Henry Morrison Flagler (January 2, 1830 – May 20, 1913) was an American industrialist and a founder of Standard Oil. He was also a key figure in the development of the Atlantic east coast of Florida and founder of what became the Florida East Coast Railway.
Before building the Florida East Coast Railway or the FEC, Flagler first visited Florida in 1878 recognizing the state’s potential for growth but noticed a lack of hotel facilities. Flagler returned to Florida in 1885 with an eye toward developing the area around St. Augustine and began building a grand hotel, the Hotel Ponce de Leon. He then went on to build a series of hotels along the east coast of Florida too numerous to mention. Realizing the need for a sound transportation system to support his hotel ventures, Flagler purchased short line railroads in what would later become known as the Florida East Coast Railway. He modernized the existing railroads for them to accommodate heavier loads and more traffic. In addition to improving the railroad, Flagler built schools, a hospital and churches in St. Augustine, systematically revitalizing the largely abandoned historic city. As a result he became known as the father of St. Augustine, Miami and Palm Beach, Florida.
But Flagler saw a new vision across the open ocean which at the time that became his greatest challenge: the extension of the Florida East Coast Railway to Key West located 128 miles beyond the end of the Florida. Flagler became particularly interested in linking Key West to the mainland the United States since it was the closest deep-water port after the construction of the Panama Canal. This would not only take advantage of Cuban and Latin America trade, but the opening of the canal would allow significant trade possibilities with the west that provided a major coaling station for ship traffic between South America and New York. Flagler thought it would be profitable for coal to be brought by railroad to Key West for coaling those ships. The construction of the Overseas Railroad, which at the time was termed “Flagler’s Folly”, required many engineering innovations as well as vast amounts of labor and monetary resources. At one time during construction, four thousand men were employed.
Despite the hardships, the final link of the Florida East Coast Railway to Key West was completed in 1912. On January 22 of that year, a proud Henry Flagler rode the first passenger train into Key West, marking the completion of the railroad’s oversea connection to Key West. Now a linkage was forged by railway to the entire east coast of Florida including the long trek via the “Overseas Railroad” to Key West. However by the time the railroad was finished in 1912 the range had been extended on the ships to such a degree that Key West was no longer a stopover for need of coal so with a major loss of that revenue the FEC needed to take advantage of the possibilities of tourist and freight traffic to Key West.
During the seven-year construction of the railway, three hurricanes threatened to halt the project and along with further hurricanes during the extension’s life they were a fact of the Keys. On Labor Day, the 1935 Labor Day Hurricane hit the Keys which was the most intense hurricane to make landfall in the United States on record, as well as the 3rd most intense Atlantic hurricane ever. That day a frantic attempt was made to get people off the islands. Many of those were World War 1 veterans working in 3 work camps building the Overseas Highway. The FEC was called at about 2:35 PM to get underway to put together a train to go to the Keys to try to rescue the veterans and civilians on the islands. The train was delayed numerous times and didn’t depart until 4:25 PM. After further delays and a train full of passengers, at 8:20 PM it reached Islamorada when winds were reaching 185 Mph. On that Labor Day night the train, which was the last hope of the veterans and hundreds of other people living in the middle and upper Keys, came to a halt when it reached the Islamorada water tank. In the 3 1/2 hours that it had been backing down Flagler’s railroad it had covered only 45 miles. At that time the hurricane’s force drove a tidal wave across the Keys that swept 10 cars off the track. Only the locomotive and tender remained on the track. Remarkably, everyone on the train survived but over the Keys at least 488 people were reported to have died and probably many more were lost in the tumult which were never found or accounted for.
This was the death knell of the Key West Extension. The railroad was already in financial straights and couldn’t afford to rebuild and maintain this unprofitable rail line. Flagler’s Folly was now a foregone conclusion as the Interstate Commerce Commission in 1936 issued an approval of the railroad’s petition to abandon the line. The country’s Overseas Road and Toll Commission purchased the right of way from the Florida East Coast Railroad and converted the single track railway trestles, which remained intact after the hurricane, into two-lane bridges for automobiles.
Hurricanes and storms have afflicted the Florida Keys throughout the years. This painting is an image of locomotive 153 pulling its passengers across the Bahia Honda railroad bridge, traversing the deepest part of the line along the Key West Extension during one of those many perilous events. It wasn’t a part of the 1935 Labor Day Hurricane but traversed the line through many of Florida’s virulent storms and can ultimately be interpreted as a scene recalling the horrors that the Labor Day Hurricane wrought. Locomotive 153 stands to this day on display at the Gold Coast Railway Museum in Miami, Florida.
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