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History and Background:
The Overseas Highway


Marion E. Marzyck

Marion Marzyck: a Monroe County school mathematics teacher and world traveler. Her life was influenced by both Conch and Cuban lifestyles. She was a fourth generation Conch, a descendant of Adolphus Pinder, an early pioneer in the Upper Keys, and from the Cuban Solano family that had a dairy in the southern past of Key West.

Following completion of the railroad in 1912, Keysí natives began to need roads to allow them to travel along the Keys in their own automobiles.

In 1917, Monroe County issued bonds to finance the cost of building single-lane dirt roads or trails on Key Largo and Big Pine Key, a bridge to Stock Island and a short road on Stock Island. The next step was not taken until 1922, when a bond issue was approved to construct roads linking Key Largo to Lower Matecumbe. At the same time, Dade County authorized construction of a road from Homestead to Key Largo via a bridge across Card Sound.

Between 1923 and 1928, construction of additional roads, bridges and an automobile ferry were authorized and completed. On January 25, 1928, the highway was officially opened and it became possible to travel by automobile and auto-ferry from Miami to Key West.

A trip to Key West on this first Overseas Highway took at least 8 hours. Four of these hours were spent on a ferry boat which crossed the 40-mile water gap between Lower Matecumbe Key and No Name Key. The three ferries in service each could carry 21 cars, and had a restaurant and lounge topside. It was not unusual for trips to be delayed when ferries ran aground in shallow water.

In January of 1930, a road was completed across Grassy Key and Key Vaca (now called Marathon) with ferry slips at either end. This construction reduced the original 40-mile ferry ride to two 14-mile ferry crossings.

The narrow rickety wooden bridges in the Lower Keys presented major challenges to motorists. When drivers met on these bridges, they passed each other very slowly with bated breath. It was impossible to get by a truck on a bridge. At night, trucks would stop and blink their lights before starting across, and proceed only if no lights blinked back -- no one wanted to back off one of those bridges. One blind curve was called "Dead Manís Curve;" another section was known as "The Washboard" because of the bumps. Service stations were few and far between. A breakdown on this highway often meant a wait of several hours with only mosquitoes and sandflies for company.

In order to eliminate the need for ferries, the Florida Legislature, in 1933, created the Overseas Road and Toll Bridge District to finish the highway between Lower Matecumbe and Big Pine Key. This was to be financed by bond sales, but, because of the Depression, there were few buyers and progress was slow. When the Florida East Coast Railway decided to abandon the Key West Extension after the 1935 Labor Day hurricane, the Toll Bridge district purchased the entire railroad right-of-way from Florida City to Key West for $640,000, and began the second Overseas Highway.

In November of 1936, workers began to transform the railroad into a highway. The principal engineering challenge was to make the narrow railroad foundations on the bridges wide enough to accommodate a two-lane roadway. To accomplish this, steel I-beams, 22 feet in length, were welded across the top of the original railway girders, and a concrete roadway was constructed on top of them. The Bahia Honda bridge, because of the enclosed spans, presented a different problem, solved by building the roadway over the top of the spans. The hump at the top of the Bahia Honda bridge gave motorists a rollercoaster thrill.

The second Overseas Highway was completed in 16 months. On March 29, 1938, it was possible to drive all the way to Key West without a ferry. Rates at the toll booth on Lower Matecumbe Key were one dollar for a car, 25 cents for each passenger and from one to four dollars for trucks. Tolls were removed in 1954.

Until 1941, the highway still ran across the Card Sound bridge to Key Largo and, in the Lower Keys, along the southern shore of Sugarloaf Key and the Saddlebunch Keys over the original wooden bridges. With the outbreak of World War II and the build-up of the Key West Naval Base, it became vital to improve the highway. In January, 1942, the State Road Department and the national Public Works Administration agreed jointly to finance improvements. From Florida City to Key Largo, a new road was built (now locally known as the 18-Mile Stretch) following the railroad right-of-way, bypassing the Card Sound route and thereby saving 17 miles. In the Lower Keys, the wooden bridges were abandoned and a new road built using the original railroad route and bridges. This work was completed in May of 1944.

By 1960, the traffic on the highway had increased to the point that the narrow bridges were no longer considered adequate. In 1977, the Congress appropriated $109 million to build new, wider bridges, and the state of Florida agreed to share 30 percent of the cost. Work on the third Overseas Highway was begun in 1977 and completed in 1982.

Thirty-seven new bridges were built, the longer ones using a "segmental" construction process developed in Europe. The new Seven-Mile Bridge is the longest segmental bridge in the world. Most of the original railroad bridges have been totally or partially removed, but the Long Key Bridge, the Seven-Mile Bridge and the Bahia Honda Bridge have been designated as national historic sites and will remain.