Friday, September 7, 2012

Flagler's Railroad At The Museum

The Museum Of Art And History set this exhibit up to commemorate the centenary of the arrival of the railroad in January this year. I meant to go at the time but...better late than never.

I was actually quite surprised by the lack of fanfare that accompanied the one hundredth anniversary of the event that connected Key West by land to the of Florida. You'd think everyone would have been madly celebrating the event but in the collective memory, dulled by alcohol, and limited by the frequent replacement of many exhausted citizens by fresh incomers the whole centenary thing got barely any attention. It came, it went, this in a town that celebrates Hemingway as though he were a God riding a fiberglass bull, and pets as though they were put on earth solely for beauty pageants. Flagler? Who dat?

The fact is that cars are what move modern America and trains (like motorcycles!) are objects of curiosity. In fact the Solares Hill weekly has been suggesting, a bit tongue in cheek, that a modern monorail would be the way to connect the Keys these days. You can imagine that no one would seriously consider a modern rail alternative to connect these islands that lie in a perfectly straight line for a hundred miles. The museum exhibit has a piece of film from a 1928 ride on the rails. I could have started at it for hours, not minutes. Many of the island landscapes appears not to have changed in the past century, but the views from the bridges seemed like views from another world lost forever to our modern needs for asphalt, cement and guard rails.

It's a great idea of course to use electric rail but in an era when there's no money to build sewers something as esoteric as a replacement for the automobile will never get off the ground...We have lost the collective will to build and maintain infrastructure already in our country. What chance is there of a visionary coming forward to propel us in some new and uncharted direction? Fear is the only collective sentiment Americans respond to nowadays. I blame television but my critics scoff.

It was the railways of Flagler in the east and Plant in the west that opened up the Florida peninsula but nowadays trains are for commerce and recently our esteemed Governor turned down 2.4 billion Federal dollars for high speed passenger rail across the state. Thousands of highly trained space workers from the dismantled NASA programs found no replacement work in the Sunshine State as a result. Vision belongs to the past, when a man like Flagler could see swamps and envision tourism, and had the boldness of a pioneer to make it happen. Nowadays if the bank can't see the profit it's dead in the water and our leaders, anxious for campaign contributions lead by following.

The Florida East Coast extension connected New York with Havana by ferry so fruit and tourists could get into and out of the snowy north east in a couple of days and nights. The first class passengers were served real food with real cutlery and place settings, just like on the Titanic, everyone else traveled steerage. Yet its worth remembering that until the railraod came to the keys most of the islands had no names at all as no one bothered with them. Indian Key and Key West comprised the inhabited portions. Everywhere else was nothing more than scrub with the occasional homestead. Then came the rails and china tea services and monogrammed pots in the middle of the wilderness.

The work involved building cement bridges on a par with that other engineering wonder of the decade, the Panama Canal. And yet today we take for granted the cement structures here that are a hundred years and as solid as new. The new road flashes traffic past the delicate arches of the old structures, curved and fluted like things of beauty. The modern bridges stand gawkily on long cement poles about as attractive as scaffolding over the water. But the modern bridges work, built thirty years ago when public works were objects of pride in the United States, not scorn as they are today.

Flagler used to joke that were it not for Florida he'd have been a rich man. Despite his oil holding millions he had to take out a loan to complete the line to Key West. He did it because he saw the vision and believed in it. Personal wealth was not the goal. He treated his workers well, demanding hard work for real pay. people lined up to come south and labor, not all of them could manage in the humid conditions of South Florida.

He made his one and only visit to Key West on the first through train and the next day he went home to Palm Beach where he died 16 months later. Get to the museum and see the exhibit, it's wonderfully evocative. Celebrate the centenary on your own because in Sodom, Flagler's achievements a hundred years on count for nothing in a world focused on the short term gain.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad


Anonymous said...

I will be sure to visit the museum if I am able to visit in November...trains are my preferred means of transportation but the system in the US is horribly fragmented. A train ride through the Keys would certainly have been an adventure. I will have to be satisfied with the film I suppose.

Steve said...

Read your blog every day and especially enjoyed today's but do disagree about lack of vision by people today. Imagine if Flagler tried to built railroad today- how many permits, etc. would he have had to obtain from numerous gov't agencies. So a major difficulty today is complexity of getting projects done and over regulations (see current blvd project), plus you mentioned workers- do you think Flagler could have found people to work for what he paid them. NO- we have more than 10% of our population that has no motivation and wants the rest of us to support them-period! That is a major drain on our econony.
Enjoy your writing- look forward to more

Anonymous said...

If Flagler had allowed himself to be stopped by your Fox news talking points he wouldn't have been a visionary-period!

Anonymous said...

There is a very good book about the railroad: "Last Train to Paradise: Henry Flagler and the Spectacular Rise and Fall of the Railroad that Crossed an Ocean" by Les Standiford It's a quick fun read.

There is a bust of Flagler and pictures of him at the Casa. He also built the hotel. Really interesting history.

Bob from Livingston Montana

Anonymous said...

Given the billions that Bill Gates has donated to worthy causes, I would hold that in today's world he's closest to Flagler's style of capitalism in which great fortunes were accumulated and then used for the common good.

The antithesis of Steve Jobs.

I need to pick up the book Bob mentioned.

Conchscooter said...

i think there is some truth to the notion that today the railroad would be impossible to build as Flagler's engineers, led at first by Krome, had to dig trenches, blast coral and close waterways in ways that would never be allowed to day.
as for the wealth thing its worth noting Gates only got on the charity thing after much prodiing by his father. As noted most modern tech execus don't beleive in charity in any form. certainly I don't see people like Romney showing any propennsity for the vision thing with 200 million to his name...

Anonymous said...

I think by definition the visionary finds his away around the impediments whatever they may be: government rules, mosquitoes, non believers etc. Flagler couldn't blast coral today, but he would have found some grand scheme that was as implausible yet doable as his train to Key West.

I've worked in tech all my life and find Gates' transformation both startling and reassuring. Back in the 70s nobody would have fingered him as the most socially concerned techie of his generation.

Conchscooter said...

I hope that as conventional living gets less and less rewarding for many of us visionary leaders will appear with a better path forward. The 20th century produced plenty of them but they tended to be of the vioplent genre. perhaps we can do better in this Depression.

Danette said...

The book mentioned by Steve is a good one- VERY interesting, put together quite well- although it treats Flagler a bit too heroically with too little scrutiny. But even with his kid glove treatment you still see what kind of man he was. He was an oil baron alongside Rockefeller who dodged regulation as ruthlessly as do the banks and oil barons right now... and set the example for ExxonMobil (both baby Standards) and BP today. If there's another oil spill (and really that should be WHEN not if) you can look down history's long nose and see those two gentlemen nodding their heads in approval as the oil companies squirm to remove the burden of proof off their shoulders. (I'm reading 'Private Empire: Exxon Mobil and American Power' and you can see Flaglers footprints there although he is never mentioned as one of the co-founders of the father company that would bring us the oil giant.) As for "paid/treated his workers well..." well, again I guess that depends on what you call "well". Damn right I wouldn't do that work for what they paid those men in what was virtually a mosquito plagued rock days away from semi-civilization. Even Standiford, who clearly admired the man, had to admit that working conditions were harsh at best and the company did promise workers money that was often (usually???) not forthcoming. But then I won't pick peaches or tomatoes either, for that matter. In fact, I won't work for Walmart. I'd much rather get my reliable (although rather small) paycheck from the city and county along with the health benefits that give me access to a much needed neurologist.

And there are those that will still build trains, Conch. They are building lightrail throughout Metro Denver and there is the hope that a monorail will be built all the way up to Vail. That will be no easy task- certainly nearly (if not more so considering) as difficult as building a rail to Key West. The only thing holding the plan back is tax-payer money (because it's always been rare to find an individual who was willing to build something of this magnitude with their own funds. In that regard Flagler is rare and perhaps deserving of some of the adoration of the author of said writing. No, usually something that gradiose, like the highway system, is generally done with the help of government somewhere along the road- haha!) and tax payers aren't willing to see an increase in their taxes even for something as sustainable as a highly used (and it WILL be used) monorail to ski heaven. Much good was done with government backing in this country but those days are indeed behind us since the Party of Greed- the same party that pushes the liberal left so far over they have become the moderate right- continues to shoulder us right off the road and over a cliff. WPA indeed.

Read the book, it's good. For that matter, read both books.

Conchscooter said...

On the subject of pay it was good enough to attract workers, but conditions were harsh enough that not everyone who wanted the money could earn it. Flagler was flawed but in retrospect interesting. Today's barons are flawed and uninteresting. They use government contracts to make their fortunes, or to add to them, while denying the merits of government. That they do isn't surprising. That the working class doesn't notice, is surprising. The republicans have one a masterful job of getting people to vite against their own interest. In flagler's day that wan,t necessary.

Anonymous said...

Can't argue with many of Danette's points about Flagler. His railroad building set him apart from his contemporaries.

Anonymous said...

I agree with conchscooter, the robber barons were more interesting. They seemed in most cases to have given more back. In Livingston, like lots of small towns across the country, there is a Carnegie Library. Unfortunately, I don't see a Steve Jobs art gallery, library or other cultural buildings being built in the small towns of America.

Some robber barons weren't so nice though. Montana's William Clark worked my ancestors' hands to the bones to mine copper in Butte, but then gave nothing back. If you want to see his art treasurers in Washington DC, you have to pay to see them. He bought himself a US Senate seat, moved the state capitol to Helena and did nothing positive for the state or its people.

Bob from Livingston Montana