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Florida Keys Over-Sea Railroad History Showcased During Centennial Year

FLORIDA KEYS — In January 1912, the first Florida Keys Over-Sea Railroad train rolled from the Florida mainland through the Keys to Key West, forever changing the face of many of the previously isolated islands by connecting them with the mainland and each other.

A Keyswide celebration to honor the historic railroad, lauded as the most unique railway in the world upon its completion, is to culminate Jan. 22, 2012, the 100th anniversary of the inaugural train's arrival.

The rail line was conceived by Standard Oil tycoon Henry Flagler and construction began in 1905, motivated by an announcement that the Panama Canal would be built. Flagler thought Key West had the potential to be an important port and trade route with Cuba and Latin America, as well as a vital supply stop for ships entering or exiting the Panama Canal.

The railroad's track stretched more than 100 miles out into open water, requiring trailblazing construction techniques and herculean efforts. At several points in the construction process, more than 4,000 men were working on the project, and Flagler gambled nearly all of his wealth on the venture.

Officially named the Florida East Coast Railway's Key West Extension, the line became known as the Over-Sea Railroad and was sometimes referred to as "the eighth wonder of the world." The bridges and viaducts connecting the Keys, including the landmark Seven Mile Bridge at Marathon, were regarded as an engineering marvel.

For more than two decades after the railroad's 1912 completion, it carried passengers to the Keys and Key West, affording them a breathtaking sense of steaming across the open ocean.

The Over-Sea Railroad's heyday abruptly ended when a portion of the line was destroyed in a 1935 hurricane. At that time the United States was in the grip of the Great Depression and the Florida East Coast Railway, already in receivership, was unable to put money into repairs. Less than three years later, a narrow highway for automobiles replaced the tracks.

Today, many of the original railroad bridges still can be seen alongside the bridges that support the modern Overseas Highway, the contemporary connection from mainland Florida through the Keys.

Other reminders of the historic railroad include Pigeon Key, a five-acre island that lies beneath the Old Seven Mile Bridge at Marathon. A base camp for workers during construction of the original railroad bridge, the tiny island now features carefully restored structures and a museum dedicated to the railway and its builders.

Florida Keys events commemorating the Over-Sea Railroad's centennial year include a presentation by a Flagler re-enactor, explorations of Pigeon Key, a period costume ball and a Key West parade on the 100th anniversary of the first train's arrival in the island city.

Other attractions include "Flagler's Speedway to Sunshine," a permanent exhibition at the Key West Museum of Art & History at the Custom House in Old Town Key West. The exhibition includes a re-created Florida East Coast railcar, a scale replica of a section of the Seven Mile Bridge, vintage footage of the journey from Pigeon Key to Key West, a film recounting Flagler's story and the arrival of the first train, rare artifacts including a conductor's uniform and railroad worker's tool chest, and memorabilia that brings alive the fascinating story of the railroad that went to sea.


Over-Sea Railroad centennial information: www.FlaglerKeys100.com
Florida Keys visitor information: www.fla-keys.com or 1-800-FLA-KEYS (1-800-352-5397)
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Pigeon Key served as a base camp for workers during construction of the original railroad bridge. Image courtesy of Dan Gallagher

Pigeon Key served as a base camp for workers during construction of the original railroad bridge. Image courtesy of Dan Gallagher

A passenger train on arch bridge. Image courtesy of Monroe County Public Library

A passenger train on arch bridge. Image courtesy of Monroe County Public Library

Image courtesy of Jerry Wilkinson

Image courtesy of Jerry Wilkinson

A train on site after the 1935 hurricane.

A train on site after the 1935 hurricane.

Working at an Islamorada site.

Working at an Islamorada site.

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