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.