Building the overseas railroad

The building of the Overseas Railroad is one of great engineering feats in Florida’s history – in fact it might actually be one of the most amazing marvels in American history. Built thanks to Henry Flagler’s ingenuity and his deep pockets, the east coast railroad that had changed Florida was extended to the Keys to open up a potential tourist boom to one of the most remote parts of the country as well as an easier connection to Cuba. On recent Florida History Podcast, we discussed the building of the railroad. In addition, below we have a book review about the best book written on the engineering marvel.

Les Standiford’s Last Train to Paradise: Henry Flagler and the Spectacular Rise and Fall of the Railroad that Crossed an Ocean is a definitive history of the railroad told by a fiction writer. This gives the narrative perhaps more color and flow than some boring histories written by historians and political writers. The decision to build a railroad under harsh conditions with no natural staging ground cannot be overstated even today.

Florida’s first city of the 1890’s, Key West lay 150 miles of daunting Everglades, lakes and open ocean away from Miami. Flagler determined he needed to connect his railroad to Key West, but two different and equally daunting routes were the only ones realistically to be considered. Ultimately Flagler decided to connect his railroad via bridging Jewfish Creek and Lake Surprise to Key Largo, rather than the other option which was to plow through the Everglades down to Cape Sable and bridge Florida Bay. We tell the story of Flagler’s trials and tribulations.

The history is pleasurable to read as are the numerous sidebars. The books ends with the tragic 1935 Labor Day Hurricane which ended the railroad project and began the quest to build the Overseas Highway. By the late 1930’s technology had made building a road over the water much easier than when the Railroad project began.

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