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Henry Flagler Was An Ambitious
Man With Unwavering Purpose

Henry Flagler and the Florida Keys are permanently chained together in a saga that involved blood, sweat, death even tears.

He was a visionary with an inane stubbornness to see a job completed regardless of the cost.

His dedicated determination successfully connected the Florida Keys and Key West to Florida and the world.

The process was long, and arduous. It greatly exceeded all financial expectations and it was marred with numerous disasters and setbacks.

However, the end result was not only greeted with resounding applause, it sparked greater personal freedom and accelerated economic growth for the region.

In honor of this great American icon, and in celebration of the first train's arrival in Key West FL on January 22, 1912, the spectacular mural in this video was created. Designed by a group of artists and student artists, they transformed a 60' wide x 11.5' high wall in Key Largo, into this memorable outdoor piece of art.

Courtesy of YouTube and FloridaKeysTV

Henry Flagler, The Man

During his illustrious life, Henry Morrison Flagler was involved in several different careers, each leading to something bigger and more dynamic.

Along with John D. Rockefeller and Samuel Andrews, he helped found the highly profitable Standard Oil company. The wealth he received from this business venture enabled him to engage in several other lucrative industries.

Henry Flagler with Hat and Cane

Henry Flagler
State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory

He saw that Florida was a State with tremendous potential. It was also an area that was hampered by underdevelopment. Not only was the hospitality industry severely limited, the fledgling transportation system was impaired.

Recognizing the abundant opportunity for additional wealth, this innovative and talented man seized the occasion and began the next phase of his career, developing hotels.

Formation Of The
Henry Flagler Railroad Empire

His first project was the beautiful and sophisticated Ponce de Leon in St. Augustine. This hotel was completed in 1888, and it was during it's construction that he began to add railroads to his collection of businesses.

The Jacksonville, St. Augustine & Halifax Railroad system was the perfect fit for a man looking to expand his portfolio. Upon purchasing the railroads, he integrated them so they ran on the same standard gauge. This made interconnecting possible, and allowed for fluid movement of passengers and cargo.

By purchasing other existing railroads he continued to expand his growing rail system. Flagler also built hotels, and other vital infrastructure at key destination points along the rail route. The end result was a substantially improved framework within the chosen cities, and the State of Florida in general.

Henry Flagler's Ponce de Leon Hotel St Augustine Florida

The Elegant Ponce de Leon Hotel in St Augustine Florida
State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory

Recognizing the value of building his own railroad tracks as opposed to purchasing preexisting ones, he petitioned the State of Florida. The resulting charter permitted him to build a railroad running the several hundred mile length of the Indian River with a continuation further south to Fort Dallas and the harbor at Biscayne Bay.

By the Fall of 1895, he had officially formed the Florida East Coast Railway, and his railroad slowly pushed south. Finally in 1896, he reached the Fort Dallas area and his intended destination of Biscayne Bay.

Continuing his tradition of improvement, he built hotels, buildings and added to the town's overall infrastructure. When the community was incorporated, the leaders suggested naming their town in his honor. Flagler modestly rejected the notion, and instead offered a more fitting substitute - Miami.

Even though he'd reached his destination at Biscayne Bay, Flagler's vision for his railroad wasn't complete. The enticing prospect of Key West FL lay just 128 miles further to the south.

For Henry Flagler, logic dictated that a railroad through the Florida Keys to Key West, would help him tap into the burgeoning tourist trade. He also realized that he'd benefit substantially from cargo transportation opportunities once the Panama Canal opened.

The impetus he needed to undertake this ultimate challenge occurred in 1905. The United States made a formal announcement declaring their intention to begin construction on the Panama Canal.

This pronouncement would profoundly impact Henry Flagler, Key West, the rest of the Florida Keys, and the world's economy.

Construction Of The Overseas Railroad

Immediately reacting to the news, he began the laborious process of constructing the extension to his railroad. A railroad that as time wore on, would more often be referred to as Flagler's Folly.

Laying Track Outside Homestead

Laying Railroad Track Outside Of Homestead Florida
State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory

The physical characteristics of the Florida Keys alone made the prospect of building a railroad almost ludicrous. A series of small islands separated in cases by large expanses of water, meant an engineering undertaking of mammoth proportions.

To accomplish the process as efficiently as possible, Flagler decided to tackle the project in manageable segments with multiple areas being worked simultaneously.

His crews were spread out over the length of the Florida Keys with work camp #1 located in Key Largo, and work camp #82 in Key West. His ultimate goal was to get the tracks built as far as Knights Key (Marathon Florida) so he'd have the benefit of his railroad transporting building materials to the unfinished portions of the line.

To speed up construction, Henry Flagler also employed or purchased many of the steamers that had previously plied the Indian River carrying passengers and cargo.

His railroad was slowly putting these captains out of business due to the higher efficiency of rail. The captains were happy to have the opportunity to work, and their ships brought the wide range of materials needed to the work camps.

Railroad Ties Being Unloaded from a Barge

Railroad Ties Being Unloaded From A Barge
State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory

The overall scope of the project facing this ambitious man would have caused lesser men to falter. Not only did he have the challenge of building massive bridges and viaducts, he had the unforgiving Florida climate and vegetation of the Florida Keys to contend with.

Dense mangroves, marshes, heat, humidity, mosquitoes and other insects were a major problem. There was also the devastating effects of tropical storms and Florida hurricanes. Over the years, these storms would compound his construction woes, cause delays, and substantially increase the overall project costs.

Not only was Flagler affected, the 4,000 men who were eventually employed, endured the brunt of physical hardship. They suffered miserable conditions and circumstances that for some, must have resembled a personal hell. Some were fortunate and managed to survive, others did not.

Part of the problem Henry Flagler faced was the physical makeup of the Florida Keys and the State of Florida in general. Florida has several distinct geographical characteristics, the panhandle, the long and narrow peninsula that protrudes far out into warmer tropical water, and a sliver of islands tucked below the peninsula.

Tropical storms and hurricanes travel over the equator from Africa, passing along South America's east coast and through the Caribbean. As the storms pass near Cuba there's several possible routes they can take.

They can continue in a northward direction, and if this happens, they'll either stay out to sea, or make landfall somewhere along the American or Canadian east coast.

Another trajectory occurs when the storms turn in a west northwesterly direction and pass below Key West FL. They continue to move out into the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico where they pick up even more energy. Eventually, these hurricanes make landfall on the Florida Panhandle, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana or Texas.

Another path is where the storms pass over the Florida Keys or a section of the Florida peninsula. Since the region is narrow and long, and hurricanes are traditionally large and wide, almost any type of tropical storm or hurricane will have some form of impact on the majority of the State of Florida.

Impact can be as minimal as occasional wind gusts, squalls, and mild to moderate amounts of rain. It can also mean strong wind, high tide surges, and copious amounts of rainfall.

Timeline Of Hurricanes And
Critical Railroad Construction Dates

During the 7 years it took for Flagler to build his railroad, the State of Florida encountered 19 storms ranging from tropical depressions to hurricanes.

The storms that occurred during the construction phase of 1905 - 1912 that would have had even minimal impact on the Florida Keys are listed below.

It's important to note that the Florida storms occurring during this time that are not listed would have still carried rain and wind gusts on their outer bands to the Florida Keys. Hurricane season obviously occurs during Florida's rainy season, and during a construction project, any amount of extra moisture is unwelcome.

. June 28, 1905 - The official announcement of Flagler's plans to build the Overseas Railroad is declared

Knights Key Extension Bridge at Marathon

Knights Key Extension Bridge Under Construction
State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory

. June 17, 1906 - A hurricane with strong winds traverses the southeast sector of Florida

. September 27, 1906 - Southwestern Florida is affected by strong winds and waves when a medium scale hurricane hits southern Mississippi. Pensacola, located in the northwest portion of the panhandle, suffers damage and loss of life due to high tide and strong winds. As of that date it was Pensacola's worst hurricane on record

. October 18, 1906 - Construction on Flagler's Railway is severely affected when a strong hurricane passes through, killing hundreds of workers in the process. Storm surge destroys barges used in the construction of the railroad, and wipes out live aboard boats used by the workers

. February 8, 1907 - Henry Flagler and several of his friends take the first train ride crossing over Jewfish Creek and Lake Surprise to Key Largo

. July, 1907 - War Department orders all dredging for the Key West rail terminal to be halted

. September 18, 1907 - Florida's southern region is minimally affected by a tropical depression

Henry Flagler at Knights Key Dock

Henry Flagler Sitting At Knights Key Dock
State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory

. January 20, 1908 - First train arrives at Knight's Key Dock (Marathon Florida)

. Spring 1909 - Construction of the challenging Flagler Viaduct begins. This long stretch is now referred to as the Seven Mile Bridge. Construction consists of of 4 bridges, Knight's Key, Pigeon Key, Moser Channel, and Pacet Channel. Even though the water is shallower here than at the Bahia Honda Bridge project, the viaduct suffers numerous setbacks and isn't completed until 1912

. April 20, 1909 - Joseph Meredith, Henry Flagler's chief construction engineer dies. William Krome replaces Meredith

. June 28, 1909 - Following a storm free year, 1909 begins early with a minimal tropical storm hitting Florida's east coast at Fort Lauderdale

. September 25, 1909 - Florida's southern region is minimally affected by a tropical depression

. October 11, 1909 - Without making a direct hit, a major hurricane passes near the Florida Keys and destroys numerous buildings and boats, with some of loss of life reported

. October 17, 1910 - Almost a year to the date later, a Category 3 hurricane pushes near the Florida Keys directly impacting Fort Myers. The Florida Keys are adversely affected by flooding due to high tides and heavy rain

Cheering Crowds Greet Henry Flaglers Train in Key West

The Anticipated Arrival Of Henry Flagler In Key West
State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, Photo Credit Harris

. January 22, 1912 - With the Flagler Viaduct finally completed, Flagler and his wife, Mary Lily Kenan are able to make the journey to Key West. They arrive 20 days after his 82nd birthday in their private car at 10:43 a.m. amid applause and cheers from a waiting crowd

. May 20, 1913 - Deaf, primarily blind, and ailing, Henry Flagler dies in his home in Palm Beach, Florida

Three Significant Hurricanes
That Affected Railroad Construction

The 3 significant Florida hurricanes causing the most damage to Flagler's Folly were the October 18, 1906, October 11, 1909 and the October 17, 1910 hurricanes.

The October 18, 1906 hurricane, referred to as Major Hurricane 8, landed during an already busy hurricane season. It passed over Pigeon Key which is located just south of Marathon Florida, and when it passed over Long Key it caused the greatest amount of damage and loss of life.

The region was rocked by 120 mph sustained winds, heavy rains and strong storm surge which tore up coconut groves, destroyed buildings and boats, and covered many of the islands with several feet of water. The end result was that over 240 people lost their lives, 135 of which were workers from Henry Flagler's railroad.

Many of Flagler's workers lived on houseboats moored off Long Key. When the storm struck, the houseboats were ripped from their moorings when their chains snapped.

The vessels were swept out into the Atlantic Ocean, where they were broken up by the coral reefs, wind and waves. A large percentage of the workers on the houseboats either drowned, or were beaten to death by flying debris.

The storm also tore through the work camps, where flooding, driving rain and blowing debris caused additional damage and deaths.

Henry Flagler Disembarking Train After Arrival in Key West

Henry Flagler Disembarking at Key West Florida
State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory

The October 11, 1909 hurricane was also severe. Heavy rain, pounding winds, and strong storm surge caused tremendous damage. Building and boats were forced out to sea, and islands such as Sand Key and Knight's Key were covered with several feet of water.

Key West recorded winds of 94 mph and reported receiving over 6 inches of rain in barely 2 hours.

Flagler's railroad also suffered severe damage, with sections of the track and portions of the viaduct (now known as the 7 Mile Bridge) being destroyed. Numerous pieces of equipment were swept away, and boats and barges tore free, only to be broken up and lost at sea.

Fortunately with this Florida hurricane there had been advance warning and proactive measures were taken. Even still, there was considerable damage to property and unfortunately some loss of life.

On October 17, 1910 a Category 3 hurricane hit the Fort Myers region of southwestern Florida. It brought as much as 14 inches of rain to different portions of the State, submerging areas by as much as 1 - 8 feet.

Key West is due south of Fort Myers and the hurricane did the unthinkable by looping back. This resulted in the lower portion of the Florida Keys suffering the greatest damage from heavy rain, wind and storm surge.

For Flagler's railroad this hurricane caused the greatest damage to the Bahia Honda Channel section. Enduring 30 hours of buffeting winds, the bridge's foundation was displaced. The work camp and loading dock at West Summerland Key were also severely damaged.

For Henry Flagler, a man who had accomplished many things in his life, his arrival in Key West FL was a tearful celebration of a journey most men would never have braved.

Even though his monumental project was significantly destroyed during the 1935 Labor Day Hurricane it led the way for the Overseas Highway to be built.

Without question he was a man prescient in his ability to judge the financial worthiness of a project. However, it can be equally argued that his decision to undertake the Overseas Railroad project was his greatest error in judgment, or it was his greatest visionary accomplishment.

In either case, he successfully joined Key West with the rest of the world and in doing so, significantly transformed the lifestyle of her residents and others throughout the Florida Keys.

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Local Weather Zip Codes

Key Largo - 33037
Marathon - 33050
Key West - 33040