Saturday, September 9, 2017

Henry Flagler and The Overseas Railroad

Henry Flagler* was a industrialist in the era when people with big dreams and big ideas could do things. Ayn Rand made men like him into characters in her books. Sometimes the things they did worked out. Other times they went too far.

Mr. Flagler was involved in the founding of Standard Oil in a partnership with John D. Rockefeller. This, in the decades before gasoline was even a thing, meant that they eventually created a monopoly in oil and kerosene manufacturing and sales in the United Stated. At one point, they were refining over 80% of the entire oil production in the world. As you can imagine, it was a not a always done in a friendly atmosphere, but they got extremely rich.

Sometime in the 1890s, Mr. Flagler became interested in development in Florida. Hotels specifically. Then a railroad to bring clients to those hotels. Then more hotels and further extensions of the railroads. He named Miami. By 1896, the line had reached Biscayne Bay. An incredible accomplishment for a visionary man by any measure.

His imagination was sparked again by the opening the Panama Canal and he decided to extend the line across 113 miles of open water and islands through the Florida Keys. The line was completed in 1912. It was called the Eighth Wonder of the World*.


The investment over a 30 year period was $50 million (in unadjusted dollars) in railroads, hotels, and infrastructure. It opened up Florida for tourism and agriculture. The extended line was never profitable, although it continued to operate until 1935.

In 1935, a category 5 hurricane hit Florida on Labor Day*. Many of the Florida Keys were completely overwashed by the storm surge. The loss of life is estimated at between 400 and 500, but that is an estimate. The railroad was damaged along most of the line, with 40 miles of tracks completely destroyed. The last time the train ever ran was the day the hurricane made landfall. Bankrupt and unable to rebuild, the remains of the line, including all the overwater bridges, was sold to the state of Florida.

The WPA got involved and rebuilding the line to Key West as an automobile highway was undertaken as a public works project.  Completed in 1938, and upgraded several times over the decades, the highway still runs generally along the path of Flagler's Folly.*


 But that any man could have the genius to see of what this wilderness of waterless sand and underbrush was capable and then have the nerve to build a railroad here, is more marvelous than similar development anywhere else in the world. --George W. Perkins, speaking of Henry Flagler after his death

*I highly recommend the links  and then a Google search of your own. This was a very abbreviated post on the topic.


3 comments:

SiGraybeard said...

Growing up in Miami, something about Henry Flagler's life was required reading. In high school, every teacher's workday brought a trip to the keys and free or scuba diving. Some of the old structures were still visible back then ('71-ish)

The most vivid thing I ever read about that Labor Day hurricane was that there was a weather station somewhere in the Keys - I don't recall which key. An observer was dutifully recording the barometer readings, and the legend goes that when the mercury bottomed out in the barometer, below the scale, the observer had a heart attack and died.

LindaG said...

I think there was a show about this on the History Channel or National Geographic sometime last year. The information seems really familiar.
Thanks for the post and the links.

Will said...

Went down to Key West with our bikes on a couple trips in the early/mid 70's. That was a really odd perspective to be traveling over the water on that old roadway. At the time, I was living in So Jersey on an island accessed by three different causeways with bridges. One of those bridges fell after I crossed it one early morning. I may have been the last one across. That memory was running in the back of my mind as I was looking at a similar sort of water crossing, except this one just went on and on.