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.

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