A pestering, repetitive thought wanders across my consciousness from time to time: was I born too late? Golden ages apparently abound in the past and I seemed to have missed all the good ones. (Bad ones too: how fortunate not to have been caught up in/called up for war for starters.)
It was deja vu all over again when I headed out for an early morning run in the most honeyed of tourist pots: Key West. The strip-mall nature of the Highway 1 roadside as it joins the dots of the Florida Keys is a visual appetiser for how the terminus at Key West will tap into your wallet (if you are minded to let it. This road-trip is with a mid-teenage son who is immune to the draw of expensive restaurants and – thankfully – barred from the bars).
On my run I paused to stretch out in the dawn and spotted a cast-metal sign that the Americans utilise to commemorate their “history”. To my surprise and chagrin I learned that until 1925 there was a daily rail service from this very spot to New York! And that the trains connected to daily ferries to Cuba. I spin around, a few homeless folk, early morning traffic but no sign of trains.
The jolt of recognition was not for the tourism but for the pre-cursor to Highway 1. I write with further reading to be done, but have subsequently used our trip north retracing our route to pick out the clues to the original road: the Overseas Railroad. We know the west was won by the iron horse, but I confess to a gap in my knowledge that between 1912 and 1935 the railway was the golden thread connecting the islands known as the Florida Keys
If you look around the Key there are name-checks for the famous and one for Flagler is present. As in Henry. As in Standard Oil. The Elon Musk/Jeff Bezos of his day? He spotted that a newly dug Panama Canal would need coal to fuel it’s ships who dock at Key West. What vision! What ambition! What wealth! Of course, by the time the rail-head was built, ship efficiency had moved on annnd stopping at Key West was no longer mandatory.
Ah well. Not to worry.
These days, railhead has been left behind and there are precious few clues to it’s ever having been there. (Seven Mile (road) Bridge runs parallel to a dilapidated rail crossing. While at Bahia Honda Key there’s a 5,000′ rusty meccano bridge that is largely ignored by the tourists frolicking on the beach of the state park. (Although to be fair there are manatees in the warm shallow waters, which are totally adorable.)
If you peer beyond the tacky stuff there are a few faded reminders of the trains. But time has not been kind. In 1935 a cat’ 5 hurricane devastated the Keys and with it the (already bankrupt) railway. With no money to rebuild the broken bridges the state stepped in and converted the tracks to road and the relentless march of the automobile. Bringing the tourist dollar by the carload.
A century or so later and nobody give a monkeys about Flaglers trains.
Like I say, I was born in the wrong era.
Florida East Coast Railway: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Florida_East_Coast_Railway
Henry Flagler https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Flagler