Flagler's idea was to connect Key West as a means of not only converting the United States' most southern city into an important port and trade route with Cuba and Latin America but also as a vital supply stop for steam ships entering or exiting the canal (particularly to refuel). Soon after it was announced the Panama Canal would be constructed Flagler incorporated the Florida Overseas Railroad to build a rail line which stretched from Kendall (directly south of Miami), across Florida's Keys and a connection with the city of Key West, whose population was about 30,000 at the time. The Florida East Coast Railway's extension covered a total of about 145 miles.
The elderly Flagler nearly bet everything on the railroad with his gamble to stretch the company to Key West. The Florida Overseas Railroad was built to the highest construction standards at the time, often utilizing concrete viaducts to bridge the distances across the tiny Keys. At one time or another the FEC was employing more than 4,000 men to build the Key West Extension and the costs were driven up further by the fact that no fewer than three hurricanes delayed construction.
The extension required more than two-dozen bridges to reach Key West with the longest structure the Seven Mile Bridge, connecting Marathon with Big Pine Key. It took Flagler and the FEC seven years to complete the Extension with the route officially opening on January 21, 1912. A day later the 82-year-old Flagler rode the entire line to Key West aboard his private business car. Most had scoffed at the idea that such a railroad could be built initially calling the extension "Flagler's Folly". However, once completed it was hailed at the time as the "Eighth Wonder of the World". Overall the project had cost roughly $50 million, which in today's currency would be about $113.5 million. For more reading about the history of the extension please click here.
Unfortunately, the Extension never did reach its full potential. Despite Flagler's belief that Key West would become a major port for trade with Cuba, Latin, and South America this never materialized. And, neither did the hope that Key West would become an important refueling stop for ships. As sailing vessels were able to travel further and further without the need to refuel, the resort town lost its status as a maritime resupply hub. Then, the category five Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 devastated the Keys and the Florida Overseas Railroad killing more than 400 people, overturning the train dispatched to evacuate folks off the islands, and wrecking the extension. To see a collection of historic photographs please click here.
With the FEC already in bankruptcy, which was partially due
to the incredible resources it spent on building the extension the
railroad was unable to rebuild the route. As such it sold the entire
right-of-way and remaining bridges to the state of Florida for $640,000.
In turn the state rebuilt the right-of-way into a major highway,
U.S. 1, serving the keys and reaching Key West. The original railroad
bridges remained in use carrying vehicular traffic until the 1980s when
the state began constructing new bridges to serve the islands. However,
today, the original railroad structures remain in place and mostly used
as fishing or walking piers and are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
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Florida East Coast
Key West Extension