Only the most senior of us senior citizens are old enough to remember Pigeon Key in its historic glory — but we all can visit the tiny island, which lies underneath the Old Seven Mile Bridge in the Middle Keys. And it’s well worth a visit, since there are very few sites as important in the history and development of the Florida Keys.

History buffs can visit the former Over-Sea Railroad work camp at Pigeon Key, lying beneath the historic Old Seven Mile Bridge. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

The islet’s first claim to fame came during the construction of the Keys extension of the Florida East Coast Railroad, Henry Flagler’s ambitious undertaking that became known as the Florida Keys Over-Sea Railroad. Work on this massive project — a railroad whose track stretched nearly 100 miles “out to sea” to connect the Keys with mainland Florida and each other for the first time — began in 1905, but it was not completed until 1912.

One of the most challenging parts of Flagler’s enterprise was the construction of the Seven Mile Bridge just west and south of Marathon. For that, he needed workers and a place to house them. Pigeon Key was the ideal spot, so a construction camp was built to house several hundred workers.

When the railroad was completed, Pigeon Key became home to the maintenance workers. Its amenities included permanent homes, a school for children of married personnel and even a post office.

Pigeon Key's restored historic structures and tranquil atmosphere offer visitors a glimpse of the Over-Sea Railroad era. (Photo courtesy of the Pigeon Key Foundation)

Everything went according to plan after the railroad’s completion until the devastating hurricane of 1935. Instead of restoring the heavily damaged railroad, the powers that be decided to construct a two-lane road through the Keys to Key West. At that time, the U.S. was still in the throes of the Great Depression and the government sent hundreds of men to Pigeon Key to give them jobs building the road. 

Once completed, the highway served the Keys well. Many of the original bridges were modernized or replaced in the 1980s. I traveled the “new highway” all the way to Key West in its infancy, and I marveled at the construction miracles the workers had achieved.

Today Pigeon Key is thriving as home to the Pigeon Key Foundation, a non-profit organization founded in 1992 to preserve the cultural history of the Keys. Its Pigeon Key Marine Science Center oversees many educational programs.

The early homes have been restored, and the former home of one of the officials how houses a museum, with exhibits from the days of the former railroad and the original highway.

Educational programs are high on the list of the foundation’s projects, and daily guided tours are offered for visitors of all ages.

Pigeon Key has recently adopted solar power for its energy needs -- using today's technology to enhance the historic setting. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Believe me, touring the windswept island will make you feel like you’ve stepped back in time, becoming part of the simpler lifestyle that characterized the Keys decades ago. 

For a relaxing getaway, you can stay at the Pigeon Key guesthouse, a comfortable building that’s listed on the National List of Historic Places. The guesthouse sleeps 10, with two baths, a living room, and a kitchen. It’s a great place for a multi-generation family vacation, or for a group of friends to get together and reconnect in a tranquil, slow-paced setting.

For many years Pigeon Key could be accessed on foot across the Old Seven Mile Bridge. However, that avenue is now closed, and the only way to reach the historic island is by a short ferry ride from Knight’s Key. The ferry is an easier way for seniors to travel and is a delightful trip.

When Henry Flagler completed his railroad and realized his dream, he opened up the Florida Keys as a recreational area for people from around the United States and around the world. Those of us who love the island chain, whether as residents or eager visitors, will be forever glad he did!

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