There have been many books written over the years which cover, in some aspect, the Florida East Coast Railway's iconic Key West Extension from Homestead to Key West. However, Les Standiford's Last Train To Paradise is likely the most detailed and gripping highlighting both the construction of the line by Henry M. Flagler, and its final hours of operation before the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 destroyed much of it. This is a book that anyone will enjoy whether you are interested in railroads or not, as it reads much like a story in how Mr. Standiford has presented it, keeping the reader compelled all along the way. While the book is only about 250 pages in length it is broken down into twenty-four different chapters covering the struggles in building the line, its brief twenty-or-so years of operation, and finally the natural disaster that washed it away. Overall, I would very much recommend it, especially if you do not know much about this impressive feat of engineering.
Last Train To Paradise has a rather interesting opening chapter.
Entitled "End of the Line" the book instantly throws you into the chaos
of the Labor Day storm on the afternoon of September 2nd where the
famed author Ernest Hemingway is at his home in Key West reading the paper
and learning that a hurricane is approaching from the east. As he is
preparing his own property for the impending storm further north along
the Keys disaster is about to strike. As the Mr. Standiford describes
the hurricane hits later that evening although the railroad is late in
getting a rescue train out to those still stranding on the Keys. You
quickly learn how the author interweaves the human impact into the story
describing what the train crew experienced while trying to reach the
stranded as well as those (who survived) caught in the middle of the
The chapter concludes during the worst of the hurricane and leaving the reader hanging. You will learn about all of the storm's viciousness further within the book. However, in chapter two of Last Train To Paradise entitled, "The Road to Paradise," the author starts from the beginning first by giving you an idea of just what life is like on Key West (and what it means to be a "Conch") and then by highlighting Henry Flagler's rise to multimillionaire stature in chapter three (entitled "Citizen Flagler"). Many may not realize that it was Flagler who was the driving force behind Standard Oil's incredible growth and expansion although John D. Rockefeller historically receives the credit for this. After more than two decades in the oil business and already incredibly rich, Flagler took a vacation to Jacksonville, Florida in his early 50s.
It was this trip, along with the purchase of property in St. Augustine to the south to construct his famed Ponce de Leon resort that spurred Flagler's love affair with the Sunshine State. During chapters four, five, and six you will learn about his early years of growing the state through a new empire in railroad ownership, creating the Florida East Coast Railway in 1895, as well as hotel chains. Other now legendary resorts started by Flagler included the Breakers in Palm Beach and the Royal Palm in Miami. Few realize, at least outside of Florida, how influential the man was in literally developing the state all by himself. With the new hotels, the rich and famous flocked southward to the sub-tropical environment and eventually setting down new roots. The most famous city that is credited to Flagler includes Miami, which in the late 19th century was nothing more than an old, abandoned military installation known as Fort Dallas.
As Last Train To Paradise dully notes, if Henry Flagler had been content to reinvest his incredible worth into Standard Oil over the years instead of building railroads and hotels in Florida he would have been even richer than he was at the time. However, thanks to his efforts Florida developed into the paradise that it is today. The idea to go to Key West began as early as the mid-1890s. It was Flagler's belief that the city, then still the state's largest, would become a major deep water port for the new Panama Canal in the works ultimately was the deciding factor in building the Key West Extension that remains one of the greatest feats of engineering ever attempted. While the hardships in just engineering a route were quite amazing this was nothing compared to the actual construction of the line.
The most famous stretch of the line began south of Jewfish Creek on Key Largo. However, getting to this point was a major task all by itself as crews had to fight swamps and the Florida Everglades south of Homestead. Most of the central chapters of Last Train To Paradise detail the building of the line and all of the new building techniques needed to span the Keys. The builders also learned as they went with three major hurricanes hitting the region during construction. The project nearly bankrupted Flagler and many thought it couldn't be done. However, through all the hardship it opened officially on January 21, 1912. During the book's twenty-third chapter the author returns to where he left off at the beginning, detailing the devastating hurricane that killed hundreds.
With wind speeds between 200 and 250 mph the storm is easily the
strongest ever known to hit the U.S. coast and you will learn the grisly
and catastrophic damage it left as well as what it was like for those
survivors to ride out the hurricane. With the port at Key West never
generating the freight Flagler envisioned along the extension, also known as
the Florida Overseas Railroad, and the FEC already experiencing financial problems prior to the Labor Day Hurricane the line's future as an operating railroad was grim.
With no resources available to rebuild the 40 miles washed
away the company elected to sell the right-of-way to build today's
Highway 1. What had cost more than $50 million to construct was sold
for just over $600,000. The level of emotion and incredible detail Les
Standiford includes in the book really makes it a must read for anyone
interested in trains.