The Railroad that Died at Sea: The Florida East Coast’s Key West Extension

I bought The Railroad that Died at Sea: The Florida East Coast’s Key West Extension by Pat Parks during my first trip to Key West in 2019. Originally printed in 1968, this new edition commemorates the centennial of the opening of the Key West Extension in 1912 with additional photographs. The railway was in service until 1935 when it was destroyed during the Labor Day Hurricane. One can see the remnants of the Overseas Railroad, which was never rebuilt, when driving to Key West. The Old Bahia Honda Rail Bridge is seen below:

This short book of 52 pages was a delight to read and the photos were a pleasure to go through, especially the ones that showed the railway work in progress. Parks expressed her bold opinions in terms that would not be used today. The publisher made note of this in a new introduction. Authors would not use the words Parks chose below to describe the railroad’s work force:

“An occasional Norwegian turned up, but seldom stayed unless he was made foreman. The bulk of the labor force, unfortunately, had to be drawn from Skid Row and wino districts of Philadelphia and New York. Keeping these derelicts sober was a major task.”

Henry Flagler, the founder and financier of the Florida East Coast Railway and its Key West Extension, was already in his early eighties when the chief construction engineer, William J. Krome, expressed his desire to hasten work on the railway so that Flagler could ride the rails to Key West by his next birthday in January 1912. This required pushing up the completion date by one whole year. Parks wrote:

“Only a person of Flagler’s caliber could have inspired his men to undertake so much in so little time.”

The work pace was accelerated to such a degree that:

“As passenger and freight cars thundered into full-time operation, these hard workers quietly put finishing touches to parts they had skipped over in their haste to get Flagler to Key West.”

Construction of the railway was delayed several times by hurricanes that ravaged the area. One should have seriously considered not building in that location if disaster struck so often. Even so, precautions were made to ensure the safety of the trains and passengers:

“No train was allowed to travel over the road during times of strong wind because such pressure might sweep a moving train from the tracks, though the road itself was built to stand extremely strong wind.”

Yet these precautions often meant delays, as even in times of good weather, the speed limit for crossing bridges was set at 15 m.p.h.:

“Perhaps the delays for wind and the slow travel over bridges occasioned the following quip by H. H. Hyman, of Miami, an office engineer for FEC, who said, ‘Whenever a train was 24 hours late, it was never admitted. The bulletin board would read “One Hour Late,” failing to state it was one day and one hour late.'”

Thankfully, no train was ever swept off the tracks during the entire duration the Key West Extension was in service. Parks raised one consequence of the railway that residents, as well as I myself, were surprised to learn:

“The Overseas Railroad affected Key West’s population in strange ways. Many thought the city would grow, now that rail transportation had replaced the sailboats of old. One visitor to the area found to his astonishment that more people were leaving Key West than were coming in to stay.”

As I neared the end of the book I realized that Parks wasn’t going to get around to talking about the devastation from the Labor Day Hurricane. All I learned was that 42 miles of the 156 mile track were washed out, leaving over seven hundred dead. For such a short book it was packed with detail and is an essential read to learn why the railroad was nicknamed “Flagler’s Folly”.

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