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: www.pigeonkey.net and www.friendsofoldseven.org

Linda Schilling Mitchell is the author of “Dear Miss Schneider, Please Excuse Walter…”.
Email lmitchell4261@yahoo.com for more information

(Ms. Mitchell writes for the Pineapple Post which serves Jensen Beach and the Treasure Coast, Florida)