Henry Flagler’s Overseas Railroad ~ 100 Years Later

100th Year Anniversary of the Inaugural Journey of Henry Flagler's Overseas Railroad

This week marks the 100th year anniversary of the inaugural journey of Henry Flagler’s Florida Keys Over-Seas Railroad.  On January 22, 1912, the train arrived for the first time in Key West. As the community gears up for full celebration of this historic achievement, it’s a call for reflection on the ribbon of railroad remnants that today serve as the Overseas Highway for automobiles.

For over 25 years now, I’ve been making the car drive down the Overseas Highway from Key Largo to Key West where I live.  Lately I’ve been a passenger for the ride since my husband likes to take the wheel. That’s just fine with me as I prefer to sit in the back seat of our Honda Element so I can gaze out the window and take in the amazing watery scenery.  With the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the Gulf Mexico on the other, there is just nothing like this experience anywhere else in the world.

During the course of the drive, the road links lots of teeny tiny islands together with bridges. About mid-point on the drive there is a short steep bridge that was built high to allow sailboats with tall masts to pass underneath. At the crest of the bridge there is an amazing view of hundreds of little islands and crystal clear water, and my husband always shouts out, “There’s those fabulous Florida Keys.”  At that very point we play a game where we’re supposed to lift up our feet off the floor of the car until we pass over the bridge to the other side. I love this silly little ritual in our ride down the Overseas Highway, and each time I imagine what it must have been like to take this incredible trek on Henry Flagler’s railroad down to Key West from 1912 to 1935.

Flagler’s forward thinking vision of connecting the dots of the Florida Keys to the mainland was an astonishing engineering feat. Unfortunately, it was a relatively short-lived accomplishment that was prematurely swept into the future of automobiles with the hurricane in 1935. But fortunately, the rail beds and bridges were not a total loss and were preserved to become a passage-way for automobiles, then considered the transportation of the future.

I love trains as a mode of transportation, I prefer them to cars, and I dream of one day boarding a train in Miami or Homestead bound for Key West. Just imagine what fun it would be to get on the train in Key West and go up to Miami for the weekend. It’s not hard for me to visualize this because a similar train is still running on Mallorca, Spain. I spend part of my year on the island of Mallorca, and frequently travel on the historic Soller Railway from the city of Palma de Mallorca to Soller. Just like Flagler’s Railroad, the Soller Railway was built in 1912, and it still runs everyday! While it doesn’t go over seas, it travels through 30 tunnels deep in the Serra deTramuntana Mountains, and the longest one takes over five minutes to pass through. Each time I ride this historic train it reaffirms for me that we should never give up on resurrecting the Overseas Railway in the Florida Keys.

Today Florida Keys residents are geared up for the100th is anniversary of Flagler’s train and will be commemorating the historic event all week and in months to come.  If you want to follow in Flagler’s tracks, it’s well worth the visit to his historic hotels in St. Augustine, Florida. This North Florida city has remained faithful to the historic value and significance of the original design. Take a look at the Casa Monica Hotel, for example. When you step inside you can easily imagine what it was like in Flagler’s day.

At the end of the road, not too far from Mile Marker 0, you’ll want to see the old Henry Flagler Hotel. Known as the Casa Marina Resort for many years now, the historic hotel has changed corporate hands several times in the last many years. Situated right on the Atlantic Ocean, near the southernmost point of the U.S.A., the exterior of the building typifies Flagler’s original glory. In the interior, original ceiling beams, oversized, Palladian windows, and some original flooring has been restored, but unfortunately the last renovation went a bit overboard on hotel modernization.  Nonetheless, it’s still worth the stop to imagine what it must have been like to arrive at Flagler’s ‘final destination’ on the train.


by Cindy Rhoades – copyright 2012 – All Rights Reserved

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