The Greatest Railroad Story Ever Told, By Seth Bramson

Over the years there have been several books written which highlight the Florida East Coast Railway's Key West Extension. However, only The Greatest Railroad Story Ever Told presented by noted FEC historian Seth H. Bramson provides a vivid account of the railroad's daily operations on this most historic and magnificent line, which was also known as the Florida Overseas Railroad (officially the railroad knew it as its Southern Division). Mr. Bramson, himself, has published more than one book detailing the FEC's history (most notable of which is Speedway To Sunshine) and his vast knowledge of the company can be seen in his latest title which was released in 2011 just ahead of the 100th anniversary celebrations of the extension's completion set for January, 2012. I have read many railroad books over the years covering various subjects. However, The Greatest Railroad Story Ever Told is without question one of the most fascinating due to the subject covered, the railroad which quite literally went to sea.

If you are interested in a book which details either the Florida East Coast's history or how the Key West Extension was constructed The Greatest Railroad Story Ever Told is not it (if that is the case then pick up a copy of Speedway To Sunshine). While Mr. Bramson's book does provide a general background of the company and the extension's construction its primary focus is to highlight its every day operations. For instance, in the introduction and first chapter you will learn about Henry M. Flagler, the FEC's legendary creator and prominent promoter of Florida as well as how the extension came into being. Another key point in these opening chapters which Mr. Bramson makes quite obvious is the Florida of the early 1900s was far different from today.

Back in that era the state was primarily still a wilderness and even today's popular metropolis's like Miami were then nothing more than, literally, small outposts. Surprisingly, the largest city in all of Florida at the time was Key West. You will learn how at first the FEC had hoped to reach Coral Sable, not Key West, an idea that Flagler himself put forward in 1902 after it was learned the Panama Canal would be constructed. It was this project that put the idea into motion, as Flagler believed ships would need the closest deepwater port to resupply. However, the Coral Sable idea was abandoned when it was learned constructing a line there would be an almost impossible proposition. Thus, the plan to Key West was initiated and proven to be viable. In chapters three and four you learn how the plan was laid out as well as the task of actually building the Key West Extension.

After the route was opened the FEC wasted no time in promoting the line. One of its most famous slogans came to be, "The East Coast of Florida is paradise regained." From the time the route first opened in 1912 until the devastating Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 all of the railroad's timetables, brochures, and other printed paraphernalia featured the extension. Mr. Bramson also features the line's opening in chapter five when Flagler first arrived at Key West in late January, 1912 complete with lots of photos. Overall, it is tough to truly the describe the magnificence of the Key West Extension. While I am not sure that it was the single, greatest railroad project ever devised it certainly was the most ambitious and unique, nothing before or since (at least in North America) has never been attempted.

For instance, in chapter six of The Greatest Railroad Story Ever Told, Seth, covers briefly the many bridges along the route, the longest of which was Knight's Key Bridge. This structure was 35,711 feet in length or 7.1 miles and once passengers began crossing it they actually could not see anything but open ocean in front of them save for the small spec of land a few miles in the distance which was known as Pigeon Key. You can get a good idea of the incredible views of this bridge, and others, through the outstanding photographs Mr. Bramson features in the book. In chapter seven the book looks at the many depots and stations located along the route and how their numbers changed over the years. Most were either tiny structures or just simply flagstops. During the last years of the extension the only fully staffed depot left along the route was the Trumbo Island Terminal at Key West.

In chapter eight you learn about the Long Key Fishing Camp. This facility was built by the Florida East Coast itself as a getaway destination such as what other railroads out west had done like the Great Northern, Northern Pacific, and Milwaukee Road at Yellowstone. However, this inn was not a five star resort like some of its counterparts although it became very popular particularly for its fishing. In chapter eleven you will also read about Casa Marina opened by the FEC in the late teens at Key West which was meant as a luxury resort. Today, it is still in operation. In chapters nine and ten freight operations are highlighted, first covering the Trumbo Island Terminal and finally the day-to-day movements over the route (typically one freight a day traversed the route).

The final chapter, twelve, gives mention to the horrific hurricane itself. While Mr. Bramson does not go into extreme detail about the storm, mostly because as he mentions it has been thoroughly covered in many other books, he does offer a vivid look at the hours immediately before the storm hit and what events transpired during that time. The reader is also provided with photographs of the aftermath, which are sobering to say the least. You learn just how much destruction the line suffered, the total devastation of the Long Key Fishing Camp which was quite literally wiped off the map, and how the FEC was in no financial position at the time (due to bankruptcy and the ongoing depression) to rebuild the line which led to its demise. The final pages of the book describe what is left of the extension today, which is primarily some of the bridges themselves as virtually all of the buildings are now gone (the Key West depot was razed by the navy in the late 1990s). In any event, as mentioned above I would strongly recommend purchasing The Greatest Railroad Story Ever Told whether you are interested in general railroad history or the FEC itself. It is one of the most fascinating rail lines ever constructed or operated. 

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