You Have Got to Read this Book!

By: Lynn Patton Thompson

That’s what my erudite friend told me when I mentioned that my family was going to the Florida Keys in March, and that’s how I got introduced to the mesmerizing telling of how and who built the Florida East Coast Railway— “the railroad across an ocean”—from Miami to Key West.  Last Train to Paradise by Les Standiford is a lesson in history that reads like a novel.  It was published 20 years ago, but if it escaped my reading radar, maybe it did yours, too.  This book intersects my love of history and fascination with how construction takes place. 

Standiford tells of Henry Morrison Flagler, a man of humble beginnings who martialed his massive ambition, intellect, risk-taking, and decisional fortitude to reach heights of wealth, power, and achievement most cannot even imagine.  Flagler was a co-founder of Standard Oil, and it was Flagler who convinced the reluctant John D. Rockefeller that they needed to take their company public.  From that decision, Standard Oil flourished spectacularly.  As if that were not laurels enough to rest upon, Flagler took his millions in resulting wealth and conceived that he would build a railroad that connected Miami to Key West, a distance of 153 miles.  When Flagler decided he would actually construct this private venture, it was 1904.  Flagler was 74.

As a construction lawyer, I’ve dealt with some complex and detailed issues.  Even small construction projects can create large losses and tedious facts that come into play.  But building a railroad in the early 20th century to connect tiny islands that are barely above sea level?  How does that get planned? How does it get populated by the people to make it happen?  Where does one find the engineers and project managers for such a project? Where does one find a labor force willing to work remotely for a year without seeing their family and without access to a single hotel, restaurant, bar, or recreational activity?  Flagler had to transport workers to the Keys to build their own living and sleeping quarters and the canteen areas where Flagler shipped food and supplies to support their existence.  And as the project progressed southward, more “villages” had to be built as they went.   

You will love reading about how Flagler found and selected his Chief Engineer and General Manager.  They were both brilliant and dedicated.  In 1905, after years of planning, surveying, data gathering, and obtaining governmental approvals, Flagler told his General Manager, “Go to Key West.”  Flagler solicited private bids in newspapers across the country.  He received just one proposal. It was a cost-plus bid:  all expenses incurred had to be reimbursed (whatever they were) and there had to be an up-front agreement on profit.  Flagler scoffed at this.  He and his General Manager decided to do all the work “in house.”  The chapters on construction of the Seven-Mile Bridge alone give dramatic lessons in “means and methods” and “learning curves”.  Throughout the book extreme challenges to construction are told, as is how they were resolved. 

The Florida East Coast Railway was completed in 1912, with Flagler enduring legal and marital troubles along the way, and the project itself having to survive the merciless terrain that was its bed.  Flagler did not just build the Florida East Coast Railway.  He built grand hotels, too.  According to Standiford, the South Florida we know today was due to Henry Flagler. 

The book begins and ends with a riveting account of the hurricane that struck Matecumbe Keys on September 2, 1935.  That hurricane, as Standiford explains, is unparalleled for many reasons.  Ernest Hemingway features in the book, as does Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose Works Progress Administration sent hundreds of workers to make repairs on Flagler’s railway and, ultimately, to their horrific death. I found myself wishing that much of it was fiction.    

Henry Morrison Flagler was an incredible force of business, genius, and vision.  Only the incredible force of nature could beat him.  As much as I admire Flagler and thinkers like him, I am so thankful for historians like Les Standiford.  He brought Flagler’s accomplishments into focus on many levels and in many contexts.  Without his research and the approach he used to tell about Flagler’s last years, I might not have appreciated Flagler’s accomplishments. 

Turns out I did not make it to the Keys with my family in March.  We got as far as the Atlanta airport.  Heavy storms and lack of air traffic controllers left us and thousands of travelers headed to South Florida stranded.  We ate breakfast in the airport, hoping we could get on the next plane or the one after that.  By 3:00, we lost all hope of getting a plane to Key West that day or even the next.  My very disappointed husband, children and I cozied up in an airport bar.  They ate.  I had something else.  We managed to get a plane back to Jackson, Mississippi that evening.  I wondered if Flagler would have given up. 

We attempted our trip again at the end of May, this time with success.  I had Last Train to Paradise in my carry-on.  Standiford had me primed to look at numerous mile markers on what is now named Highway 1 of the United States—mile markers that reflect significant events that occurred on Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway.  I wanted to lay my eyes especially on MM 81.5.  Standiford already told me what it says, but I got to read it in person.  What does it say?  You’ve got to read this book!

An aside:         

            Surprisingly, finding above-average food was a bit of a challenge.  If you find yourself in Marathon Key, have lunch at Bongo’s (they do not serve dinner; rustic dining on a porch and delicious!) and dinner at King Seafood.  Do not leave there without having their fried key lime pie.