Sunday, August 19, 2012

Henry Flagler’s Seven Mile Bridge by Linda Schilling Mitchell

Past, Present, Future

“What will be her demise, this old salty queen with cracked skin, rusty bones and coconut pavement?
Will she fade away in the crimson sunset or one mystic sunrise, fragment by fragment carried out to the deep?
I think not!”
by Deborah C. Linker

By Linda Schilling Mitchell

If you are a long time reader of the Pineapple Post Newspaper and had occasions to read my articles, then you are probably aware that I have a fascination for all things Flagler. Some of my past articles have been about Henry Morrison Flagler’s life, his connection with St. Augustine, The Ponce de Leon Hotel, Alcazar Hotel and the establishment of his famous Florida East Coast Railroad. Additional articles have been about his railroad coming through our area, establishing Train Depots and bringing life and settlers to the Treasure Coast. Then articles on his luxury hotels and magnificent Whitehall home in Palm Beach. In reflection, it’s no wonder that Flagler is considered to be the most important man in Florida’s history.

But his influence on Florida along with his famous railroad didn’t stop in Palm Beach as Flagler had once planned. If you are familiar with the history of our area, you know that in 1894/95 there was a devastating freeze, wiping out the local pineapple and citrus industry, crushing the local economy. As a result, it was brought to Flagler’s attention that the area just 60 miles south of Palm Beach was unharmed by the freeze. This of course, piqued Flagler’s interest. He was also encouraged to consider extending his railroad further south by an acquaintance of his named Julia Tuttle, who operated a Trading Post on the Miami River. Wanting and needing the railroad, she and other landowners offered him land for his railroad tracks. Envisioning the practicality and profitability of this, Flagler accepted the challenge to extend his railroad further south, encouraging fruit farming and settlements along the way, complete with schools, churches and hospitals. By 1896, the Florida East Coast Railroad had reached Biscayne Bay and Flagler became known as the “Father of Miami”.

Now noting the topography of our state, we would logically think that Miami would be the end of the line for the FEC right? Plus Henry was well into his “golden years” by this time and should be ready to relax and enjoy life at Whitehall! Well not so – at least in Flagler’s unconventional mind. In 1904, at the age of 74, Flagler determined that the railroad should continue another 128 mile further south to Key West. Amazingly, at that time, Key West was the most populated city in Florida with over 10,000 residents, and Flagler envisioned it as a superb and obvious site for a deep port in close proximity to Cuba and the new Panama Canal.

Critics scoffed and labeled it “Flagler’s Folly”. Engineers were aghast and his business partners wondered if the old gentleman had grown quite daft. But the determined Flagler, using his own money, became the driving force to accomplish the Key West Extension, and Florida’s remote tropical island paradise would never be the same.

It took research, surveys and extensive planning to determine a feasible route. Once assured that it was possible, construction started in earnest. The race to build a railroad across the Keys was on, hopping from one island to the next with tracks laid to Knight’s Key as the first leg. This would expedite supplies to the ongoing work sites. Devising ingenious methods of building across the Everglades, Flagler’s engineers were soon bridging the narrow gaps across the shallow waters of the upper and middle Keys, building causeways and viaducts of reinforced concrete. This concrete was made with special cement brought over from Germany, as no American concrete at that time was able to harden under salt water. Sand from Central Florida was used, fresh water from the Everglades and rocks from as far away as New York. The concrete was used to form the platforms on which the piers were built.

One can only imagine the workforce that would be needed for this monumental task. Labor was a constant problem. Crews toiled 14 hours a day, six days a week for $1.50 a day, which included food, lodging and medical care. But oppressive heat wrapped in a thick blanket of humidity, unrelenting mosquitoes, four hurricanes (1906, 1908, 1909, 1910) and the lack of fresh water constantly haunted the project.

It is said that a total of 40,000 men, but never over 5,000 at any one time, were employed. What appeared to be a good job opportunity in the ads, soon had workers retreating home to escape the atrocious conditions. What an undertaking in the early 1900s!

But Flagler and his workers pressed on. In 1908, work commenced on a major hurdle known as the Seven Mile Bridge. From Marathon to Little Duck Key, 546 concrete piers would be needed to bridge the expanse, the longest stretch of open water on the route.

Earlier this month, husband Jim and I vacationed in the Keys and visited Pigeon Key which is located about midway across the Seven Mile Bridge. After a brief boat ride across the crystal, aquamarine water from Knight’s Key, we stepped foot on the tiny five acre coral island that served as a base camp for Flagler’s construction crews. As many as 400 workers would be housed on Pigeon Key during the construction, which went on for almost four years.

Our experience was highlighted by our friendly and knowledgeable tour guide named Riet Steinmetz. Sitting under the welcomed shade of a large sea grape tree, Riet briefed us on Flagler’s life and the history of the Overseas Railroad. An unhurried tour of several original structures on the island allowed us to sense, in a small way, what life must have been for those brave and hearty workers. A special added walkway allows access up onto the actual 2.2 mile section of the Seven Mile Bridge from Knight’s Key to the camp. The view is breathtaking. A wide assortment of marine life can be viewed through the teal, translucent water. For those so inclined (we, however, were not among those) you can walk the bridge back to Knight’s Key.

By 1911, all of the final 50 miles of track were completed except for one critical span, the one over the trestle that led to Knight’s Key dock extending out in the ocean, where people would catch a steamer to Key West or anywhere in the Caribbean. Finally on January 21, 1912, FEC engineers installed the final steel plate girder (span 36 of the Knight’s Key bridge) permanently in place. From then on the place to catch a steamer to the Caribbean was at the new terminal in Key West. That afternoon, FEC Engine #201 left Knight’s Key for an inspection run to Key West.

The first FEC train arrived in Key West at 10:30 a.m. on January 22nd with Flagler, now 82, and his wife Mary Lily aboard their luxury Pullman car. How exciting it must have been for Flagler to seemingly float across the vast sea aboard the train that had been his dream. Parties, parades and banquets followed the next day to celebrate the official opening of Flagler’s Overseas Railroad. The building of the Overseas Railroad or Key West Extension, was the greatest single railroad engineering and construction feat in United States and possibly world history. The only near comparison would be the Panama Canal. Travelers referred to it as riding on a cloud, but were also warned to keep their hands and heads inside the cars while crossing the Bahia Honda Bridge. The Keys were, with the completion of the railroad, a completely different world.

Henry Morrison Flagler, who lived to see his dream fulfilled, died quietly in his home in Palm Beach just sixteen months later on May 20, 1913, at the age of 83.

But the Key West Extension was never the financial success Flagler had envisioned, and in 1935 the railroad did battle with Mother Nature one last time. The September 2nd hurricane sounded the death toll for the line. Damage was extensive in the Upper and Middle Key and hundreds of lives were lost. A Category 5 with wind speeds of 200 mph and a 17-foot tidal wave destroyed miles of track and washed out several of the long fills. Although the bridges had suffered only minor damage and could have been repaired for a relatively minimal amount of money, 1935 was deep in the throes of the Great Depression, and the FEC’s managers decided to abandon the route.

By 1936 with the route to the lower Keys cut off, the Key West City Council and Key West Chamber of Commerce pushed for the rebuilding of a thoroughfare from Miami to Key West using the abandoned railroad route for a highway. The railroad’s right-of-way was sold to the State of Florida for just $640,000. Work was started to convert the railway into a highway for automobiles. The old tracks were taken up and ingeniously used as the side railings of the road. The project went quickly and was completed in 1938. This new Overseas Highway marked the beginning of an incredible adventure for motorist who could now travel miles of roadway and cross 42 bridges from Miami to the southernmost point in Key West. The Keys were alive once more!

Eventually, in order to accommodate the increase of traffic to the lower Keys, 37 new bridges with wider spans were constructed from 1978 – 1982, including the well-known Seven Mile Bridge. Instead of the old swing span, a new 65 foot high arc near the center of the bridge allowed for taller boat clearance.

The majority of the original sections of Flagler’s bridge are still in existence and several are used as fishing piers. The old Seven Mile Bridge, Bahia Honda Bridge and Long Key Bridge were added to the National Register of Historic Places on August 3, 1979. Pigeon Key was added to the list in 1993.

Now at this point, it sounds like everything is well and good for Flagler’s old Seven Mile Bridge and Pigeon Key, being recognized as historic sites and enjoyed by thousands of visitors each and every year. But not so. Just as back in 1935, Flagler’s Seven Mile Bridge is facing the threat of a devastating blow – only this time we know it’s coming and can prepare.

Here’s why: Not long ago, The FDOT determined that the bridge was not structurally sound and in due course will be closed to foot traffic. The ferry service out to Pigeon Key is on the chopping block too. This is an inconceivably tragic decision for the island and the 2.2 mile section of bridge that connects it to the main thoroughfare. Pigeon Key, a one of a kind historic treasure with its museum and its connecting bridge which serves as a jogging, walking and bicycle path, as well as a premium location to watch spectacular sunsets or the abundant seal life below, will be lost not only for us, but for generations to come. Can this be allowed to happen? I think not, as do a number of other focused and determined people – The Friends of Old Seven!

The Friends of Old Seven, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization, is dedicated to their goal: Restore, Maintain, Enhance and Save the Old Seven Mile Bridge. The FDOT has recently stated they will fund 50% of the construction fee if the matching funds are raised and provisions are made to provide maintenance for the next 15 years. At that time, the situation would be readdressed. The FO7 is determined to work with state, county, city, private donors, public funding and all entities to save this bridge. This, of course, takes money and lots of it! But here’s how we can help not only save the bridge, but be an important part of history itself!!

First, go to and sign the FO7 petition.

Second, while on the site, click on the DONATE tab. Contributions can be made by credit card or you can send in a check or money order. Contributions are tax deductable.

Third, click on the SHOP tab and choose among the many items they have for sale. FO7 T-shirts, hats, bumper stickers, tote bags, video and books. Buy them for yourself, family and friends. They make wonderful gifts.

Remember, people didn’t believe Flagler could build the bridge, but he did. Some might think we can’t save the bridge, but we can! Failure was not in his vocabulary, nor should it be in ours.
So make plans to visit Pigeon Key as soon as possible. Meet the people involved with the Pigeon Key Foundation and the Friends of Old Seven. Go to their websites and get involved. Help save Henry Flagler’s dream and his contribution to not only residents of our state, but to everyone, everywhere.

Together, we can and will SAVE OLD SEVEN!

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).