In the Florida Keys, there is no name more famous than the iconoclastic Henry Flagler who dreamed and built the world famous Overseas Railroad in the early 1900’s. Called the 8th wonder of the world, this amazing ribbon of steel and concrete forever changed the history of the Florida Keys and linked the mainland of Florida to Key West.
Both before and after Flagler’s railroad was partially destroyed by the “Storm of the Century” in 1935, tens of millions of Keys visitors have traveled along the railroad’s route – by rail before the Labor Day hurricane or by road up to present times. There is arguably no more important spot along the 120 mile Overseas Highway than Pigeon Key – Flagler’s construction headquarters and the start of the most spectacular (and beautiful) section of all along the overseas route – the famous Seven Mile Bridge.
The Seven Mile Bridge, in order to speed up construction, was divided into four parts. The first three, Knights Key Bridge, Pigeon Key Bridge and Moser Channel bridge, consisted of steel-girder spans laid on top of concrete foundation piers. The piers were secured to bedrock which in some cases was 28 feet below the waterline. A 253 swinging span was inserted for passage of boats between the Atlantic and Gulf. The fourth section of the bridge was called the Pacet Channel Viaduct and it consisted of two hundred+ 53 foot concrete arches.
Today the Old Seven Mile Bridge (the original Knights Key Bridge) to Pigeon Key is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is home to the only authentic museum documenting construction of the Overseas Railroad. Between 1908-1912, as many as 400 workmen lived on the five acre Pigeon Key and this heritage is remarkably preserved as a special destination treat to all who traverse the 2.2 mile section of what locals now call the “Old Seven Mile Bridge”.
Since 1982, when a new Seven Mile Bridge section was completed to accommodate modern traffic and taller ships, the section known as Old Seven Mile Bridge has served as a world famous fishing pier, jogging, and walking route, and of course the major path to Pigeon Key. In past years, tens of thousands of visitors enjoyed a ride on “Henry” – an authentic looking train designed to accentuate the visit to Pigeon Key. Currently, due to the structural problems of the bridge, “Henry” has not been able to traverse the span and visitors must visit via ferry service or on bike or foot.
Henry Flagler and The Oversea Railway
The dream and vision of one man, Henry Flagler, changed the history of Florida and linked the isolated Key West to the rest of the United States. Henry Flagler, born in 1830 in New York and educated only to the 8th grade, went on to establish the Standard Oil Company with John D. Rockefeller in 1870 and became a wealthy, well-respected businessman. In 1885 he purchased a short-line railroad between Jacksonville and St. Augustine and began extending the rails southward toward Miami, then only a small settlement.
Flagler’s vision of his railroad project went beyond Miami, however. He wanted to connect the mainland with the deep port of Key West, a booming city of more than 10,000 people, in anticipation of the growing shipping commerce he thought would be generated by the opening of the Panama Canal in the early years of the 20th century. He may even have set his sights on eventually connecting Key West with Cuba.
The railroad extended to Homestead, at the gateway to the Keys, by 1904. The year 1905 saw the commencement of what many perceived as an old man’s folly: a railroad constructed across 128 miles of rock islands and open water, under the most non-idyllic conditions imaginable, by men and materials that had to be imported from all over the world. Steamships brought fabricated steel from Pennsylvania; cement from Germany and Belgium for use as concrete supports below the water line; cement from New York state for above-water concrete; sand and gravel from the Chesapeake; crushed rock from the Hudson Valley; timbers and pilings from Florida and Georgia; and provisions from Chicago. Barges carried fresh water from Miami to the construction sites. Nothing was indigenous to the Keys except the mosquitoes and the sand flies.
By 1908 the first segment, from Homestead to Marathon, was completed, and Marathon became a boom-town. Cuban pineapples and limes were brought by ship here, where they were loaded onto railway cars and sent north. Railroad workers used Pigeon Key as a base for further railway construction.
The 7-mile “water gap” between Marathon and Bahia Honda took some engineering prowess to overcome, and the completion of the project was severely hampered by devastating hurricanes in 1909 and 1910. But on January 22, 1912, Henry Flagler, by then age 82, finally rode his dream from Homestead to Key West, across 42 stretches of sea, over 17 miles of concrete viaducts and concrete-and-steel bridges, over 20 miles of filled causeways and ultimately traversing 128 miles from island to island to the fruition of his vision. He entered Key West that day a hero. He died the following year.
Flagler’s railroad, called the Key West Extension, made Key West America’s largest deepwater port on the Atlantic Coast south of Norfolk, Virginia. Trade with the Caribbean increased, and Key West flourished for 23 years, recovering from the loss of the sponge and cigar industries.
The railroad stop on Key Largo was called Tavernier and developed into a trading center for the Upper Keys. Pineapple farming faltered in Key Largo and Plantation Key from a combination of tapping out the nourishment in the thin soil and market competition from the shiploads of Cuban pineapples transported by railway car from the docks of Key West to the mainland. The railroad company built a fishing camp on Long Key that attracted sportfishing aficionados from all over, including camp regular, writer Zane Grey. Real estate boomed for a time, as people came to the Keys to homestead. The Florida East Coast Railroad Company completed construction of Key West’s first official tourist hotel, the Casa Marina, in 1921. La Concha was built in 1928.
In 1923 Monroe County appropriated funds to construct a road paralleling the railroad. The bumpy rock road crossed Card Sound with a long area of fill and a wooden bridge. Half a dozen humpback bridges crossed the creeks and cuts on Key Largo. Extending the length of Key Largo, the road continued over Plantation Key, Windley Key and Upper Matecumbe. At the southern end of our island chain, a 32-mile narrow road connected Key West with No Name Key off Big Pine Key. A car ferry service provided the waterway link between the two sections of roadway, which traversed what we now call the Upper and Lower Keys.
Still, the journey across this 128-mile stretch from Homestead to Key West proved a rugged, dusty, insect-ridden, costly, all-day affair, and tourism did not flourish as hoped and expected. Fresh water remained a coveted, scarce resource in the Florida Keys. Cisterns saved the funneled rainwater, which was parsimoniously meted out. Salt water was used whenever possible, and wash days were also always bath days.
The Great Depression delivered a near-fatal blow to the Florida Keys with the cigar industry having moved to Tampa, sponging went to Tarpon Springs and lighthouses had put an end to wrecking long before. The population of Key West dropped from 22,000 to 12,000 and by 1934, 80 percent of the city’s residents relied on government assistance. The Federal Emergency Relief Administration stepped in and commenced development and promotion of Key West as a magnet for increased tourism in the Keys.
To that end, developers began building bridges to connect the watery cavities between the Middle Keys to each other and to the two sections of finished roadway. A “bonus army” of World War I veterans was employed to accomplish this momentous task. However, in 1935 Mother Nature reasserted her authority and once again charted the destiny of our islands. On Labor Day, what today we would call a Category Five hurricane hit the Upper and Middle Keys, destroying much of Flagler’s Railroad. Hundreds of lives were lost when the 17-foot storm surge hit the bridge-building crew working on a bridge at Islamorada.
The railroad, already in receivership, chose not to rebuild, citing financial difficulties. It had by this time become cheaper to haul cargo by truck than by train. The county’s Overseas Road and Toll Commission purchased the right of way from the Florida East Coast Railroad and converted the single track railway trestles, which remained intact after the hurricane, into two-lane bridges for automobiles. The highway from Homestead to Key West opened for traffic in 1938.
Pigeon Key is a 5 acre island, located at approximately MM45, in the Florida Keys. Pigeon Key contains 8 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. Some of these buildings remain from Pigeon Keys incarnation as a work camp for the Florida East Coast Railway. The buildings are used today for housing for educational groups as well as administrative offices of the non-profit Pigeon Key Foundation. The former Assistant Bridge Tender’s house has been converted into a museum.
Pigeon Key is located between the 2.2 mile Old Seven Mile Bridge and east of the Moser Channel, which is the deepest section of the 7 mile water span transversed by the present day famous Seven Mile Bridge.
Known originally as Cayo Paloma (literally translated as Pigeon Key on many old Spanish charts), the island is said to have been named for the large flocks of White-crowned pigeons (Columba leucoephala Linnaeus) which once roosted there.
During the construction of Henry Flagler’s Overseas Railroad Key West Extension between 1908 and 1912, there were at times as many as 400 workers housed on the island. These workers built many bridges along the lower keys, but the Seven Mile Bridge between Knight’s Key and Little Duck Key remains the most impressive component of what once was referred to as the “8th Wonder of the World.” The Pigeon Key Historic Foundation maintains the remaining buildings and offers tours and educational stays.