"Lenora Albury: retired from
the Key Largo Branch Library after being Branch Manager for 28 and
a half years. She was a founder and president of the Historical
Society of the Upper Keys. She is the widow of Conch Captain Calvin
The construction of the Overseas Railroad was a
tremendous feat of engineering during the early years of the 20th
century. No single construction project before or since has done
more to change life in the Florida Keys.
Flagler brought the Florida East Coast Railway to Miami in the
1890s, he dreamed of continuing it on to Key West. Flagler, a former
partner of John D. Rockefeller of the Standard Oil Company, wanted
to establish a deep-water port as a terminus for the East Coast
Railroad. Shallow water in Miami limited his dreams, so he looked
to Key West, the most populated city in south Florida at the time.
In 1902, Flagler
commissioned surveys to determine the best route. Three were considered:
Miami to Cape Sable to Big Pine Key, Miami to Key Largo (by way
of the narrows between Card Sound and Barnes Sound), and Homestead
to Key Largo through the Everglades. The latter route (now the site
of U.S. Highway 1), was finally selected. In 1904, engineers began
staking the right-of-way to Key West. Construction began in Homestead
a year later, and by the end of 1907, the roadbed reached Knights’
Key, a distance of 83 miles.
The first train from the mainland arrived at Knights’
Key in January, 1908, and regular passenger service began the next
month. Knights’ Key served as the southern terminus of the railroad
for four years.
Between Knights’ Key and Key West lay two major
hurdles: a seven-mile water gap between Knights’ Key and Little
Duck Key, and a deep, nearly mile-wide channel at Bahia Honda. The
Seven-Mile Bridge took four years to complete and the deep water
at Bahia Honda necessitated building a higher, more costly truss
Building a railroad in this remote part of the
world was an almost impossible task. As if the heat, the lack of
fresh water and the hordes of mosquitoes were not enough to contend
with, Mother Nature threw in three hurricanes. The first, in 1906,
almost brought the project to a halt. More than 130 workers lost
their lives, miles of embankment and rails were washed away, barges
and dredges were sunk and construction equipment was heavily damaged.
Despite losses in the millions of dollars, Flagler
said, "Go ahead." A second storm hit in 1909. Again there was heavy
damage, and 40 workers lost their lives, but Flagler was not to
be deterred. From lessons taught by these first two storms, when
a third hurricane hit in 1910, only one life was lost.
A terminal and docks were built at Key West. Because
of the scarcity of waterfront property, new land had to be created.
Thousands of cubic yards of fill were dredged from the surrounding
waters to create a 134-acre site on the northwestern side of the
island. The railroad tracks ended on huge concrete piers so that
passengers only had to walk a few feet to board waiting steamships.
The site was named "Trumbo Island" after Howard Trumbo, the project
In all, more than 17 miles of bridges and 20 miles
of fill embankments were constructed to cross the gaps between the
Keys. At times there were nearly 4,000 workers simultaneously employed,
and almost 30,000 people worked on the project during construction.
was 75 years old when construction started, and in failing health
as the railroad
neared Key West. On January 22, 1912, just a few days after his
82nd birthday, Flagler rode the first official train into Key West
as bands played, whistles blew and the entire population cheered.
He said, "Now I can die fulfilled." He died less than 16 months
The Key West Extension, as it was called by the
railroad company, remained in operation for 23 years. The "Havana
Special" was a deluxe passenger train with sleeping, dining, club
and observation cars. Advertisements touted speed and comfort: "Only
two nights between Havana and New York!" The railroad timetable
indicated that it took four hours for the run between Miami and
Key West, but old timers remember it was closer to six or seven
hours. Engineers were required to slow to 15 miles per hour on bridges,
and were not allowed to cross at all if gauges, installed at both
ends of the bridges, indicated winds in excess of 50 miles per hour.
Local trains stopped each day at all the major settled Keys to deliver
and pick up mail, passengers and freight. Periodically, flat-bed
cars loaded with huge tanks stopped to deliver the most precious
cargo of all -- fresh water.
In 1915, the first of three railroad car ferries,
the Henry M. Flagler was completed. The largest in the world
at that time, it could carry 30 to 35 freight cars between Key West
and Havana at a speed of 13 knots. The cars were rolled on and off
through a huge stern door.
Already in financial trouble, the death blow to
the Key West Extension was struck by the terrible Labor
Day hurricane of 1935. Driven by 200 mile-an-hour winds, a 17-foot-high
wall of water washed over Upper Matecumbe Key, sweeping rescue train
cars off the tracks. More than 500 lives were lost, and most of
the tracks and roadbeds in the upper Keys were destroyed. Because
of the Depression, and because the Keys West Extension had never
been profitable, railroad officials decided not to rebuild. The
right-of-way was sold for $640,000 to become the route for a new