning wasn't invented until after World War Two), along with the kinds of tropical diseases that devastated entire populations in those days. Even Key West, the most salubrious city in the state was struck by Yellow Fever epidemics from time to time. Indeed Key West was the largest and wealthiest city in the state for many decades as it was easily accessible by sea and had by far the best climate. Tallahassee became the state capital (capitol is the building, pedants please note) simply because it was accessible and livable.Flagler had always dreamt of extending his railroad line from New York all the way to Key West, to transport tourists to Havana, and bring back tropical fruits for winter consumption in the Big Apple. The story of how the track got laid through the mangroves and across the open water is a compelling tale. And it's beautifully told in the Flagler Museum.
The train eventually arrived in Key West and changed the face of the Florida Keys. In those days the islands north of Key West were barely inhabited at all, and most of them were nameless. Indeed their names were given to them by the railroad workers who were toiling to build the track bed and bridges. Thus it is you have Ohio Key and Missouri Key, named by workers from those states. Marathon was so named because it was a "marathon job" to lay the track across Vaca to Knight's Key where the ferry connected Marathon to No Name Key. From there a rough road brought a weary motorist eventually to Key West. That's where the museum now resides to explain it all with artifacts and pictures:There has been some debate about how workers were treated by Flagler's engineers. They were recruited from all over the country and were as I recall paid a buck and a half a day with board and lodging and all travel expenses taken care of. It was hard work, no doubt about it, and many couldn't stick it. However there was recreation (no alcohol and no women were the rules, not always enforced) as well as medical facilities and a proper hospital to take care of the injured and sick. From my reading of it Flagler was a pretty decent employer and humane man. It was the work that was tough by modern standards. Imagine slashing and hacking your way through mangrove bogs, hauling rocks to create road bed and all this under a cloud of mosquitoes in 90 degree heat...
That they smiled at all is pretty surprising to me:Then they had to build the cement supports underwater for the many and various bridges. Indeed they used the same technique as that used to build the Panama Canal. They built underwater frames and filled them with cement imported from Germany.They hacked a railroad out of previously impenetrable jungle, and they sweated every mile across the uninhabited islands:It was amazing work. The railroad stalled at Knight's Key while the engineers tried to figure out how to cross the span that we know as the Seven Mile Bridge. Flagler was determined to do it and eventually they figured it out for him. More cement, more struggle.The construction went on and on, top quality work which has stood up amazingly well with no proper maintenance for almost a hundred years. Frequently a boater will find deep water alongside the highway where the waters further from the highway are much shallower. That's because the railroad engineers duck the dirt out to create the causeway. It was immense work and it would never happen today because the railway changed the ebb and flow of these tidal waters. The construction on the left with the classic arches is the old Long Key Bridge flanked by the new highway (opened in 1982) on the right: Hurricanes took lives and wrecked tracks even as they were laid. But the work got done. In those days storms weren't named but the great hurricane of 1935 wiped out the lowest section of track across the Matecumbe Keys, and workers were torn away from the land with hundreds of bodies scattered across Florida bay and even up into the Everglades. A rescue train arrived too late and only the steam locomotive survived, the carriages that were supposed to rescue the workers got blown over:That storm put paid to the railroad but in 1938 the State of Florida bought the right of way, tore up the rails and used them to make guardrails. They laid sheet metal on the bridges and cemented them over and made a narrow but continuous road from Homestead to key West. For the first time automobiles could travel all the way (it was a long arduous day's journey) without stopping to use ferries in Matecumbe or Knight's Key, as had been the case before the advent of the railroad. Nowadays as we struggle to deal with the effects of diminishing oil supplies and increased prices an electrified railroad seems like a brilliant travel solution for the Florida Keys, but rail travel in the US has always been a romanticized means of locomotion, always the bridesmaid to air and car travel. Not so in those far off days a hundred years ago:Freight cars drove onto the ferry which docked at Trumbo Point, a land mass created by Flagler specifically for his train and used today by the Coastguard.An aerial view form the early 1930's I believe: The travelers voyaged in style back in those days:
This is the bust of the man responsible for all this mechanical magnificence:The arrival of the train, finally in Key West was a big day for a small town and everyone turned out. I have read some of the comments published in that era where some people were grumbling that the train would change Key West for the worse...rather in the manner of people today who complain about too much tourism changing the town, even as they make a living off it.Flagler also built the Casa Marina Hotel, in the same grandiose resort style of his other destinations on the East Coast. St Augustine's Ponce de Leon and Palm Beach's The Breakers. A freeze in Palm Beach in the winter of 1894 convinced him to push on south for warmer weather...and the railroad went all the way to Key West eventually. The museum is housed in part in an old one room cabin inhabited by a surprising number of members of the Atwell family. This is the pioneer lifestyle as endured in Florida in those days: Train service took most of the day from Miami and that was partly because they slowed the train down to no more than 25 miles per hour (40km/h) on the bridges over the water. Contemporary accounts of the journey tell us this ride was as magical to the riders of the day as it sounds to us now:A few of the islands were inhabited back then with people homesteading as best they could. I've seen similar farming styles in the Out Islands of the Bahamas were they cultivate meager crops in the sink holes on the limestone where some soil has accumulated over the years. I imagine it must have been similar in the Keys in those far off days. The railroad changed a lot of things for these people. Supplies were brought on schedule, mail traveled along the rail line and the iron horse brought a touch of the outside world to these isolated lives.I have read about my own island, Ramrod Key, where a family lived on the north side of the island. The railroad delivered an automobile to the family and they used it to transport ice from the train, and produce to the train along a half mile road they built from the railroad to their house, such was the effect of mechanization. The train didn't generally stop at Ramrod Key but slowed down and they hung the mail on a hook alongside the tracks...There is a short film in the museum about the railroad and this eyewitness to the arrival of the first train said something that took me by surprise."We didn't know what a train was!" she said. Imagine that. They soon found out:Flagler died the next year but he got to ride into town on his train, so doddery and worn out he could barely see the multitude gathered to greet him. His dream died a scant 23 years later. The line had never made money and when the storm tore up the rails in the Matecumbe Keys there was no money left to fix it. The Last Train To Paradise by Les Standiford is an enthralling read if you want to know more.
I still like the idea of riding my bicycle up to the railroad, getting into a single carriage train and riding the rails to Key West in silent, electrified comfort. Pity I don't have massive shares in Standard Oil to back me up and turn my fantasies into reality.