Monday, May 6, 2013


03, 2013

by Michael Welber

There’s an old joke that goes, “If you believe that then I have a bridge to sell you.” In other words, you’re gullible. While the bridge in the oft repeated saying originally refers to the Brooklyn Bridge, Monroe County might be wondering if the joke’s on them when it comes to acquiring the Old Seven Mile Bridge at the west end of Marathon.

So is Monroe County buying? Maybe not.

Favored by locals and tourists alike who love to walk or bike the 2.2 miles to Pigeon Key, the bridge has been closed to automobiles since December 2007. And yet, even though it’s no longer a bridge used by traffic, the Florida Department of Transportation, surprisingly, has blocked attempts to release engineering studies of the bridge to the general public.

Why? Because a Florida state law passed right after 9/11 mandated that plans and reports for all state bridges be classified. This came as a result of a request from Homeland Security.

The county commission, which has been considering taking over the bridge, was blindsided by the turn of events.

“I was surprised that it applied to the unused remnants of the Seven Mile Bridge because it’s not being used for transportation purposes,” said county commissioner Danny Kolhage.

Kolhage and Commissioner Heather Carruthers put the brakes on any further consideration of a transfer of ownership until the county can get a report that they can show to a qualified structural engineer and not just county staff. Right now DOT only wants to provide what’s known as a redacted version, one with portions covered by the state law blacked out. Kolhage doesn’t think that’s enough.

“I don’t really think that’s going to be successful because what should be made public is what DOT rates the bridge that has to do with its conditions. There are photos of what’s beneath the water line. If Monroe County is contemplating a multi-million dollar expenditure of tax funds on this bridge then the public has the right to have all the information. I don’t think a redacted version will be helpful.”

Bernard Spinrad, who is board president of Friends of Old Seven, a volunteer grass roots organization that has been working hard to save the bridge for continued use as a recreational facility, was also surprised by the turn of events.

“It’s a bit of a blow. It’s a situation we’ve been trying to break for a while and we’ve not been successful. We have a really good relationship with DOT but they are bound by state law and Homeland Security rules that can’t really be flexible,” he said.

So is the bridge really threatened by terrorists? Gus Pego, District Six Secretary for Miami and the Keys, thinks it is.

“Pedestrians are on there and anyone could do terrible things. I am not going to make light of Boston, believe me. I would say you just don’t know what people are going to do. I have no problem with the law,” he commented.

Kolhage is not sure. “I just don’t understand why the law still applies for this structure. It doesn’t make sense to me.”

There’s no doubt that terrorist attacks, though nowhere near as frequent as in places such as Tel Aviv, Beirut, Islamabad, or Damascus, have ratcheted up the fear factor in the U.S. The bombing at the Boston marathon increased that fear with calls for many more security cameras, much greater inspection everywhere, and a greater push for a general tightening of regulations. A friend who is participating in a bicycle ride through the boroughs of New York City has been told that she can’t bring a backpack or use panniers on a forty mile bike ride.

The other issue, as always, is money. According to State Representative Holly Raschein’s office, “The estimated cost for the rehabilitation of the Old Seven Mile Bridge including steel paint system replacement is approximately $18 Million but the estimate will take into consideration what type of design vehicle will service Pigeon Key, which will be determined in consultation with the Pigeon Key Foundation, the City of Marathon and Monroe County during the design process. The future long term routine maintenance based on average statewide cost excluding the required biannual routine inspection is estimated to be around $70,000 per year. This cost includes minor concrete repairs, sealing cracks, welding, sign replacement, spot steel painting, trash pickup, etc. Additionally, due to the aggressive corrosion environment that the bridge is subject to, it is estimated that the bridge painting system will need to be replaced every 7 to 10 years at an estimated average cost of $3.5 Million.”

That’s a lot of money with no public disclosure.

Sprinrad, even though his organization is enthusiastic about saving the bridge and has done a terrific job of spreading the word via its website ( and a newsletter, is somewhat pessimistic about where this will go.

 “I think they need a structural engineer specializing in bridge stability. Danny Kolhage has said that he believes that the underwater structures might be like sponges. Now that’s a very serious possibility because everybody assumes that the work has to be on the surface, particularly on the deck. But if there’s a lot of work to be done under the water the whole thing not be really doable. We’re talking about a lot of money.”

He wants the bridge decommissioned and handed over to the County for use as a recreational facility. Pego says that might not change anything. The county is a government agency and would be subject to the same rules as DOT. He did add, however, that the county is free – right now – to show the reports to an independent structural engineer as long as that person signs an affidavit vowing to never release the information to the public. Such a study could go a long way to resolving the issue. Or not.

However, whatever develops, the public, the taxpayers, will not be allowed to view any of the relevant information. Ever.

To read the article in The Blue Paper, go to

Saturday, April 6, 2013

City extends bridge kiosk permit

BY PATTI LAVELL Free Press Contributor
MARATHON — The Marathon City Council voted unanimously last week to extend Friends of Old Seven’s kiosk permit for another year.

The non-profit group obtained a permit from the city last year to place the information booth at the entrance to the historic bridge. Members of the group staff the kiosk, handing out leaflets and answering questions.

The group collects approximately $10,000 per month in donations and, after paying overhead costs, is left with about $2,000 for community outreach.

A representative from the group told the City Council that an economic impact study, funded in part by the city, should be ready for review in a couple of weeks. The study analyzed the financial benefits the community could reap if the old Seven Mile Bridge is repaired and restored.

Two weeks ago, the Monroe County Commission gave staff approval to investigate the possibility of restoring the old bridge. The Florida Department of Transportation has agreed to pay for half the cost — estimated at $18 million — if the county takes over maintenance of the structure. According to County Administrator Roman Gastesi, annual maintenance would run about $70,000 and painting the bridge every 10 years would cost $3.5 million.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Court order for bridge reports possible – Commissioner wants info public if county takes over old span

If the Monroe County Commission agrees to take control of the Old Seven Mile Bridge, Commissioner Danny Kolhage will request the county also seek a court order declassifying inspection reports for the structure.

The bridge is now maintained by the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), which has agreed to pay half of $18 million in renovations to the bridge if the county takes it over and maintains it.

In recent weeks, Kolhage has spearheaded an effort to make FDOT release to the public a series of inspection reports on the Old Seven Mile Bridge.

County commissioners have seen the reports but are unable to make them public because the Department of Homeland Security deemed portions “classified.”

FDOT also refused to release the reports to The Citizen, citing security concerns, FDOT spokesman Brian Rick said.

“Bridge inspection reports contain information related to the physical security of the structures,” Rick wrote in an email to The Citizen. “This information is confidential and exempt from public inspection.

At the last County Commission meeting, Kolhage and Commissioner Heather Carruthers said the inspection reports show some structural issues and problems, but they did not go into detail. They are both concerned about the proposal to take possession of the bridge and be responsible for its ongoing maintenance.

Kolhage questioned why the reports are classified, as the bridge is no longer used for automobile traffic.

State statute allows the county to take FDOT to court in an effort to make the reports public, Kolhage said.

“If FDOT wants Monroe County to spend millions of taxpayer dollars and take on responsibility of a 100-year-old bridge, the public has a right to know the full condition of the bridge,” Kolhage said Thursday.

He wants the reports reviewed by county engineers or a county-contracted private engineering firm to determine the exact condition of the bridge below the water line.

Kolhage asked the County Attorney’s Office to research the issue to determine whether the classified status could change, including allowing engineers to review the inspection reports.

On top of the $18 million renovation cost, the annual cost of maintaining the Old Seven Mile Bridge would be about $70,000 a year, plus $3.5 million every 10 years to paint it, County Administrator Roman Gastesi said.

The county would have to set aside about $420,000 a year to cover the annual costs and save for the 10-year paint job.

Carruthers and Kolhage are concerned that those costs could rise, as FDOT did not include costs for work below the water line.

The two commissioners are also concerned that the project is being fast-tracked.

The minutes from a Feb. 25 meeting of the nonprofit group Friends of Old Seven show that County Mayor George Neugent, Commissioners Sylvia Murphy and David Rice and FDOT representative Dennis Fernandez attended.

Fernandez is quoted in the minutes as saying the “first of several draft agreements have been prepared, including one between FDOT and an engineering consultant to design the bridge restoration work and another between FDOT and Monroe County for the actual transferal of ownership of the bridge.”

The minutes also state the county would responsible for the renovation of the Pigeon Key ramp, which would cost $500,000.

Carruthers was upset.

“I am furious that an ILA (inter-local agreement) has been drafted,” she said.

“It is way too premature to be going down this road … . People are making decisions before this has been properly vetted.”

At the March County Commission meeting, commissioners gave the county administrator the go-ahead to investigate spending county taxpayer money to renovate the bridge, but not approval to move forward with the actual renovations yet.

Friday, March 15, 2013

General Membership Meeting 2-25-13 Minutes

Minutes for Monday, February 25th, 2013

5:30 – 7 pm  – City of Marathon Firehouse

General Membership Meeting

Roll Call by Bernard Spinrad, who introduced “Special Guests”, among others:

Holly Raschein, State Representative for the Florida Keys, and Erin Muir, her Legislative Assistant

George Neugent, Mayor, Monroe County
David Rice, Commissioner, Monroe County
Sylvia Murphy, Commissioner, Monroe County
Roman Gastesi, Administrator, Monroe County
Kevin Wilson, Chief Engineer, Monroe County
Trish Smith, Planner, Monroe County
Judy Williams Coordinator for ”Scenic Highway Alliance”

Mike Cinque, Mayor, City of Marathon
Roger Hernstadt, Manager, City of Marathon

Dennis Fernandez- FDOT District 6
Patty Ivey, FDOT, Marathon Office

Ed Swift – former Monroe Co. Commissioner and CEO, Historic Tours, Inc.

And various members of the Friends of Old Seven Board of Directors and volunteers

Financial Status: Given by Bernard Spinrad (Mr. Jeff Shocket not in attendance).

  • FO7 has between $22-$25K in its Treasury.
  • City of Marathon has put up a grant for $10k to combine with FO7’s $3.5K to pay for a study to determine the economic impact on the Middle Keys of restoring the Old Seven Mile Bridge; total cost = $13,500.
  • Ms Raschein donated the “unused portion” of her campaign monies to save Old 7.

Bridge Head Operations: Given by Brad White

  • FO7 paid kiosk personnel are on the bridge almost daily from “Sunrise to Sunset” (about 8am – 6 pm.). He stated an “average day” (during season) about 600 people visit the bridge and an spend an average of $500/day in gross sales yielding this past year (2012) approx. $100k. This bridge site income is a combination of both sales (shirts/hats/assorted items.) and people’s donations at the table. Sales have risen since the implementation of the “onsite credit card” system which was newly implemented.
  • Approximately 10k petition signatures were taken from the bridge last year. The petition signatures were given to the consultant doing the economic impact study to provide accurate data for the projections to be used to promote saving the bridge. Also the issue of the FO7 “Bridge information/donation table” permitting was brought up.

Saving Old Seven – Status Report – by Bernard Spinrad w/input from Guests

Summation of talks: Construction is expected to start in 2015 as the design/study phase will take about 1.5 years to complete. In the meantime, monies were found to finance the Pigeon Key ferry for another year. It was stated and all agreed the saving of the Old 7 section was not just a Middle Keys project but rather a Monroe Co. wide one with ramifications in its scope to effect substantial income, job creation etc.

Mr. Gastesi mentioned that BP monies would be forthcoming to the State and Monroe County, but indicate it’s premature to calculate what portion of these may be targeted for the restoration and/or maintenance of the bridge.

It was mentioned that our “infrastructure sales tax”, currently extended to 2033 through a recent referendum, yields about $15 million a year with the primary use slotted for “waste water”. Under optimum circumstances, a portion of these funds can be directed at the restoration of the bridge.

Dennis Fernandez, representing the Secretary of FDOT’s District 6, Mr. Gus Pego, stated the first of several draft agreements are been prepared, including one between FDOT and an engineering consultant to design the bridge restoration work, and another one between FDOT and Monroe County for the actual transferral of ownership of the bridge from FDOT to Monroe County. The projects overall rough numbers being discussed were:

  • $18 million to restore the bridge (engineering design fees included) to a service life of 40 years.
  • $70,000 per year, average annual maintenance costs.
  • $50,000 bi-annual bridge inspection fee, to be covered by FDOT
  •  $3.5 million every 10 years for painting

Mr. Fernandez also mentioned the Pigeon Key ramp reconstruction would cost approximately $500,000, which would be the responsibility of Monroe County.

George Neugent brought up “getting Sunset Park into the mix”, as well as impressing on the Governor and the Legislature that this project will create “Jobs, Jobs, Jobs”.

Sunset Park ADA Improvements Project – Bernard Spinrad related a progress status conversation he had with Mr. Dean Stoddart, FDEP Manager concerning this $1.2 million project. The project is well underway, quickly approaching the 30% final design point. A fairly final draft of the proposed plan was distributed to the audience.

Awards Ceremony: A copious amount of awards were issued (see accompanying picture-taken by Mike Cross hence not in photo) to Rep. Raschein, Mayor Neugent and various supporters, contributors and volunteers to our organization.
Upcoming Fund-Raising Events/Opportunities – These items were not covered in detail as several attendants had to leave to attend another event. However, Mr. Jerry Chapman spoke at length about scheduling, sometime early next year, a “Black-Tie” fund-raising event; discussions are under way to further detail this initiative.

New Business/Open Discussion. No new business. Discussion brought to the floor by the Silva’s (visiting) to sell “Bricks” to be placed on or near the bridge so people get the feeling on “ownership”

Close of Meeting- Adjourned at 7:25.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Community Foundation Honors FO7 President Bernard Spinrad as One of 2013 Unsung Heroes

The Community Foundation of the Florida Keys (CFFK), established in 1996, leads a number of initiatives to make the Florida Keys by encouraging philanthropy and matching donors to community needs.  As well, they have granted more than $16 million from donor and other funds to support local non-profits.  Every year, they celebrate volunteers who have made invaluable contributions of time, energy and talents.  This year, Friends of Old Seven’s president, Bernard Spinrad, will be among 71 honored at the CFFK’s 13th annual Unsung Heroes Luncheon at the Casa Marina resort on February 1,  2013.  For a complete description of these wonderful volunteers, click this link: 2013UnsungHeroes.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Pigeon Key Poster to Aid Restoration of Old Seven

PIGEON KEY, Florida Keys  – In the early 1900′s , visionary entrepreneur and developer Henry Flagler, the “Father of Florida”,  fulfilled his extraordinary goal to build an Overseas Railroad to connect Miami to Key West.  The remarkable series of bridges (now 42 in all ) spanned 110 miles,  linking island to island to create the Florida Keys and carried cargo and passengers along the way until 1935,  when an unexpected, Category 5 Hurricane destroyed the portion that serviced the Tavernier/Islamorada area.  One of the crown jewels in this chain was the “Seven Mile Bridge”,  linking Marathon (Mile Marker 50)  to Little Duck Key, better known today as Veterans Park.

The railroad bridges were converted into an automotive Overseas Highway, thanks to the State of  Florida who bought the entire “Flagler- right of way”.  Steel girders, braces and poured concrete were engineered to convert each bridge into a two lane highway, completed in 1938.  A toll was charged, to pay off the debt to the state.  Managed by the Overseas Road and Toll Bridge District, the debt was paid off in less than 5 years. Pigeon Key, nestled under the Old 7 Mile and owned by Monroe County, remained headquarters for the workers who maintained the bridges until it was leased to the University of Miami for Marine Biology Studies. Today, the island, including its renowned Flagler Railroad Museum, managed and operated by the Pigeon Key Foundation (PKF), a non-profit 501 (c) 3 corporation on behalf of Monroe County. The Pigeon Key Foundation currently runs a number of valuable educational and community-oriented program.

The new Seven Mile Bridge was opened in 1982, leaving the old portion to Pigeon Key open for walking and bicycle traffic, as well as for limited vehicular traffic to and from the island.

For the last 30 years, the original 7 Mile Bridge has been a popular 2 mile recreational span on which hundreds of people walk and bike,  enjoying ocean breezes, spectacular views and photograph gorgeous sunsets.  Over one hundred thousand people per year use the bridge as they enjoy an open-air-aquarium where baby sharks, tropical fish, barracuda, rays and tarpon swim through its historic century old pilings, span after span.

But this historic landmark to Pigeon Key is crumbling and without a massive overhaul, doomed to be condemned and closed. Due to deteriorating structural conditions, FDOT restricted vehicular traffic from the bridge, allowing only pedestrians, joggers and bikes.

The Old Seven Mile Bridge has been integral part of Pigeon Key’s character and history for a century, and such an action would be catastrophic to the island’s residents, marine biology students, visitors, and the tourism economy.

The Florida Department of Transportation has pledged to cover half of the $18-22 million cost of returning the original Seven Mile Bridge to structural integrity, with the other half to come from outside sources.  The volunteer grassroots organization, Friends of Old Seven ( FO7 ), has stepped up to save this important, public treasure .

As part of the fund raising efforts, the FO7 Board of Directors commissioned Beach Town Posters  artist, Aurelio Grisanty,  to create a Retro Art Deco travel poster celebrating Pigeon Key.  This poster, which features The “Old Seven” and Pigeon Key’s Historic Architecture , will be sold to raise money for the bridge reconstruction.

FO7 Board Member Bettye Chaplin explained that Beach Town Posters was a natural fit for the dual purposes for FO7: to educate and inspire people about Pigeon Key, and to celebrate its history.  Beach Town Posters is a series of original art travel posters, designed by Grisanty, that feature beloved classic American beach towns and islands.

“We wanted a beautiful, appealing, high quality item that would constantly remind people of the wonderful times they spent on Pigeon Key, the ‘tiny island with a big history.” Chaplin says.  “ Beach Town Posters has an international following due to their stylish aesthetic and historical reverence.  We are excited to have them design a Pigeon Key Poster.”

The Pigeon Key Art Poster will be sold in the Pigeon Key Museum Shop, selected art galleries and gift shops, at “Friends of Old 7″ fund raising events, and online at

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Festival of Trees 11-29-12

The Zonta Club of Marathon, Florida invited Friends of Old Seven and the Pigeon Key Foundation to host an evening at their Festival of Trees.  The evening was festive, with trees and holiday decorations created by local groups and sponsors available for Chinese Auction with proceeds supporting the Zonta Club – a service organization.   The public was welcome to enjoy the beautiful decorations, bid on silent auction items, enjoy food and drink from nearby restaurants, meet “the real Santa” (did you know he is 6’6″ tall?) and children had a chance to create lovely Christmas decorations.  A special thanks to volunteer Lee Ann Byers who added to the Christmas spirit by singing holiday songs and playing her keyboard.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Take a Tour of Pigeon Key

Earlier this week we brought to you a story about a community organization trying to restore the Old Seven Mile Bridge.

Part of that story touched on Pigeon Key, where the work camp for the men who built the Old Seven Mile Bridge lived and worked 100 years ago.  The entire island is now a museum.

Take a tour of historic Pigeon Key with Riet Steinmetz through these photos.

by Arianna Prothero


Thursday, November 8, 2012

Bridge Over Troubled Water – WLRN Radio

When the Old Seven Mile Bridge was built, it was an engineering wonder of the early 1900s. Part of Henry Flagler’s famous railway to Key West, it ran across nearly seven miles of open water to connect Marathon to the Lower Keys.

Today, the bridge is still a popular spot with both locals and tourists, but it’s slowly falling apart. Salt water and storms are eroding the bridge faster than the state can afford to repair it. Much of it is now closed. Historians and activists are desperately searching for a way to preserve what’s left: a 2.2 mile section of the Old Seven Bridge that is still open to pedestrians and cyclists.

Beauty On The Bridge

If you’ve ever walked along the bridge, you might have passed Mike Cross on one of his regular outings. He uses the bridge for exercise, nature watching and enjoying the keys’ famous sunsets and sunrises.

“You see the sun coming up over the ocean, starts lighting up the water,” Cross said.  “White caps are gorgeous in the sunlight. They’re like little flecks of crystals floating on the surface.”

Cross loves history. Before he retired, Cross worked at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C. restoring old airplanes. Now, he works to preserve a part of the Keys’ history. Cross volunteers with a group called Friends of Old Seven, or FO7, that’s trying to raise money and awareness for the Old Seven Mile Bridge’s restoration.

The bridge became part of the original Overseas Highway in the late 1930s. It’s been a set piece in Hollywood films–including the time it was blown up in the 1994 movie, True Lies, with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis.

The old bridge entered limbo in the early 80’s when the new, wider Seven Mile Bridge was built right next to it. When that happened, the original Seven Mile Bridge was basically nudged out of Florida’s transportation system.

For that reason, The Florida Department of Transportation, which owns the bridge, cannot afford to sink a lot of money into the bridge’s upkeep. FDOT District Six Structures Maintenance Administrator Dennis Fernandez is the engineer in charge of all the bridges in Monroe and Miami-Dade counties. He said reports on the bridge do not look good.

“The deck is serious, the superstructure is critical, the substructure is poor,” said Fernandez.

FDOT ranks bridge parts on a scale of one to 9, 9 being the safest. The deck is the flat surface of the bridge and it rests on the superstructure.  The deck has a rating of three, the superstructure’s rating has dropped down to a two.

“If this rating goes down to one, then we need to close the structure for pedestrians,” warned Fernandez.

He said FDOT wants to transfer ownership of the bridge to Monroe County. Currently, the bridge is a liability for the agency which is unwilling to foot the full restoration costs. Bi-annual inspections and other basic maintenance are already costing FDOT about $60,000 a year. Fernandez said his priority is maintaining new bridges that actually carry vehicular traffic.

Sharing the Wealth

Friends of Old Seven believes the bridge can be an important part of the middle keys’ economy.

“Something that will draw people to the middle key, instead of us just being a gas stop on the way to Key West,” Mike Cross explained. “They’ll get a better understanding of the whole keys and not just rushing to Key West to get drunk and fall down ‘cause that’s where Hemmingway fell down when he got drunk.”

First, FO7 has to make sure the bridge doesn’t get shut down.

Bernard Spinrad is the president of FO7. Before he retired, Spinrad worked for years in the tourism and economic development industries. He was formally Aruba’s tourism director.

Spinrad envisions the bridge becoming the Keys’ equivalent of The High Line in New York City, which was an abandoned railroad that was converted into a popular park, or the Walkway Over the Hudson in Poughkeepsie, NY or the Lyons Bridge in Saint Augustine, FL

“All of them, successful visions of a group of volunteers that got together and saved a valuable, historical resource for posterity,” said Spinrad.

But, Spinrad admits they have a long way to go

He said the group’s first priority is to preserve the bridge and keep it open not only for pedestrians, but also for Pigeon Key Museum which is tucked between the section of the bridge that is still open and the part that is now closed.

“DOT, about two years ago, declared the bridge unfit for vehicular traffic,” said Spinrad. “And when closing traffic, basically, it prevented Pigeon Key being accessed by vehicle from Marathon.”

The work camp for the men who built the Old Seven Mile Bridge 100 years ago is on Pigeon Key, and the entire island is now a museum.

Right now there are only two ways to get to the to the museum: a ferry run by Monroe County and by the bridge.

Riet Steinmetz is a tour guide at Pigeon Key Museum. She says the ferry is pretty expensive for the County to operate.

“So far the county has funded that, but they are ready to stop that too.” Steinmetz said that if the ferry stops and the bridge closes, then Pigeon Key Museum will have to shut down as well.

History Isn’t Cheap

FDOT is willing to kick in half the money needed to restore the bridge. Spinrad said estimates for repairing the bridge are between $18 and $20 million.

“That leaves the community as a whole, to put up the other half.”

FO7 is working with Monroe County to come up with the money. According to county officials, the most promising source of money for restoring Old Seven is restoration funds from the BP oil spill.

However, Mike Cross points out there’s a lot of competition for money during tough financial times.

“I think you can sum it up to a pack of dogs in a dog coup,” Cross said. “In the old days you might have 10 dogs and 10 bowls of food. Nowadays, with the economy the way it is, we’ve got a pack of dogs and one bone.”

Cross hopes the bridge project makes the cut because, he said, the history of the keys is rooted in Flagler’s old railway.

“It’s man’s duty to preserve his history because you have to know how you got where you are. It’s that simple in my mind.”

Currently, the old bridge gets inspected every six months instead of every two years like most bridges in the region.

FDOT has begun its most recent inspection. FDOT’s Dennis Fernandez does not think they’ll have to close the bridge at this time. But, he warned, when the rating on the substructure drops from a two to a one, he will have to close the bridge to pedestrians.

by  Arianna Prothero of WLRN-Miami Herald News

(To view the story online and/or listen to the radio segment aired on Morning Edition on NPR, click here.)




Monday, September 17, 2012

Pigeon Key – The Tiny Island with a Big History by Linda Schilling Mitchell

“Helping others is like helping yourself”
…Henry Morrison Flagler

by Linda Schilling

As a follow up to my last article about Henry Flagler’s Overseas Railroad and the Seven Mile Bridge located in the Florida Keys, I would now like to share with you some interesting information about a very important and unique place – Pigeon Key.

Flagler’s Seven Mile Bridge (part of the Overseas Railroad Key West Extension) was originally known as “Knights Key-Pigeon Key-Moser Channel-Pacet Channel Bridge”. It connected Knights Key, near Marathon in the Middle Keys, to Little Duck Key in the Lower Keys. Pigeon Key is a tiny , five acre coral island located about midway across the Seven Mile Bridge, at Mile Marker 45. This little island was originally known as “Cayo Paloma”, literally translated as “Pigeon Key” on many old Spanish charts, and supposedly was named for the large flocks of white-crowned pigeons (Columba leucocephala Linnaeus) which once roosted there.

Back in 1908, Henry Flagler faced the overwhelming task of crossing the seven miles of open water with a railroad bridge consisting of 546 concrete piers and large deck plates. With its ideal location just 2.2 miles from the Marathon shore, Pigeon Key became a hub of activity, set up as a staging area and base camp for Flagler’s railroad construction workers. The camp consisted of four bunkhouses, each designed to hold 64 men, an engineering/office building, which also held sleeping quarters for the men who worked there and a Mess Hall. Numerous tents were erected over wooden floors on stilts for the laborers. During the four years that it took to construct the bridge, over 400 workers stayed at the camp on Pigeon Key. Working conditions, as you can imagine, were a dreadful combination of mosquitoes, heat, humidity and hurricanes. Long fourteen hour days would earn a worker $1.50 a day. In an effort to make life more pleasant for the hard working crews, Flagler made sure there was fresh water, the food was good and plentiful and strict cleanliness was the law. There was even electricity!

Once the 128 mile railroad was completed in 1912, maintenance crews and bridge tenders lived on and operated out of Pigeon Key. Some of the original buildings were replaced with more permanent structures and homes. In an effort to attract and keep more married personnel, a school was opened on the island in 1923. That same year, a post office was established and remained open for 10 years. After the Labor Day hurricane of 1935 devastated Upper and Lower Matecumbe, Pigeon Key became the southern base for rescue, relief, and evacuation operations.

Although damage to the bridge was minimal, the Great Depression made the cost of rebuilding the railroad impractical and Flagler’s dream came to an end. By 1938 the Overseas Railroad was transformed into the Overseas Highway, allowing cars to access the Keys via a new, narrow, two lane roadway built over the existing railroad. Pigeon Key served as headquarters for the construction of this roadway, which was a toll road until 1954.

Since the completion of the “new” bridge in 1982, with its wider roadway and 65 foot high arc replacing the swing span, Flagler’s old bridge and Pigeon Key have found their place once again in history. Both the Seven Mile Bridge and Pigeon Key are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

In 1992, The Pigeon Key Foundation was formed. Operating as a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, it has transformed this small, tropical island and its remaining eight historic buildings into a world-class educational center; a place to teach visitors about the splendor of the cultural and natural resources of the Florida Keys, and a nationally recognized concert and event location.

Nestled in the shadow of the old bridge, these buildings (some original structures date back to 1909) are painted in Flagler’s trademark bright yellow. You will want to visit the Railroad Museum which houses many historic artifacts including the old bridge construction blueprints, a multitude of photographs and memorabilia such as displays of dishes and utensils from Flagler’s FEC Railroad and P&O (Peninsular & Occidental) Steamship Company.

The Pigeon Key Foundation & Marine Science Center has provided private, customized programs to more than 30,000 participants from more than 1000 schools throughout the United States. Through these hands-on programs, participants complete extensive workshops on marine mammals, reef fish, our reef system, invertebrates as well as hard and soft corals found in the Florida/Caribbean waters. They also receive additional workshops on underwater photography and the gathering of specimens. These programs are for all ages – elementary school to post graduate, and are designed and endorsed by some of the most respected marine scientists in the United States. You can enroll in a day-camp excursion, weeklong marine biology program or even SCUBA certification. What an incredible way to spend a vacation!

This valuable, historic treasure can be reached by ferry or by foot via the 2.2 mile section of the Seven Mile Bridge from Marathon. As was brought out in the last issue of the Pineapple Post , this section of the bridge is facing great peril and possible closing. The Pigeon Key Foundation is working closely with The Friends of Old Seven organization to make sure this bridge and accessibility to Pigeon Key is maintained and preserved for visitors now and for generations to come. They cannot accept losing any part this American Treasure that was once deemed the Eighth Wonder of the World.

Today, Pigeon Key is open for all to enjoy. Whether touring the historical sites, experiencing an abundance of sea life while snorkeling in the crystal blue water or enjoying a relaxing picnic under one of the many sea grape or graceful palm trees, it will definitely be a memorable experience you won’t forget.

So the next time you daydream about escaping to a small tropical island, dream of Pigeon Key. Envision the vibrant, panorama sunrises and sunsets flaming across the calm, translucent waters. Ponder the immeasurable task that Flagler undertook in building his magnificent bridge so long ago. And most of all, consider how you can help The Pigeon Key Foundation and The Friends of Old Seven in their efforts to Save the Old Seven Mile Bridge and its access to this tiny, historic jewel – Pigeon Key.

For more information, visit: and

Linda Schilling Mitchell is the author of “Dear Miss Schneider, Please Excuse Walter…”.
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(Ms. Mitchell writes for the Pineapple Post which serves Jensen Beach and the Treasure Coast, Florida)