Today, we ride the Keys. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
The Florida Keys are a
strange piece of America, stretching
128 miles from Homestead and Florida City out
to Key West. I've never seen them. And I've always
been torn between a wish to engage that remarkable
road, and a fear that the drive might be slightly
less interesting than watching paint dry.
The idea of a road from the mainland out to Key
West arose before the automobile was any kind of
major force in America. Writer T. A. Heppenheimer
tells how it was first the brainchild of an
aggressive developer, Henry Flagler, partner of
John D. Rockefeller.
In the late nineteenth century, Flagler began
building his way south through Florida. He built
hotels, and a railroad line to serve them. When he
reached the tiny village
of Palm Beach, he built a 540-room luxury hotel.
Palm Beach was never the same.
He built a hotel on the Miami River and the city of
Miami grew up around it. When he ran out of
mainland, Key West beckoned him off into the Gulf.
In 1905, 75-year-old Flagler asked if a rail-road
could be built along the Keys. His general manager
said it could, and Flagler replied, "Very well,
then. Go to Key West."
The Florida penal system was then using prisoners
as forced labor. The 1911 Encyclopædia
Britannica devotes a whole section to that
system. These workers could be had for
two-and-a-half dollars a month, but there weren't
enough of them. When Flagler offered $1.25 a day to
laborers from New York, bums turned up. Then, he
found that local black laborers made a far superior
And so the railroad headed out into the gulf. Many
of the Keys were worthless coral or saline swamps.
No fresh water -- it had to be brought in by boat.
New means for pouring concrete below the surface of
the sea had to be invented. The workers had to
weather hurricanes and cover vast stretches of open
water. The Seven-Mile Bridge section was the
longest bridge ever built.
Finally, at a cost of twenty-seven million,
turn-of-the-century dollars -- and two hundred
lives -- the railway was finished. That old
Britannica shows it complete, although
work was still going on. In 1912, Flagler -- now 82
years old and blind -- rode his private railway car
all the way to Key West.
Flagler was a formative agent in America's gaudy
Gilded Age. And he helped to shape the Florida we
know. Yet his railroad was not destined to survive
the Great Depression. It was already in trouble in
1935. Then a terrible Hurricane struck it, killing
three hundred people along the Keys, and stopping
rail traffic. After the hurricane, the company
abandoned that part of the line.
But state highway planners took it over. They used
its superb system of viaducts and bridges to
complete a highway to Key West, in 1938.
Now that road over scattered islands and open water
is studded with hotels and luxury along the way. I
go to the web to bask in all that surviving
elegance. I'll have to find a way to make that long
drive one day, after all.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
T. A. Heppenheimer, The Railroad That Went to Sea.
Invention & Technology, Vol. 19, No. 4,
Spring 2004, pp. 54-62, and cover.
See also the article on Florida in the 1911
For information about the Florida Keys in general,
as a nature preserve, and as a tourism destination
see the following websites: