The History Of The Overseas Railroad & The Birth Of The Overseas Highway

The History Of The Overseas Railroad & The Birth Of The Overseas Highway

The Overseas Railroad was a railway that connected the Florida Keys to the mainland United States. Built by Henry Flagler, it was known as the “Eighth Wonder of the World” due to the incredible feat of engineering involved in constructing a railway over 128 miles of open ocean.

Henry Flagler and the Early Days of Tourism in Florida

Henry Flagler was an oil tycoon and railroad magnate who helped develop Florida’s east coast in the late 19th century. He saw great tourism potential in the state due to its temperate climate in winter. However, traveling to southern Florida at the time was very difficult and required either an ocean or gulf route with multiple steamship connections. Flagler recognized that building a railway to Key West would open up the Florida Keys to development and tourism.

In 1902, Flagler began construction on the Overseas Railroad. The project required bridging 42 miles of open ocean water as well as islands and reefs. 30 years earlier, Thorvald Thilesen proposed building a railroad to Key West but the idea was dismissed as impossible. Flagler aimed to prove them wrong, bringing in engineers, equipment, and supplies from all over the country to begin work on what would be known as the “Eighth Wonder of the World.”

Engineering Challenges

The engineering challenges involved in constructing the Overseas Railroad were immense, requiring numerous feats of ingenuity and perseverance. The natural channels between the islands were often too deep to allow for a rail bed on the ocean floor. Instead, bridges were built utilizing wood trestles with concrete piers sunk up to 110 feet into the ocean floor. In other areas, huge retaining walls had to be built to hold back the ocean and create land for the rail bed.

At other points, tunnels were blasted through coral rock or channels dredged across shallow waters. Temporary towns were built to house the workers including Pigeon Key, Knights Key, and clearly named First, Second, and Third Camps. Barges and a construction fleet steamship brought in supplies and equipment from the mainland. The remote and harsh environment plus epidemics like yellow fever drove off many workers, but Flagler increased wages to keep recruitment efforts going.

Opening Day Crowds in 1912

Despite illness, weather, delays, expenses, and even multiple hurricanes, the Overseas Railway officially opened on January 22nd, 1912. On opening day, crowds gathered to see the first sleeper car bring passengers over what had been deemed an impossible route. The maiden voyage departed from Homestead, Florida with crowds cheering along the way. Celebrations continued in Marathon and Key West where the railroad achieved great fanfare upon arrival. Regular passenger service quickly followed, with three trips per week each way.

Key West was particularly transformed overnight thanks to suddenly being within reach of tourists and markets. What was once an isolated outpost known mainly for fishing, ship salvaging and pineapples became integrated with the rest of the country through Flagler’s railroad down to Key West.

The Extension to Key West

In 1912, shortly after opening, the Florida East Coast Railway was extended all the way from Florida City to Key West. This added nearly 20 miles of route, requiring more engineering feats across open water and marshland. An even larger celebration was held in Key West on arrival of the first passenger train across the full route on January 21, 1912. The Overseas Railway was now known as the “Key West Extension” and daily train service to and from New York City began operating through connections in Florida City.

Impacts on Key West

The impact to Key West from suddenly having rail access to the mainland United States in 1912 was immense. What had been an isolated fishing village was transformed almost overnight. The island’s population doubled between 1910 and 1920 and new docks, warehouses, salt fish production facilities and ice plants were built. Tourism became a major industry very quickly, with mainland vacationers now just a train ride away eager to enjoy Key West’s unique attractions.

Challenges Maintaining the Route

Despite the route’s incredible success carrying both passengers and freight over its first couple decades of operation, the railway faced ongoing maintenance challenges. The remote 16 mile route across Moser Channel to Marathon was destroyed in a 1919 hurricane. Repairs were delayed by material and labor shortages following World War I. Flagler himself passed away in 1913, leaving the future of the railway uncertain under the new leadership.

The Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 ultimately sounded the death knell for the Overseas Railway. Winds of over 200 miles per hour and an 18 foot storm surge simply washed sections of track, bridge approaches and some bridges themselves right out into the ocean. Of the over 700 World War I veterans working on repairs, more than 400 perished in the storm. With repair costs estimated at over $27 million ($500 million today), along with the impacts of the Great Depression and competition from automobiles driving on new roads, the Overseas Railway ceased operations forever after that deadly storm.

Conversion to the Overseas Highway

After closing the Overseas Railway, attention turned to creating a roadway linking the Florida Keys as an “Overseas Highway.” Since much of the rail bed and infrastructure remained, they used these assets as the route for a new highway across the same path. Construction started in 1936 and in 1938 the Overseas Highway opened as U.S. Route 1, linking Key West to mainland Florida and taking over where the railroad left off for moving people, goods and vehicles down the island chain. It continues operating as a lifeline for the islands today, having been widened and improved over the years but still following Flagler’s dream.

The Legacy of the Overseas Railroad

Henry Flagler’s remarkable Overseas Railroad operated for just over 20 years but left an immense mark on Florida history. An estimated 60,000 people took that first train trip to or from Key West, marveling at travelling through coral islands and across open ocean by rail. Its completion demonstrated that vision, grit and determination could overcome huge obstacles. The popularity and subsequent conversion to the still-vital Overseas Highway leave a lasting transportation legacy benefiting residents, visitors and the economy of the Florida Keys to this day. Generations have admired the ambition, tenacity and pioneering spirit that built the iconic railway down to Key West across areas many thought impassable at the turn of the century. Its story continues to inspire dreamers looking to achieve their own monumental projects.

Though short-lived, the Overseas Railway served as a lifeline integrating Key West with mainland Florida. It enabled the growth of the fishing, pineapple and salvaging trades as well as flourishing tourism and cultural attractions that characterize Key West still today. The route changed Key West from the quiet, isolated island it once was into the vibrant city it remains today. That transformation justifies the Overseas Railroad’s reputation as the “Eighth Wonder of the World” of its time and an incredible feat that advanced infrastructure in the state of Florida.

Share this article on social