It took me three attempts to spend Christmas in Florida. The first time there were no flights and I ended up in Jordan. The second time that Florida was full I stayed at home and bought myself a television.
Eventually, in 1999, I hired a car in Miami and drove down the Keys. The name “Key” derives from the Spanish “cayo”, meaning “small island”.
The road-journey on US Highway 1 down the Florida Keys is unique. In some places it’s a dreary highway bristling with motels, but for most of the time you drive between the sea and the mangrove swamps.
The highway is mostly built on the trackbed of the Florida Overseas Railroad, the inspiration of one man, Henry Morrison Flagler (1830-1913), one of the original partners, along with John D Rockefeller, in the great Standard Oil enterprise.
After Henry Flagler had taken his first wife to St Augustine, Florida, for her health in 1878 he pulled back from active involvement in the oil industry and started a second entrepreneurial career extending his Florida East Coast Railway southwards from St Augustine to develop what became Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Miami.
In the following years Henry Flagler took the decision to extend his Florida East Coast Railway 128 miles all the way across the archipelago south of Biscayne to Key West, then the largest town in Florida with a population of 20,000.
The string of islands that curves from south-west to west for over seventy miles presented huge engineering challenges.
The seaways between the islands were spanned mostly by closed-spandrel concrete viaducts like the 2.15-mile Long Key Viaduct which consists of 186 35-foot arches carrying the track 31 feet above the sea.
The longest of all these crossings was the Seven Mile Bridge, which curves across the small island of Pigeon Key and is in fact four successive viaducts. The northern three sections, Knights Key, Pigeon Key and Moser Channel bridges, consist of steel spans laid directly on concrete piers; the southernmost section, the Pacet Channel Viaduct, has 210 53-foot closed-spandrel concrete arches. The total length including approaches was actually nearer to nine miles.
Trains crawled along the single track, completely unfenced, at a limited speed of 15mph, for fear of a derailment.
The rationale behind building this prodigious railway, which some at the time dubbed “Flagler’s Folly”, was that Key West was a major coaling station for ships sailing between the New York City and South America, and would be the first and last port in USA territory for ships traversing the Panama Canal, then under construction. In fact, coaling declined in the twentieth century as vessels increased in range and changed to oil propulsion.
The railroad was literally blown away by a hurricane in 1935, but its spectacular viaducts survive: the road now traverses modem concrete viaducts alongside, and the disused railway bridges serve as fishing platforms.