If you have ever driven the 4-hour road trip from Miami south through the Florida Keys to Key West on the two-lane Route 1, you may have noticed portions of a structure over open water on the trip on your right hand and left-hand sides.
Built primarily in the last quarter of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th century, the Florida Ease Coast RR (FEC) was a project of Standard Oil principal Henry Flagler.
He originally visited Florida with his first wife, Mary; they sought assistance with the health issues she faced. A key strategist who worked closely with John D. Rockefeller building the Standard Oil Trust, Flagler noted both great potential and a lack of services during his stay at St. Augustine. He subsequently began what amounted to his second career, developing resorts, industries, and communities all along Florida’s shores abutting the Atlantic Ocean.
The FEC and Henry Flagler are best known for building the railroad to Key West, a city of almost 20,000 inhabitants located 128 miles beyond the end of mainland Florida. This portion of the railroad, known as the Overseas Railroad, was considered an engineering marvel of its time, the eighth wonder of the world, because its construction took it over miles of open water. A project of this nature had never been undertaken, before, by private interests. Construction began in 1905 and was completed in 1912.
Flagler became particularly interested in linking Key West to the mainland after the construction of the Panama Canal was announced by the United States in 1905. As the closest deep-water port in the United States to the canal, Key West was positioned to take advantage of significant new trade with the west that would be enabled by the opening of the canal – this, in addition to the city’s existing involvement with Cuban and Latin American trade. Key West was a major coaling station for ship traffic between South America and New York. Flagler thought it would be profitable for coal to be brought by railroad to Key West for coaling those ships. Though, by the time the extension was finished, the range of ships had been extended to such a degree that they no longer stopped in Key West for coal. The final link of the Florida East Coast Railway to Trumbo Point in Key West was completed in 1912. On January 22, the first passenger train rode into Key West, marking the completion of the railroad’s oversea connection to Key West and the linkage by railway of the entire east coast of Florida.
The Key West extension was heavily damaged and partially destroyed in the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935. Track, bridges and roadbed were washed away by the hurricane. The Florida East Coast Railway quickly determined that it was financially unable to rebuild the destroyed sections. The roadbed and remaining bridges south of Florida City were then sold to the state of Florida, which built the Overseas Highway to Key West, using much of the remaining railway infrastructure. A rebuilt Overseas Highway (U.S. Route 1), taking an alignment that closely follows the Overseas Railroad’s original routing, continues to provide the only highway link to Key West, ending near the southernmost point in the continental United States. The remaining Long Key Viaduct, Seven Mile Bridge, and Bahia Honda Rail Bridge that once carried the Key West extension still stand and are on the National Register of Historic Places.
Currently, the remaining bridges are utilized as walkways and bike paths for the local residents and tourists. In spite of the destruction caused by the 1935 Hurricane, the cement pilings and arches to support the bridges were so well built, that hurricanes, storms and weather in the following years have had no effect upon them. Talk about repurposing the railroad’s steel rails. These became part of the railings on the walkways and bike paths.