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Last Train to Paradise: Henry Flagler and…
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Last Train to Paradise: Henry Flagler and the Spectacular Rise and Fall of…

by Les Standiford

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Frankly, I have no idea how I ran across this very interesting book. Henry Flagler, one of the last great industrialists and oil barons, built a railroad across the Florida Keys, a feat that had been considered impossible, in order to capitalize on the proximity of Cuba to the nascent Panama Canal. He had already virtually built the state of Florida by buying and developing land all along the east coast, then linking his hotel properties via rail. His Key West Railroad, an extension of the Florida East Coast Railroad, would connect Miami to Key West, about 153 miles, much of it over open water. A massive hurricane in 1935 undid it all. The Weather Bureau did not begin naming hurricanes until 1953, so in 1935 as Hemingway viewed the sketchy forecasts and storm warnings with alarm, he had no way of referring to the specific storm that was about to destroy Key West.

Unbeknownst to him, just to the north, the barometer had fallen to the lowest ever recorded. The islands of the Florida Keys are not very high above the water, making them especially vulnerable to storms and waves. Despite this knowledge, Henry Flagler had built the dream extension of his railroad in a magnificent feat of engineering. Nature was about to suggest that he shouldn't have bothered. Considering that Flagler in 1898 was sixtyeight years old and could have easily retired to a luxurious existence, it is even more remarkable that he would have risked his fortune on such a risky venture. The Spanish-American War, which cost Spain Cuba, provided the added incentive he needed. (It is interesting to speculate what might have happened had William Jennings Bryan been elected president instead of McKinley, who was a great friend to business. Bryan, I suspect, would not have been drawn into the skullduggery behind the sinking of the Maine.)

Having been thwarted in his desire to build a deep-water port in Miami, Flagler deemed Key West a logical alternative. The engineering difficulties were staggering. Special dredges on boats were designed to carve out a way for themselves as they used the material pulled from the swamps and marshes to create the roadbed. Mosquitoes swarmed all during the day, and portending the disaster that was to befall the railroad in 1935, a hurricane killed many workers in 1906 as the special dormitory barges were smashed. Several long bridges had to span many miles of ocean, and the seven-mile viaduct, considered a beautiful structure, became the symbol of the Florida East Coast Railroad. The Keys, originally an unbroken stretch of land that connected present-day Florida to Mexico are simply the vestigial remains of that land bridge subject to eons of erosion and storms — unless, of course, you are a young earth advocate in which case it was five minutes. That is a problem for builders because storms continue to push walls of water twenty to thirty feet high in front of them. These storm surges would course through the natural passageways that had been cut between the remaining land forms. Any blockage of these waterways would cause tremendous problems.

The railroad builders, who had filled in shorter distances between land areas, were creating unnatural dikes. They were swept away in the first hurricane to batter the railroad in 1909. Flagler and his engineers revised their plans and built more bridges that permitted water to flow underneath rather than impede its flow. They also discovered that the natural limestone marl made a much better substrate than imported rock and gravel, which was easily washed away. The line was completed slightly ahead of schedule despite several setbacks and shortly before Flagler's death. It had cost him most of his fortune to build, but never made money. Instead of encouraging growth on the Keys, there is evidence it might have done the opposite. Many residents chose to leave the islands and migrated to Miami on the railroad. Traffic from Cuba never amounted to much, and by 1930 the Census Bureau reported that Key West had actually lost more than seven thousand residents.

The worst hurricane in United States history, on Labor Day 1935, washed everything away. Winds in excess of 200 mph were measured. Given that the winds in only 3 percent of tornadoes exceed 206 mph you can get an idea of the devastation caused on a series of islands that were barely above sea level. ("A minimal 75-mile-per-hour storm has the capability of propelling a shard of two-by-four lumber through a four-inch concrete block wall." Bear in mind that when wind speed doubles, its force quadruples. Hurricane Andrew in 1992 produced only 155 mph winds.) Weather forecasting was still in its infancy, but the railroad, given its earlier experience with hurricanes, had implemented several measures to help provide some warning. Nevertheless, loss of life was extensive and an emergency relief train sent to take people off the keys was blown away. The well-built bridges survived, indeed they were partly used to build the highway that now links the Keys to the mainland, but the railroad was bankrupt by then, and the rights-of-way were sold to the state for not even one-twentieth of the $30 million Flagler had spent on building the Keys Extension. His chain of world-class resorts still remains as a monument to the man who virtually created Florida. ( )
  ecw0647 | Sep 30, 2013 |
This is a great read for all you Floridians, and snowbirds, who owe at least a little gratitude to Henry Flagler, for 'trailblazing' South Florida, and helping to make it as much a paradise (perhaps lost) as he did approx 100 years ago.
  jbarouch | Apr 27, 2013 |
A terrific book about one of Florida's founders - history as adventure! ( )
  DowntownLibrarian | Jan 17, 2013 |
In Last Train to Paradise novelist Les Standiford has written a lively, felicitous account of the building of the Florida East Coast Railway, which, for a little over two decades, connected mainland Florida with Key West. Henry Morrison Flagler, John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil partner and, in many eyes, the true genius behind that company, embarked on the project in 1905 when he was 74 years old. The railroad, which crossed more than 150 miles of open sea, was an engineering feat nearly equal in scale and difficulty to the digging of the Panama Canal. Standiford's narrative skillfully blends tales of construction perils (not the least of which were escadrilles of mosquitoes) with brief, illuminating travelogues and natural histories, pocket descriptions of life in early 20th-century Florida, and a truly gripping description of an epic standoff between Mother Nature, in the form of a monstrous hurricane, and a stalled, 160-ton steam locomotive. With nary a single missed note, this fascinating tale is popular history at its best. ( )
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  caroren | Apr 26, 2012 |
Fascinating story of a man who was rich beyond compare and equal to John D Rockefeller, who began an entirely new career at age 51. At first blush his dream of building a railway south from Miami to Key West must seem foolish, but then to do big things one must dream big things, and HMF did dream big. Florida would eventually have been exploited but no one would have thought of a railway going to sea. One huge hurricane nearly ended it and another 29 years later did finish it. But what a dream. ( )
1 vote DeaconBernie | Mar 13, 2011 |
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Epigraph
"And on the pedestal these words appear:
'My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."
- Percy Bysshe Shelley
"Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp,
or what's a heaven for?"
- Robert Browning
Dedication
This book is dedicated to the memory of the hundreds of "vets" who lost their lives during the Labor Day hurricane of 1935, as well as to the hundreds of Keys residents - men, women, and children - who also suffered and died that day.
First words
At about four o'clock in the afternoon on Labor Day Saturday in 1935, Ernest Hemingway, by then one of Key West's most notable residents, thought it time to knock off work on weaving together what an editor had called "those Harry Morgan stories," an undertaking that would eventually be published as a novel called "To Have and Have Not."
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0609607480, Hardcover)

In Last Train to Paradise novelist Les Standiford has written a lively, felicitous account of the building of the Florida East Coast Railway, which, for a little over two decades, connected mainland Florida with Key West. Henry Morrison Flagler, John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil partner and, in many eyes, the true genius behind that company, embarked on the project in 1905 when he was 74 years old. The railroad, which crossed more than 150 miles of open sea, was an engineering feat nearly equal in scale and difficulty to the digging of the Panama Canal. Standiford's narrative skillfully blends tales of construction perils (not the least of which were escadrilles of mosquitoes) with brief, illuminating travelogues and natural histories, pocket descriptions of life in early 20th-century Florida, and a truly gripping description of an epic standoff between Mother Nature, in the form of a monstrous hurricane, and a stalled, 160-ton steam locomotive. With nary a single missed note, this fascinating tale is popular history at its best. --H. O'Billovich

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:26:12 -0400)

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"Last Train to Paradise celebrates a crowning achievement of Gilded Age ambition in a sweeping tale of the powerful forces of human ingenuity colliding with the even greater forces of nature's wrath."--Book jacket.

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