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History and Background:
The Overseas Railroad


Lenora Albury

"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 Albury.

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.

After Henry 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 span.

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 engineer.

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.

Flagler 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 later.

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 Overseas Highway.