George V. Reilly

Review: Last Train to Paradise

Last Train to Paradise
Title: Last Train to Paradise: Henry Flagler and the Spec­tac­u­lar Rise and Fall of the Railroad that Crossed an Ocean
Author: Les Standiford
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★
Publisher: Broadway Books
Copyright: 2002
Pages: 274
Keywords: history, Florida, rail
Reading period: 24–24 February, 2015

Three years ago, we visited our friends Louise and Melissa in South Florida, and we drove down Highway 1 through the Florida Keys to Key West—the south­ern­most city in the United States. Recently, they sent me a copy of this book.

Henry Flagler was well-known in his own time as one of the Robber Barons of the Golden Age. He founded Standard Oil with John D. Rock­e­feller and became fabulously wealthy. In his later years, he turned to building; specif­i­cal­ly, building Florida. Starting in St. Augustine in northern Florida, he pushed his way south, building des­ti­na­tion hotels and the railways to bring moneyed visitors. He put Palm Beach and Miami on the map and became known as the Builder of Florida.

In 1905, he decided that his Florida East Coast Railway should extend all the way down to Key West. At that point, Key West had long been one of the largest cities in all of Florida, and a boom was an­tic­i­pat­ed, as it was the closest deep-water port in the U.S. to the Panama Canal, which was then being built. The Key West Extension was an enormous en­gi­neer­ing challenge: first to hack through the swamps of South Florida, then to build a railway line through more than 100 miles of the narrow Keys arch­i­pel­ago. At one point, they built a seven-mile bridge between two of the islands. Three hurricanes did major damage, killing over a hundred of the workers. Nev­er­the­less, the railway was opened in 1912, a year before Flagler’s death. It ran for 23 years until it was destroyed by the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, the strongest hurricane ever to hit the United States. Later, Highway 1 was con­struct­ed along much of the railway’s right-of-way.

I enjoyed Stan­di­ford’s book, which told me a history I knew almost nothing of. He opens on Labor Day Saturday with Ernest Hemingway in Key West, builds up some tension about the ap­proach­ing hurricane, and then goes back to the beginning, taking us chrono­log­i­cal­ly through Flagler’s life and the con­struc­tion of the railway, before finally reveling in the mighty de­struc­tion. Standiford is more concerned with telling a good story than being a pro­fes­sion­al historian and he keeps the details light, eschewing footnotes and endnotes, but providing a selected bib­li­og­ra­phy.

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