Saturday, February 16, 2008

The Last Train To Paradise

When I hired into Social Security, new employees were sent to a 3-month training program immediately after a 1-week orientation in the Field Office. I met my friend Peachie there -- she and I became roommates during the training class, co-workers off and on during our careers, and fast friends from Day One (see this post and this post for blogs I wrote during my visit to see them last summer.)

Peachie and her husband, Jim, used to coordinate a yearly cross country skiing trek to Traverse City, Mi, and it was there that I mistakenly went down a black diamond run my first time skiing, and also met Peachie's friend from college, Chrissy. Chrissy and I both made the ski trip several years in a row, so I got to know her, and also learned how to go down a run in an upright position. But when the ski trips stopped, Chrissy and I lost contact with each other.

Fast forward to 2007 -- Peachie has kept in contact with both of us, and she finally realized that she held a very interesting piece of information -- we were both telling her that we went to the Keys each year, and were there at approximately the same time of year. So she passed along the information to us, we exchanged phone numbers and email addresses, and discovered that we had been staying just one Key apart during parts of the last 6 Februarys! So after a gap of around 30 years, I met Chrissy and her husband, Joe, for breakfast and a wonderful "catch up" talk. Here the three of us are in a photo taken by one of their neighbors:
Click for Larger Image of Joe, Me, and Chrissy
As we were chatting about the Keys, Chrissy recommended a book named "The Last Train to Paradise" by Les Standiford. It recounts the construction of the railroad through the Keys by Henry Flagler, co-founder of Standard Oil with John D. Rockefeller.

Flagler was already building railroads in Florida when he decided to extend the track to Key West. By 1904 he was as far as Homestead, and the entire railroad to Key West was finished in 1912 -- and then mostly destroyed by the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, to be replaced by the road we now know as Highway 1.

I just finished the book, and highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in Keys history, Flagler, or even tilting at windmills. Some of the things I learned:

  • Key Largo, where one can visit the riverboat "The African Queen," used to be called Rock Harbor. It was named Key Largo to capitalize on the Bogart/Bacall movie, not the other way around.
  • After the Civil War, Henry Flagler had offices in Saginaw, Michigan. I was born in Saginaw, so I understand how odd this really is.
  • In 1890, there was no Miami. It was Fort Dallas then, and had less than 500 residents.
  • At the same time, Key West, despite its only access being by water, had over 20,000 people and was the largest city in Florida.
  • During the construction, one worker was heard to say, "Building this railroad has become a regular marathon." That's how Marathon, on Key Vaca, got its name.
  • West Summerland Key, where the Winter Star Party is held, used to be three separate islands, but it was the habit of the railroad builders to fill in smaller inlets where feasible rather than building a bridge (a practice that later was criticized as potentially causing more damage in hurricanes because the water no longer has its natural channel to surge into and flow out of). You can make out the vague outline of the original Keys in the aerial view at Google Maps -- the inlet between the eastern-most key (on the right) and the middle key was just about at the artificial harbor, and the second inlet was to the east of the Girl Scout Camp, right where the words "Spanish Harbor Key" are placed on this map. Before the inlets were filled, the western-most key (with the camps) was, as it is now, West Summerland Key. The middle key, between the two inlets, was named Middle Summerland Key. Now don't get ahead of the story! As things go in the Keys, the final, eastern-most Key was never named. It would be way too strange, even for the Keys, to believe that no one could think of a name -- so I'm guessing "changes in latitude, changes in attitude" meant that they just never got around to officially naming it (FYI, this is not the same key as No Name Key -- that is the nearby key that is NOT the home of the No Name Pub -- the Pub is on Big Pine Key. Confused yet?). And if you think the naming of these keys is odd -- remember, there is also a Summerland Key -- and West Summerland Key is to its east. Go figure. Odd is normal for The Keys.

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