Reviewed By Stephen Syfrett
Almost everybody has heard of business icons such as John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and Cornelius Vanderbilt. Students learn about them in history classes. They are synonymous with America’s second Industrial Revolution. These were the men who had the wherewithal and the vision to capitalize on that monumental shift in our economy, mechanization. Unfortunately, far fewer people know about the stoic visionary Henry Flagler, whose railroad opened Florida’s east coast for development.
Les Standiford’s book Last Train to Paradise tells the story of this man and his vision for Florida. He is the man who put historic St. Augustine on the map for tourism and is credited for his key role in the founding and growth of Miami, as well as for the prosperity and growth of many of Florida’s Atlantic Coast beach towns.
Most incredible of all, however, Henry Flagler built a railroad from Jacksonville to Key West. His is a story that should be on the reading list for all Floridians. This man whom Rockefeller credited as being the brains behind Standard Oil saw the possibilities in a largely undeveloped territory and began the process of shaping it into a modern state.
The story of how he did it is one of a true Florida character, exhibiting grit, hard work, ingenuity, thrift, pride and fierce determination. Flagler saw the beauty and opportunity of Florida’s untamed wilderness, and out of it he crafted something truly unique. Florida would have grown with or without him, but it never have been the same without him — as evidenced by his name on historic markers all over the state.
By the time Flagler had set his sights on Florida, he was one of the richest men in the world as one of the founders and managing partners of Standard Oil, at that time the largest and most profitable company the world had ever seen. In his first 20 years in Florida, Flagler built a resort hotel and railroad empire paralleling the Atlantic coastline. It initially stretched from St. Augustine to Miami. In several of cities along this route, he built resorts and then the towns to service them. Flagler spent the equivalent of several fortunes building the state, and to this day he is remembered as the founder of modern Florida. His most audacious task of all, though, was extending his railroad from Miami to Key West.
This is the tale that Les Standiford expertly crafts, detailing every step of the process of building the most incredible railroad project ever attempted. To Flagler, it would be his crowning achievement — to “ride his own iron” all the way to what was then Florida’s most populous city, Key West. His grand vision for the project was a two-fold business venture. Not only would the railroad ferry tourists from the mainland to the Keys, but Key West would become an international shipping port that connecting the Florida Keys to shipping traffic from the Panama Canal.
This seven year project was dangerous, expensive, and like nothing ever conceived. To build a railroad over an island chain was rife with difficulties. Hurricanes regularly rolled through these waters, and with of the most Keys lying less than ten feet above sea level, these storms proved deadly for the workers on the railroad. During one fierce storm, more than 200 workers perished when a floating dormitory broke apart and sank. Some early hurricanes washed out miles of track and bridges before the engineers learned how to build and accommodate for storms. By the time the project ended, the engineers had built a bridge seven miles long and many smaller ones that had to cross wide bodies of water. The engineers built and designed all but one of the bridge sections in-house and to Flagler’s rigorous specifications. He didn’t just want to build something — he wanted to build something that would endure, like the Roman aqueducts. The project was to be the ultimate embodiment of America’s Manifest Destiny, the most visceral extension of the country’s ingenuity and might.
Soon after Flagler triumphantly rode his own iron from the mainland to Key West, on his completed Key West Extension, he died in his Palm Beach mansion. Flagler’s legacy lives on through the Florida East Coast Railroad, some of the hotel he built, the cities he helped to found, and in Flagler College, which occupies his Ponce De Leon Hotel in St. Augustine.
The Key West extension was largely lost during the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, the fiercest hurricane in the history of the United States. Then with the construction of U.S. 1 over the same route, the railroad was never rebuilt. But to this day, on the drive down to the Lower Keys, which in this author’s opinion is the most beautiful in the world — many of Flagler’s colossal bridges still stand firm.
This Florida Verve article was originally published on July 24, 2014.