The weather has begun to cool and the holidays have come and gone. Here in Islamorada the peak of season has just begun. The month of January marks an important month in the history and growth of the Florida Keys. This historical event is the extension east coast railway through the chain of Islands built by Henry Flagler and his crew.
Flagler’s train was referred to as the East coast railway system and it spanned from St. Augustine all the way to Miami. The railway was built in sections along the coastline of Florida while Henry Flagler was moving further south to build hotels. These hotels became winter homes for him and his ill wife. The doctors suggested his wife would get better living closer to the water and further south therefore Flagler continued to build towards Miami. When Flagler reached Miami, he didn’t stop. He made it his goal to continue and extend his railroad through the 100 miles of islands and water that lead to Key West.
Continuing to build the passenger and freight railway to Key West was done on a different motive other than his wife’s health.
Key West is only 90 miles north of Cuba. Back then the idea of being able to trade and send passengers back and forth from Cuba and Key West was going to be a big deal! Also since Key West was closer to the Panama Canal than any other port in the U.S. at the time, it would make Key West easily accessible to open up transport of goods between other countries.
Breaking ground on the first stretch of the southern extension began in 1905. The work environment was tough, from the swampy terrain between homestead and key largo to the Mosquitos, along with hurricanes and sweltering heat in the summer months, there were many delays. Even though several hurricanes destroyed progress, they never gave up. Henry Flagler was getting older and starting to turn ill. As this occurred the crew sped up the process to complete the railway to Key West so Flagler could ride his train the whole way from Miami to Key West before he passed away.
It was on January 22, 1912 when Henry Flagler got to ride his train all the way to Key West for the first time. By this time Flagler had already gone blind, but when he arrived he said to the crowd these famous words, “now I can die, my dream is fulfilled.” He passed May 20, 2013, less than 18 months after his train ride.
The train ran regular passenger and freight service to and from Key West daily. Although the train never made Henry Flagler a dime, it has been said to be the “8th wonder of the world.” The train also opened up the Florida Keys to the world, allowing many people to visit that would have never made it to see this land before.
In September 1935 a hurricane blew through Islamorada and destroyed parts of the train. The railway would not be repaired since Flagler had already passed away and the original debt of building it had not been paid yet. The road and bridges that survived were sold to the state of Florida, who in turn paved over top of the tracks forming US1. in the 1980s some of the original viaducts were turned into fishing piers and taller bridges. Today you can still see some of the remains of the train bridges as you drive through the keys. It is a spectacular sight to see and a reminds us of the huge beginning as to how the keys became reachable to everyone.