Trains and steam engines have always been a part of the Disney story, from Walt Disney’s backyard line to the short-lived Fort Wilderness Railroad. As much as trains are connected to the history of Disney, they are even more crucial to the story of the United States. One such story is presented in miniature, both in model and in tale, within the lobby of Old Key West.
Outside of Florida, where elementary students (of which I was one) study Florida History, a large portion of the population is unaware of the role played by Henry Flagler and the Florida East Coast Railway, along with its impressive Long Key Viaduct. For the most part, this is all the information that guests of Old Key West are given from the plaques surrounding the model. Today, however, let’s dig a little deeper.Henry Flagler – Henry Flagler was an entrepreneur who saw opportunity, but also the promise of brighter tomorrows, throughout his life. While most people recognize the first name in The Rockefeller, Andrews & Flagler company, which would later become Standard Oil, few realize that, like Rockefeller, Flagler was a giant of industry and was also part of the movement that allowed the American railways to flourish.
In the late 1870s, Flagler and his family moved to Florida due to medical concerns. Realizing that Florida could flourish in the areas of tourism and crops, Flagler turned his interests to the hotels and transportation systems of Florida. Beginning in 1885, and continuing for the next seven years, Flagler purchased several established railroad lines in Florida. From 1892 on, his endeavors focused on building new railways within the state. Between the purchased lines and newly created routes, Flagler’s collection of tracks became known as the Florida East Coast Railway, and he even had his own private car, known as Rambler, to entertain guests.
Florida East Coast Railway (F.E.C.R.) – Purchased lines of the Florida East Coast Railway, including JStA&HR railway, the St. John's Railway, the St. Augustine & Palatka Railway, and the St. Johns & Halifax River Railway, were known as the Jacksonville, St. Augustine and Indian River Railway. The lines had one continuous problem for Flagler, however, they did not use the same gauge track, which made consolidating the lines impossible. To solve this problem, Flagler had all of the lines redone in standard guage, before moving on the add further track down the East Coast.
As the lines spread southward towns began to take on new life, and several sprang up as the result of the railway. After reaching an agreement with several landowners in Biscayne Bay to bring his routes further south, the name of the railway was changed to the Florida East Coast Railway. The lines continued to thrive and, in 1896, the railway reached Biscayne Bay, what we now know of as Miami.
Construction continued on the railway until its completion in 1912, a year before a tragic accident cost Henry Flagler his life. By 1912, the F.E.C.R. reached all the way to the Florida Keys via The Oversea Railroad, a 128-mile stretch of railway stretching from the tip of Florida to Key West. The innovations and advancements required to complete the structure are astounding, and produced the Long Key Viaduct.
Long Key Viaduct – Known as the Eighth Wonder of the World, the stretch of the F.E.C.R. from Florida to the Keys that included the Long Key Viaduct cost fifty million dollars and took seven years to construct. During the period of construction from 1905 until 1912, three separate hurricanes threatened the project, including one that washed a quarterboat housing 150 construction workers out to sea where the boat broke apart and cost 67 men their lives. Today, the F.E.C.R. no longer runs across the two-and-a-half mile viaduct, but the structure still stands and offers some of the best fishing in the state of Florida.