Henry Flaglers Railroad opened the door to the Florida Keys
Henry Flaglers Railroad known then as the Flagler East Coast Railway, already stretched all the way down the east coast of the U.S. to Miami. It was just a matter of time until it would stretch all the way thru the Florida Keys to Key West .
As far back as 1831 it was being suggested that a railroad should be built to connect Key West to the mainland of Florida.
In 1866 the International Ocean Telegraph Company was doing a survey of the Florida Keys. In order for them to do this they had to carve out a route thru the mangroves in the Florida Keys. This became the route the Henry Flaglers Railroad would follow.
Flagler needed to get the land on which to build his railroad. Their were no land grants available in the Florida Keys. The land had to be purchased, leased and donated. He financed the project himself. He used money from his Flagler East Coast Railway to pay for the building of the railroad. He borrowed no money and he didn’t cut corners to save money on the project.
The first people sent into the Keys had to clear the land. Then work camps were set up throughout the Florida Keys. Work camp number one was at Homestead and work camp number 82 was in Key West. Functional seaports and terminals had to be build. One at Knights Key and one at Key West. Hugh floating concrete mixers had to be built, they were inventing this stuff as they needed it.
By 1905 workers filled the work camps. Construction was ready to begin. They had 10 moving dredges for digging the fill for the railroad track bed. One dredge was on each side of the track bed. They would pile the fill in the middle of the railroad track bed. Rock and sand were brought in and spread on the fill. The railroad tracks were laid on top of this foundation.
The first two rail road stations for Henry Flaglers Railroad, the Woodall and Everglades were build where the two passing zones are now on the 18-mile stretch.
As the tracks were laid from Homestead they built railroad mounted equipment to move rocks, sand, tracks and other equipment to places needing them along the tracks. The waters along most of the track route was very shallow. I order to get supplies and equipment to these areas, they had 150 other smaller barges that could navigate these waters.
More camps were set up as the work on Henry Flagler’s Railroad progressed. They constructed double decker house boats and set up tents for the workers to sleep in.
Lake Surprise earned her name by surprising the engineers. They had decided not to build a bridge across Lake Surprise. Their concern was having a stable causeway. It would be filled instead. As they began dumping the fill in, it would disappear. They kept dumping and the fill kept disappearing. They had thought this was a very shallow body of water. It took fifteen months to dump enough fill to support the train traveling on Henry Flagler’s Railroad.
The original plan by Henry Flagler was to fill all the channels between the islands of the Florida Keys. Flagler wanted a continuous causeway all the way to Key West. The Federal Government wouldn’t allow this.
A large work camp had to be built at Long Key. This bridge would be two and a half miles long. They knew this one would take a long time to build.
In 1906 the first hurricane hit while building Henry Flaglers Railroad. One hundred and thirty workers drown in this storm.
In January 1908 train service began to the Upper and Middle Keys. By February the service ran twice a day.
A seaport was build at Knights Key. The passengers would leave the train here and board a Steamship which took them to Havana, Cuba . Henry Flagler owned the Steamship.
The Seven Mile Bridge and the Key West terminals were the next two huge projects. They had crews working on both at the same time. The Seven Mile Bridge was referred to by locals as the Flagler Viaduct. It took two years to complete.
Bahia Honda bridge was the only Camelback type bridge in Henry Flagler’s Railroad route in the Florida Keys. They had to build it in this design because of the deeper water here. This bridge still stands today. Evidence of Henry Flaglers Railroad and the Overseas Highway can still be seen here.
In 1909 a major hurricane hit the Seven Mile Bridge area. Most all of the dredges, concrete mixers and pile drivers were washed away or damaged. In this same hurricane a train road out the storm in Islamorada at the Quarry Station. There was a washout between the two stations on the eighteen mile stretch. The passengers were stranded for three days.
The trains engines used coal for fuel. In March 1910 a fire was caused by one of the engines. This was during the dry season in the Florida keys. The fire was on Key Largo, it spread rapidly in both directions, north and south. It burnt everything in it’s path. After this fire they switched from coal to oil to run all the trains in the Florida Keys.
During 1910 another hurricane hit Henry Flaglers Railroad. Lots of damage was caused to the center part of the Bahia Honda Bridge. The storm lasted thirty hours. The foundation to the bridge was moved. It had to be reconstructed. The work camps in the Lower Keys were severely damaged by the same storm.
This hurricane threw Henry Flaglers Railroad into bankruptcy. Many sections of the railroad were severely damaged. Something had to be done to reconnect Key West to the mainland.
The state purchased the right-of-way for $640,000. It was to be modified into a highway for automobiles. The Overseas Highway was born. It took almost three years but it was completed and opened for traffic to travel from the mainland to Key West in 1938.
The Florida Keys still hides several sections of Henry Flaglers Railroad. The first pieces are just off to the Gulf or back country side of the Overseas Highway as your crossing the bridges in the Upper Keys near Islamorada. You'll see some structures that look like short houses. Those were the pilings for the bridges the WWI Vets were building when the 1935 Hurricane hit. In some of the waterways in the Lower Keys parts of the old railroad bridges are still there. The best way to see them is by boat.
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