Overseas Railroad

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Overseas Highway and Railway Bridges
Train on Overseas Railroad Long Key Viaduct.jpg
Florida East Coast Railway
Key West Extension
express train at sea
crossing Long Key Viaduct
Overseas Railroad is located in Florida
Overseas Railroad
Location Bridges on U.S. 1 between Long and Conch Key, Knight and Little Duck Key, and Bahia Honda and Spanish Key, Florida Keys, Florida
Coordinates 24°42′42″N 81°7′23″W / 24.71167°N 81.12306°W / 24.71167; -81.12306Coordinates: 24°42′42″N 81°7′23″W / 24.71167°N 81.12306°W / 24.71167; -81.12306
Area 30.2 acres (12.2 ha)
Built 1905
Architect Florida East Coast Railway; Overseas Highway and Toll Bridge Commission
Architectural style Arch
Governing body Local
NRHP Reference # 79000684[1]
Added to NRHP August 13, 1979

The Overseas Railroad (a.k.a. Florida Overseas Railroad and the Overseas Extension) was an extension of the Florida East Coast Railway to Key West, located 128 miles (206 kilometres) beyond the end of the Florida peninsula. Work on the line started in 1905 and was completed in 1912;[2] the line was in daily passenger and freight service until its destruction by a hurricane in 1935.

Henry Flagler[edit]

Henry Flagler was a principal in Rockefeller, Andrews & Flagler and later in Standard Oil during the Gilded Age in the United States. Flagler took interest in Florida while seeking a warmer climate for his ailing first wife in the late 1870s. Returning to Florida in 1881, he became the builder and developer of resort hotels and railroads along the east coast of Florida.

Beginning with St. Augustine, he moved progressively south. Flagler helped develop Ormond Beach, Daytona Beach, Palm Beach, and became known as the "Father of Miami, Florida." Flagler's network of railroads became known as the Florida East Coast Railway (FEC).

Key West Extension[edit]

Flagler was not content to rest by the time his railroad had reached Miami in 1896. The Florida Keys, a string of islands that reach more than 100 miles (160 kilometres) southwest from the southern tip of mainland Florida, appealed to Flagler. The outermost key, Key West, was only 90 miles (140 kilometres) from Havana, Cuba. Prior to the 1950s, there was a great deal of freight and passenger traffic between the U.S. and Cuba; in addition, Key West was closer to the Panama Canal (then under construction) than any other U.S. port. In 1904, Flagler decided to extend his railroad to Key West.[3]

The construction problems were formidable and labor turnover was high. The first portion of the line, from Homestead to Key Largo, was across swamp. The dredging of drainage canals provided material for the roadbed. Along Key Largo, however, the problem was not terrain but insects. Worse than either terrain or insects was the weather: a hurricane in September 1906 destroyed the initial work on the Long Key Viaduct and killed more than 100 laborers. In 1907, the opening of Long Key Viaduct, more than two miles of concrete arches (eventually becoming FEC's trademark), allowed service to begin to Knight's Key, where a marine terminal was built.[3]

Hurricanes in 1909 and 1910 destroyed much of the completed railroad. After both hurricanes, work resumed at a faster pace — Flagler was 80 years old and wanted to ride all the way to Key West on his railroad. The completion of Seven Mile Bridge assured many that the line would soon be completed. Flagler, by then blind, arrived in Key West on January 22, 1912, aboard his private railcar Rambler,[3] telling a welcoming crowd, “Now I can die happy. My dream is fulfilled.”[4]

Regular service on the 156-mile (251 km) extension — dubbed the "Eighth Wonder of the World"[5] — began the following day, with through sleepers between New York and Key West (called the Havana Special) and connections at Key West with passenger steamers and car ferries for Havana. Flagler died less than 18 months later in May 1913.[3]


Derailed FEC relief train near Islamorada, Florida during the 1935 Labor Day Hurricane; only the locomotive remained upright.

The 1935 Labor Day Hurricane washed away approximately 40 miles (64 kilometres) of the Middle Keys section of the line.[3] In addition, the Long Key Fishing Camp was destroyed, along with an FEC rescue train which was — with the exception of locomotive #447 — overturned by the storm surge at Islamorada, Florida.

With Flagler gone, FEC was unwilling to repair a line that had never repaid its construction cost — an unknown figure at the time only hinted at by the federal valuation of $12 million ($315 million today).[3] It was later determined that the total cost of what had been derisively nicknamed "Flagler's Folly" exceeded $50 million ($1.31 billion today), all from his personal fortune.[6]

The railroad structures, however, were built to withstand the harsh tropical climates of the Keys. FEC cut the railroad back to Florida City, 30 miles (48 kilometres) south of Miami, and sold the remaining land to the state of Florida. As the concrete viaducts and steel trestles survived intact, the state built Overseas Highway (U.S. 1) over them in 1938.[3] Most of U.S. 1 was rebuilt in the 1980s, converting the former viaducts into fishing piers and pedestrian paths part of the Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail.[7] The viaducts and bridges were added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.[1]


See also[edit]


  • "Speedway to Sunshine: The Story of the Florida East Coast Railway" Bramson, Seth H. Boston Mills Press, Erin, ONT. 2002
  • Standiford, Les (2002). Last Train to Paradise. Crown Publishers, New York, NY. ISBN 0-609-60748-0. 
  • Bethel, Rodman J. Flagler's Folly: The Railroad That Went to Sea and Was Blown Away
  • Heppenheimer, T. A. (2004) "The Railroad That Went to Sea". American Heritage. Winter, 2004. americanheritage.com
  • Parks, Pat. The Railroad That Died at Sea: The Florida East Coast's Key West Extension

External links[edit]