The history of the Florida Keys and Key West is one steeped in glory and tragedy, where men put ego and fortune to the test, connecting a series of islands together along the tracks of a great railroad, while seeing the fortunes of what could be fall to the wayside under the weight of what would be. Yet time, history, and perseverance carried them through, building on their backs, hopes and dreams a future even grander than the past.
At one time, Key West was Florida’s most populous and successful city. A place where pirating earned millions for those who salvaged from the ships that wrecked off shore, and characters would become a foundation for future fiction. As Florida grew and saw a need to connect one end to its other, Floridians searched for a way, finding in their hope, a man from up north was one of history’s great “robber barons,” and who would become the man who in many ways “built” Florida.
Henry Flagler’s name would become synonymous with Florida and its growth, bringing into the state the great East Coast Railway and with it, the opportunities that would lead to St. Augustine remaining today’s oldest city, grand hotels and even Miami. But among his greatest contributions is perhaps the connecting of the Florida Keys, taking his railroad to the sea, and bringing back a new western front. Over the years the railroad would play a vital and pivotal role for the Keys, from connecting them to almost destroying them in the wake of the 1935 hurricane, when hundreds were killed following a series of costly mistakes.
Hemingway even wrote of the destruction, so too did he head north from his beloved Key West to help the rescue and bury the dead.
Today that original railroad bed still stands in places, such as the “old bridge” running adjacent to 7 Mile Bridge, both wonders of man’s ingenuity and determination carving out a promise of what we can do when we believe in it enough. While today that old bridge is in increasing need of repair, one cannot help but marvel at its proud glory, standing still against all that nature has thrown at her.
The Pigeon Key Visitor Center, housed on Marathon at the jumping off point of the old bridge and 7 Mile, sits appropriately in an old railroad car, offering a gift shop filled with the story of the Keys and the railroad. This must-stop location means you can gather up everything you’d want to know of these men and their journey, the one they started and the one visitors to the Florida Keys enjoy every day by the thousands.
You can also walk, for now, the old bridge to the actual Pigeon Key, about 2 miles off Marathon. As the bridge itself is left to the elements and without attention, soon too that will be stopped, with only a ferry again connecting the past and present. There are efforts underway to raise the funds, but unless they are quickly secured, time will once again return this Key to its place, a separate entity awaiting a new visionary.
The story of Florida and the Florida Keys is as connected to Flagler and the East Coast Railway as the west is to gold and the Statue of Liberty is to immigrants seeking a new home. Yet too few know of this man and the road he laid, his legacy a fleeting lesson for Florida children, his name uttered by too few.
Stop in the Pigeon Key Visitor Center to learn his story, and discover the how the name Flagler plays such a role in your Florida Keys vacation.