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Great Railroad Stations - Pigeon Key, FL

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Great Railroad Stations 

by John C. Dahl


Pigeon Key, Florida

In 1904, Henry Flagler announced he would build a railroad from Miami to Key West. Critics scoffed. Engineers were aghast. His business partners wondered if the old gentleman was quite sane. A determined Flagler would be the driving force to accomplish the Key West extension, and Florida’s remote tropical island paradise would never be the same.

Henry Morrison Flagler was born in Hopewell, NY in 1830. His humble upbringing would be in stark contrast to his later life as one of the wealthiest men in turn of the century America. In 1867 Flagler had the good fortune to become a partner with John D. Rockefeller. Out of their business relationship grew the monopoly known as the Standard Oil Company. By the time he was 50 years old, Flagler had amassed a huge fortune.

 Florida had interested Flagler since the winter of 1876-77 when he and his sickly wife had traveled there for her health. Flagler was intrigued by the possibilities of real estate and tourism development for his fellow wealthy friends and business associates, trying to escape the harsh elements of the winter. Flagler remarried in 1883 after his first wife had died, and again, Florida was on his mind. The Flaglers honeymooned in St. Augustine. Flagler was impressed by the charm of the old city, but dismayed at the lack of amenities in first class hotels, and the rudimentary railroad facilities in the state. In 1888, Flagler opened the posh Ponce de Leon hotel. Needing a suitable railroad to get his guests there, he acquired the St. Augustine & Halifax Railroad. Soon the railroad was renamed the Florida East Coast, and Flagler’s grand development scheme for the Gold Coast of Florida was put into action. Each year the railroad was extended further south until in 1896, he had reached Miami. 

Still Flagler was not finished. Whatever the motivation for the Key West extension, commerce, (especially Cuba), tourism, real estate, or other, Flagler was determined that it would be built. For several years, surveys and planning had been in the works. Two years alone were spent trying to determine a feasible route through the Everglades south of Miami. In 1904 Flagler employed a young engineer named J. C. Meredith. This man was an expert in the relatively new construction methods and material of reinforced concrete. While consulting with his general manager, Joseph Parrott, Flagler asked if the railroad could be built. Assurred that it was possible, Flagler replied, “Very well then. Go to Key West”. From that point on, construction started in earnest. The race to build a railroad across the Keys was on, hopping from one island to the next. Devising ingenious methods of building across the Everglades, Flagler’s engineers were soon bridging the narrow gaps across the shallow waters of the upper and middle Keys, building causeways and viaducts of reinforced concrete.

The sun is setting in the west in this view of the Seven Mile Bridge from Knights Key, Fl.

April 3, 2001. John C. Dahl, photo.

Starting in 1908, work commenced on a major hurdle known as the Seven Mile Bridge. From Marathon to Little Duck Key, 546 concrete piers would be needed to bridge the gap, the longest stretch of open water on the route. Pigeon Key is located about midway across the Seven Mile Bridge, and this tiny coral island would serve as a base camp for the construction. As many as 400 workers would be housed on the island during the construction, which went on for almost four years. Working conditions were atrocious, and many men were lost during the 1906 hurricane which struck Long Key. Mosquitoes were a major problem in the mangrove swamps of the Keys. All fresh water had to be transported in from the mainland, even that to be used for mixing the concrete. Old photos show tank trains of large cypress wood casks loaded on flatcars being sent out as construction edged further west. Costs mounted, but Henry Flagler, now in his late 70’s did not waver. At last the magnificent engineering feat was completed. On January 22, 1912 Flagler’s private car, Rambler, left Miami with the old tycoon and other dignitaries in tow. The Overseas Railroad was a reality! Less than two years later, Henry Flagler died at his palatial home in Palm Beach, Florida.

The Section Gang quarters building. Pigeon Key, Fl.   

April 6, 2001 John C. Dahl, photo.

The railroad offered a magnificent way to arrive in Key West. The several miles of open water vistas were impressive. It was billed as the “Railroad that goes to Sea”. But the Key West extension never was a financial success, and in 1935 the railroad did battle one last time with Mother Nature. The September 2 hurricane sounded the death knell for the line. Damage was extensive in the Islamorada area. Wind speeds of 200 mph and a 17 foot tidal wave destroyed miles of track and washed out several of the long fills. Although it could have been repaired for relatively few dollars, 1935 was deep in the Depression, and the FEC’s managers decided to abandon the route. Flagler’s Folly as it was called during early years of construction, had seen its day.


Bridge Tender's home, Pigeon Key, Fl. Painted in authentic Florida East Coast "Flagler Yellow", this structure dates to 1912.

April 6, 2001 John C. Dahl, photo.

Today Pigeon Key and a few of the original structures used as the base camp and later for bridge maintenance survives as a museum, dedicated to the builders of the Key West Extension of the Florida East Coast. Maps, historic photos, models and a wonderful picture postcard collection of the Key West Extension can be found in the museum. It is reached by an intact section of the original bridge off of Knights Key, which now serves as a biking, / hiking, and fishing pier. Most of the original Seven Mile Bridge is still in existence. The abandoned railroad right of way was converted to form the base for the Overseas Highway to Key West. Later, a new highway bridge across the Seven Mile gap was built adjacent to the old railroad bridge. Late last winter, I had the opportunity to drive across the Keys, enjoying the Florida sunshine and scenic vistas from the new Seven Mile highway bridge. Just to the north is the old railroad bridge, it’s concrete viaducts and heavy girder decks still intact. I could only marvel at the feat of railroad engineering accomplished by Henry Flagler and his dedicated men and women of the Florida East Coast Railway.


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This page was last updated Thursday, December 06, 2001

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