History of the Florida Keys

Capt. Jeff

The Florida Keys, that gentle arc of coral rock stretching from Biscayne Bay to the Dry Tortugas, are well known as the jumping-off point for diving and snorkeling the world's third-largest barrier reef and for providing some of the best sport fishing around. Lazing at anchor in the sultry tropical climate after some serious play rounds out most days on the water. What most boaters don't know about the Keys is their fascinating history, especially the chapter about the man who helped shape Miami and Key West --- the two cities that bookend the Keys --- by connecting them with a railroad.

The first European to see Biscayne Bay and sail through the Keys was probably Juan Ponce de Leon during his voyage of discovery in 1513. He named the Keys los Martires, or the Martyrs, because from a distance the islands looked like suffering men to him. The name we use for the archipelago today is derived from a corrupted version of the Spanish word cayo, for small island.It took another 399 years for a Gilded Age entrepreneur to link Key West with Miami via a mode of transportation other than boat. The man was Henry Morrison Flagler, and his dream, the Overseas Railway, became known as the Eighth Wonder of the World when it was finished in 1912.

The history of Florida is chocka-block with interesting characters seeking to make their marks while eveloping the Sunshine State, but no single person had more of an impact than Flagler. He was 55 years old when he first turned his attention to Florida, and by that time he and his partner, John D. Rockefeller, had monopolized the U.S. oil industry through their ownership of Standard Oil Trust.

Flagler wanted to turn the east coast of Florida into, as he put it, an American Riviera and proceeded to build hotels, bridges and a railroad to connect his resort empire, which stretched from St. Augustine to Palm Beach. When he completed a development spurt in 1894, his Florida East Coast Railway's southern terminus was in West Palm Beach. He considered the grand project finished, and he was satisfied. But Julia Tuttle was not.

Tuttle was a citrus farmer and businesswoman who in 1891 had purchased a large patch of land on Biscayne Bay. She planned to use the property to develop a new city. She quickly realized that in order for this to be feasible, the city would need reliable transportation --- and in those days, that meant the railroad. She tirelessly lobbied Flagler to extend his railroad south but to no avail. Then the freezes of 1894 and 1895 hit, wiping out the orange groves in northern and central Florida and many fortunes as well.

The story goes that Tuttle sent Flagler a basket of flowers and oranges to show him that the freezes had spared the southern part of the state. Flagler agreed to extend the Florida East Coast Railway south if Tuttle would give him some land where he could build a hotel and railway station. On February 15, 1896 construction began on the hotel, and the first train arrived at the new station on April 26. Just three months after railroad service began, the new city was incorporated. It was named Miami.

While the city of Miami was just beginning its perennial cycle of real estate boom and bust, Key West was already established as the most populous and prosperous city in Florida. By the mid-1800s the wrecking industry the salvage of ships wrecked on the key's coral reefs --- brought a tremendous amount of wealth into the city. After the Civil War, when the wrecking industry declined, Cuban cigar manufacturers began setting up flourishing businesses in Key West. By 1898, the battleship Maine had its homeport in Key West's deep-water harbor, and it was from Key West that the Maine departed for Havana, where the ship's fateful explosion would trigger the Spanish-American War.

In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt announced his intention to build the Panama Canal. Flagler realized that Key West would be the closest deep-water port to the canal and that the port could open up trade with ships coming in from the Pacific Coast, Latin America and Cuba. To benefit from this trade, Flagler would need a means for transporting goods from Key West to Miami. From there, the goods could continue up the East Coast. He decided that the best move would be to extend the Florida East Coast Railway. He would call it the Overseas Railroad.

Construction of the Key West Extension was an astounding feat of engineering. One hundred and 56 miles of track were laid to connect the mainland to Key West, with causeways and bridges spanning the water and marshlands across the 31 little islands along the way. The railroad was financed without government funding and remains the most ambitious engineering project ever undertaken by a private citizen. Completed in 1912 after seven years of work --- and at a cost of $50 million and the loss of hundreds of workmen's lives the Overseas Railroad was never as profitable as Flagler envisioned.

Flagler died at age 83, a year after the Key West Extension was completed, as a result of a fall down the marble stairs at his Palm Beach mansion. The Overseas Railroad met an untimely death too, in 1935. A Labor Day hurricane with a 17-foot storm surge washed away many miles of railbed, a locomotive and train and killed more than 400 people. Cruising from Miami to Key West, you'll see many of the original railway bridges now used as fishing piers and leisure walkways. And once you arrive in Key West, your inner historian will find plenty more to be delighted about. A vast number of Victorian homes have been impeccably restored, and museums and landmarks dedicated to wreckers, painters, poets and playwrights abound. Even in the city's lively contemporary scene, there are many reminders of the riches that drove Henry Flagler to build his railroad.

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