Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Next up ...

The Key West Library is thrilled to announce the choice for its next One Island One Book read: The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean.
Published in 1998, this work of nonfiction tells the story of plant dealer John Laroche, who was arrested in 1994 on charges of poaching the rare ghost orchid from the Fakahatchee Strand (part of the Everglades on mainland South Florida).
The book started as an article in The New Yorker magazine and eventually made it onto film through Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman's meta-adaptation titled, naturally, Adaptation. Starring Meryl Streep, Nicolas Cage and Chris Cooper, the movie takes serious departures from the book into the realm of fiction.
The Library will be hosting multiple events around The Orchid Thief in March 2013, including book club discussions, garden visits and a showing of the movie. Stay tuned here for more details!

Friday, March 9, 2012

That's all, folks!

Thanks for a terrific One Island One Book everyone -- the final event yesterday, a book discussion here at the Library, was emblematic of our success, pushing the Conference Room to its capacity. Over the monthlong program, hundreds of you attended lectures at the Library, tours at the Custom House, and read along here on the blog. Thanks to each and every one of you who participated -- and special thanks to author Les Standiford and to Headquarters Branch Administrator Christine Dunn. We certainly couldn't have done it without you.
We haven't selected next year's One Island One Book yet -- but stay tuned here and we'll post as soon as we do. Remember, you can also keep up on Library activities by checking the Key West page on the Monroe County Library website, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter. And you can keep on reading along, commenting on the posts below and reading more about the Over-Sea Railroad and Key West History. Happy reading!

Dec. 18, 2012 update: Because we're about to start updating the blog with information about The Orchid Thief I am copying here the suggested further reading for Last Train to Paradise. All the books here are in the Monroe County Public Library collection:

Key West: The Old and the New by Jefferson B. Browne -- written in 1912 to help welcome the railroad era to Key West, this is a comprehensive collection of information about the Keys from its initial development to the time of publication.

Florida's Great Ocean Railway by Dan Gallagher -- Detailed account of the construction of the project.

The Florida Keys: A History of the Pioneers by John Viele -- well-researched history of early settlers on the island, with an entire chapter called "Railroad Days."

Storm of the Century by Willie Drye -- An account of the 1935 Labor Day Hurricane, a Category 5 monster that killed more than 400 people and spelled the end of the Overseas Railway.

Category 5 by Thomas Knowles -- Another account of the Labor Day Hurricane, this one by a Key West native.

Hemingway's Hurricane by Phil Scott -- Another Labor Day Hurricane book, this one notable for the accounts from World War I veterans who were in Islamorada working on a WPA project at the time of the storm.

Speedway to Sunshine by Seth Bramson -- Authoritative history of the Florida East Coast Railway, Flagler's system that once stretched from St. Augustine to Key West and literally led to the development of South Florida

The Swamp by Michael Grunwald -- This book does not bear directly on the Overseas Railway but provides excellent background on the history and development of South Florida through the prism of the Everglades.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Now it's your turn

We read the book, we toured the exhibit at the Custom House, we've heard from the people doing the rail-to-trail conversion, our pre-eminent local historian -- and the author himself.
Now it's your turn. This week, the Library's Book Bites Book Club holds three meetings to discuss Last Train to Paradise by Les Standiford.
The first is at 10:30 a.m. Saturday at the Library Conference Room.
The second is at 2 p.m. Tuesday at the Florida Keys Community College Library. The Library is in Building A, 5901 College Road -- perfect for folks who don't want to make the drive into Old Town and search for parking.
The final event in this year's One Island One Book is Thursday, March 8, at 4:30 p.m., back at the Library.
All Book Bites meetings are open to everyone -- you don't need to be a Monroe County Library patron to attend. Thanks to everyone for participating this year and please don't hesitate to ask questions if you have any -- stop by the Library, give us a call at 305-292-3595 or email neihouse-kris@monroecounty-fl.gov.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

An illustrated presentation

Terrific turnout for Last Train to Paradise author Les Standiford, both on Sunday at Key West Island Books and on Monday at the Library. Thanks, folks! It's great to see so much interest in our community in books, in local history and in a Library program. And wait -- there's more!

On Thursday morning our Cafe Con Libros -- that's coffee with books -- series joins the One Island One Book train for a presentation from Tom Hambright, the Monroe County Library's historian. Tom, as many people know, is the pre-eminent local history expert on many topics, including the Over-Sea Railroad. He oversees the Library's collection of documents and artifacts and, in the last few years, has taken on the immense project of getting thousands of historic images online. That includes 700 just about the railroad, including all the images on this blog -- and many in the beautiful new illustrated edition of Last Train to Paradise.

The program starts when the library opens at 9:30 a.m. Thursday, with coffee and treats; the talk starts at 10 a.m. As always, all are welcome -- you don't need to be a Monroe County Library patron or even have read the book to attend.

Friday, February 24, 2012

And now ... the author

We've been reading the book, we've been talking to patrons about it and blogging for more than a month ... and in just a few days we'll get to hear from the author himself.
Les Standiford will be in Key West Sunday and Monday so you can hear from him directly and ask him questions about Flagler, the train, the hurricane, about the process of writing the book -- anything you like.
Here's where he'll be:
Sunday, Feb. 26, 3 p.m. Key West Island Books, 513 Fleming St.-- Book signing.

Monday, Feb. 27, 3 p.m. Key West Library, 700 Fleming St. -- Presentation and discussion of Last Train to Paradise.
 Monday, Feb. 27, 6 p.m. Friends of the Library Lecture Series at The Studios of Key West, 600 White St. --In this final appearance he'll talk about his most recent book, Bringing Adam Home, about the 1981 abduction and murder of Adam Walsh.
Questions? Stop by the Library or call us 305-292-3595. Hope to see you at these events soon.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Last Train to Paradise Readalong: Week 5

The Beginning
Wow what a finish this section (chapters 20-26) is -- from the triumph of Flagler's arrival in Key West on his private train car to the tragedy of the 1935 Labor Day Hurricane, with terrible loss of life and destruction of the Over-Sea Railroad after only 23 years of operation. I've indulged myself at the end of this post with images, all of which come from the Monroe County Public Library's fabulous online photo archive, showing both the joyous beginning and, later, the catastrophic end of the railroad.
The celebrations were obviously huge on Jan. 22, 1912 -- one hundred years ago last month. From photos and contemporary accounts, we know that tens of thousands of people showed up, including a good portion of the island's population, military bands and visiting dignitaries from around the country and even the world.
Reading this section, I was struck with sympathy for anyone who tries to write about Flagler, both when he was alive and even now, as an historian. The man was clearly a journalist's nightmare -- a fascinating subject who is a horrible interview. In Chapter 22, Standiford quotes a contemporary journalist describing Flagler as having "a personality so elusive as to be unseizable." You know when a journalist admits that in print that he's tried everything else he can think of to get his subject to open up.
The historian has it slightly easier because at least at that point, you aren't under pressure to make the subject open up. Standiford concludes that Flagler's legacy is, in the end, "not the doer, but the deed." Or as Flagler himself put it, "I prefer to let what I have done speak for me."
I was glad once more, reading this section, that Flagler lived to see the completion of his ambitious project -- and kind of glad, in a way, that he wasn't there to see its terrible end.
I was surprised and saddened, too, to read that John D. Rockefeller did not attend Flagler's funeral. Years ago, I read Ron Chernow's excellent Rockefeller biography, Titan -- I'm going to go look it up now and see if there's any mention of a falling out between the men at the end of their lives or other explanation. Perhaps traveling relatively great distances for funerals in that period wasn't common. But it does seem odd, for the two figures who forged such a gigantic enterprise together. I especially liked Standiford's comparison of their legacies, in which he points out that Flagler could have, like Rockefeller, simply benefited from the multiplying proceeds of the Standard Oil empire -- and be remembered now through universities, national parks and major real estate developments like the Rockefellers -- but chose not to. "Rockefeller did the safe and sane thing," Standiford writes, "and Flagler built his Speedway to Sunshine."

The end
It's always hard to read about hurricanes when you live in the Keys, especially about the 1935 Labor Day Hurricane, which killed so many. You inevitably start to question your decision in building your life here. I was fortunate enough to interview a number of survivors of that hurricane (yep, that's me name-checked on p. 232) -- and looking back now, it's remarkable how many people decided to stay even after going through that horrific storm. Even those who, like Bernard Russell, lost most of their extended family. I hope that, if the worst were to happen here, I would have the emotional wherewithal to do the same. And I pray that, with our advanced forecasting and analyzing technologies, we will prepare for such a storm to avoid that kind of loss of life (even though, like a lot of Key West residents, I am highly dubious about evacuating for all but the worst case scenario storm). I found I took no notes while reading the section about the hurricane -- it felt like I couldn't stop long enough even to put pen to paper.
It was a relief and, I think, highly appropriate that Standiford ends the book not with that terrible hurricane but with an assessment of Henry Flagler, the inscrutable, indomitable, unbelievably determined individual who made the improbably railroad happen -- and created not only a remarkable transportation link but a monuments that we can see and even walk on to this day.

The author
Don't forget the end of the readalong means the heart of the One Island One Book program begins. Les Standiford himself will be in Key West and will sign copies of his books at Key West Island Books, 513 Fleming St., at 3 p.m. on Sunday Feb. 26.
The next day, he'll be at the library, 700 Fleming St., at 3 p.m. Monday, Feb. 27, to talk about Last Train to Paradise. So save up your questions and come on down.
Later on Monday, at 6 p.m., he'll be speaking at the Friends of the Library Lecture Series at The Studios of Key West, 600 White St., about his latest book, Bringing Adam Home.

Henry and Mary Lily Flagler arrive in Key West
on the First Train, Jan. 22, 1912.
Huge crowds turned out to greet Flagler
when he rode his own iron to Key West.

The remains of Long Key station in February 1936.
The Federal Emergency Relief Administration sent a rescue train
-- but it was too late to save the people in Islamorada.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Last Train to Paradise Readalong: Week 4

Image from the Monroe County Public Library collection.
In chapters 15-19 we reached the Big Kahunas of the Over-Sea Railroad construction, its iconic bridges: the Long Key Viaduct, the Seven Mile and the Bahia Honda. I rarely drive up and down the Overseas Highway any more but in previous years I did so often for work and the sight of those three bridges never failed to affect me.
Long Key, with its graceful arches, is perhaps the prettiest bridge on the line from a purely aesthetic standpoint -- according to the book, it was Henry Flagler's favorite. The Seven Mile is impressive in its sheer scale (my favorite moment of the drive was usually when I was heading home and the car came over the top of the Moser Channel arch in the new bridge -- the whole seascape spreads out before you, including old and new bridges -- how incredible that we get to live here???). And Bahia Honda, with its superstructure unique in the Keys, is a beautiful sight, especially at sunrise. Though I am scared of heights so I am always thankful I never had to drive on top of it.
I was particularly struck in this week's reading by the numbers. When I was a newspaper reporter, editors adored details like these and you can see why. The Long Key Viaduct, for example, took 286,000 barrels of cement, 177,000 cubic yards of crushed rock, 106,000 cubic yards of sand, 612,000 feet of pilings, 5000 tons of steel -- and 2.5 million feet of timber for the forms.
Almost as much as the scale of the project, I was struck by the speed -- once the crews reached the Seven Mile, they clearly had it down so they could build four support piers in a single week. You have to wonder whether modern-day crews, even with all their technological advantages, could match that pace.
And I was struck by the persistence and determination of everyone involved in the project, from Flagler on down, as they contended with two more devastating hurricanes, in 1909 and 1910. I loved Flagler's quote: "My recommendation is to hoist Key West's flag high, keep it waving and let it bear the inscription 'Nil Desparandum.'" (I checked with our resident classicist, Library Assistant Marcos Gonzales, and that does indeed mean "never despair.")
Selfishly, I was also glad that Flagler pushed ahead and dredged Key West Harbor to create Trumbo Point, ensuring the rail would reach the island city. It did make me wonder, though, what our lives and history would be like if he had quit and set up his major port in Marathon.

What's your favorite bridge in the Keys and why? Do you ever wonder why these guys kept going, even after major destruction and loss of life from hurricanes? What do you think Key West would be like today if Flagler had failed to dredge a terminal in Key West and had stopped in the Middle Keys?

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Last Train to Paradise Readalong: Week 3

A quarterboat, which housed railroad workers until the
disastrous 1907 hurricane. Photo from the Monroe County
Public Library collection.
"It is perfectly simple. All you have to do is build one concrete arch, and then another, and pretty soon you will find yourself in Key West." -- Henry Flagler

Perfectly simple? Not exactly.
In this week's section of the readalong, as construction begins on the Over-Sea Railroad, Flagler, his supervisors and his crews discover what they're really up against in the project.
Mosquitoes, for one. Anyone who's gotten out of a car in the Everglades or North Key Largo on a still July day can imagine how it felt to Flagler and an engineer researching a newspaper story, who accompanied him on an inspection tour to Key Largo in 1905: "The mosquitoes on this key are almost unbearable, and the problem is to persuade the laborers not to run away, for it means certain death as there is no possible outlet to the mainland," Russell Smith wrote.
The crews also encountered a whole body of water they didn't expect, just where the Everglades reach Key Largo. They named it Lake Surprise and they built an embankment across it (creating the divide that altered the ecology of Florida Bay and North Key Largo, and that was partially rectified in the recent 18 Mile Stretch project).
Another problem was labor. I can hardly imagine living in the Keys before air conditioning, mosquito control, even simple electricity to power a ceiling fan. But the crews were dealing with all of that, while doing backbreaking labor in our climate. No wonder many of them jumped off the trains from New York before they even reached the Keys -- and spread tales of harsh practices. The FEC and a New York labor recruiter were actually indicted in New York for violating an anti-slavery law -- though the witnesses proved unreliable and the charges didn't stick.
And there was the issue of freshwater, needed for thirsty men to drink, needed to mix concrete, none of it available in the Keys, where to this day we pipe all of our water in from the mainland. "By the time the line was nearing its latter stages, water was being hauled well over one hundred miles to men surrounded by a sparkling blue ocean that might as well have been an endless stretch of desert sand," Standiford writes.
But the biggest challenge of all was the most ominous to us, both because of the loss of life and because it is the same challenge that ultimately proved the railroad's doom: hurricanes. At the beginning of the project, many of the crews were housed on quarterboats, or floating dormitories. In October 1906, a strong hurricane struck the project (possibly a Category 3, according to this account on Wikipedia), destroying at least one quarterboat and killing at least 125 railroad workers.
One of my favorite details in the book so far is where some of the survivors wound up, after they were picked up by ships that continued on to their destinations. So a guy goes to sleep one night on a boat off Long Key and winds up in Savannah, Mobile, Galveston, New York -- even Liverpool, London and Buenos Aires. Goes to show that globalism has been going on for awhile, if at a slower pace.
This wouldn't be the last hurricane to strike the project during its construction, as I'm sure we'll see in future chapters. And that will lead to more changes -- like changes to the initial surveys that predicted the project would need only six miles of bridges and the rest could be covered by causeways. "In fact one of the preliminary studies suggested that the entire route could be constructed atop a solid rampart that could wind its way down the line of the Keys like a version of the Great Wall of China," Standiford writes.
Now there's an image for you.

Have you ever tried imagining what it was like to live here before all the modern conveniences we take for granted today -- the Overseas Highway, for one thing, along with electric power, sewers, water and mosquito control? Why do you think any one would have agreed to work on this project under these conditions? Do you think, after reading this section, that Flagler's company treated its workers fairly? Do you think surprises were inevitable or, given how long people had lived in the Keys (since at least the 1820s), they should have had a better idea what challenges they would be facing?

As always: These questions are just suggestions. Feel free to comment on whatever aspect you wish.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Last Train to Paradise Readalong: Week 2

While reading chapters 5-9 of Last Train to Paradise, two concepts kept running through my head: momentum and context. This section of the book describes Flagler's progress down the Atlantic coast of Florida, building hotels and extending his railroad. Then it moves to his momentous decision: to extend the line all the way to the end.

When you look at a map of Florida, you can't help but feel like the state runs downhill, all the way to the end (that's not a moral judgment by the way). Reading about the march down the coast, from St. Augustine to Daytona, Palm Beach to Miami, I felt the force of inevitability. This comes, of course, with historical hindsight -- we know Flagler is going to push on all the way to Key West but did he?
According to Standiford, Flagler's primary interest, besides finding nice warm places to build hotels, was linking his railroad with a deepwater port and thus connecting to profitable shipping concerns throughout the Caribbean and Central America. So if he had successfully gained permission to dredge Biscayne Bay, he might have stopped at Miami.
Fortunately for early 20th century Key West, he didn't. As early as 1895 -- before the line even reached Miami -- he was making plans to continue to Key West.
Three years later, the Spanish-American War cemented U.S. influence in the Caribbean, expelling the Spanish from their last, lucrative colony in Cuba. While Flagler didn't officially announce to the public his plans for the Key West extension until 1905, "it seems clear that he had been destined to make the attempt from the midsummer of 1898, at the conclusion of the Spanish-American War," Standiford writes.
Meanwhile, the French had been working on a canal to connect the Pacific and Atlantic oceans at the Panamanian isthmus since 1880 -- not successfully, but the momentum was strong for a shipping route that would bypass the long and dangerous voyage around Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America. The U.S. bought the French canal concession and the rights to run the canal from the new country of Panama in 1904, a year before Flagler announced his plans for the Key West extension.
Even though the Key West Extension was the logical final step in a railroad connecting all of Florida's Atlantic coastline it also served a different purpose. On Flagler's previous stops, he had essentially created the communities with his hotels and railroad. Key West was already a prosperous, populated place with 20,000 residents and a thriving cigar industry. "His new rail project would serve not merely to connect one pleasure palace to the next, but to forge economic links between the United States and virtually all other nations," Standiford writes.

Do you feel the weight of inevitability when you read about Flagler's march down the Florida east coast -- and about the other events of the time, such as the Spanish-American War and the building of the Panama Canal? What do you think would have happened if Flagler had won permission to dredge Biscayne Bay, creating a deepwater port in Miami -- or if he had simply decided to stop there and enjoy retirement at Whitehall, his Palm Beach mansion, with his third wife, Mary Lily?

Besides the force of momentum pushing Flagler's railroad toward Key West, I also found myself thinking a lot about what other technological wonders were taking place at the same time. The Panama Canal is an obvious one; the U.S. succeeded where the French, builders of the Suez canal, had failed.
The best-known technological wonder that was completed in the same year as the railroad is the Titanic -- always associated in my mind not only through the accident of timing but also because when you read about its construction you have a similar sense of impending doom, although the mighty ship met its end much sooner, and with greater loss of life.
These projects were the culmination of the Industrial Revolution. Within a few decades, people were suddenly harnessing mechanical power to produce projects and travel distances at speeds unimaginable in all prior human history. "It was a time in history when men were tempted no longer to regard themselves as at the mercy of the fates, but as masters of their environment," Standiford writes.
I found myself looking up timelines of inventions from the period before and during the railroad construction, just to imagine how it would have felt to be living in a time of such technological change. (OK, we know what it's like to live in a time of sweeping technological change -- even if our own revolution is measured in bits, not tons and watts.)
Henry Flagler was born in 1830 -- and played a significant role in furthering the Industrial Revolution himself, by creating the empire known as Standard Oil. Here are a couple of notable inventions and achievements that came along during his adulthood: The internal combustion engine (1858), dynamite (1866), the transcontinental railroad (1869), the telephone (1876), the Brooklyn Bridge (1883), the Eiffel Tower (1889), the radio receiver (1901), the airplane (1903).
What do you think it was like to live in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, especially regarding technological changes and achievements? Do you see parallels to our own time and the digital revolution we're undergoing? Do you think hubris applies -- that despite humans thinking we are controlling the fates, disasters like the Titanic -- and eventually, the destruction of the railroad -- are inevitable?
Once again, these are only proposed questions to start the discussion -- feel free to comment on anything that strikes you.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Jefferson B. Browne: The work is done! Let it speak for itself, now and forever!

When we read or talk about the Over-Sea Railroad we are naturally interested in Henry Flagler -- a remarkable figure in the history of the country and especially of Florida.
But from a Key West perspective, another important figure keeps popping up: Jefferson Browne.
Browne was born in Key West in 1857, the son of a prosperous businessman and politician. After attending law school in Iowa, he returned home and quickly held a succession of public offices, including city and county attorney, postmaster, and collector of customs. He was elected to the state Senate in 1890 -- and became president of the Senate at its first session in April, 1891. He he was elected chairman of the Florida Railroad Commission in 1904 (a key year in Keys railroad history). In 1916, he was elected to the Florida Supreme Court -- and immediately chosen as Chief Justice. In 1925, at the age of 68, he returned home to Key West but he did not retire. He worked as a Circuit Judge until his death in 1937.
Despite all these titles and achievements, we know Browne best today for his writing -- he is the author of "Key West: The Old and the New," a book published in 1912 as Flagler's railroad was expected to launch the island into a new era of prominence and prosperity.
Browne had long been one of Key West's boosters who believed a railroad was necessary and inevitable -- and he did his part to promote it. As early as 1891, before Flagler had even reached Palm Beach in his march down the Atlantic coast, he and Browne were discussing the need to connect a Florida railroad to a deepwater port that could handle shipping from the Caribbean.
In 1896, when Browne was collector of customs, he wrote a piece for The National Geographic Magazine called "Across the Gulf by Rail to Key West." He unashamedly trumpets his hometown: "It is not too much to say that upon the completion of the Nicaragua canal, Key West will become the most important city in the South," Browne wrote.
And he makes the actual construction sound ... a little easier than it turned out to be. ""When cleared of a few inches of vegetable mold and loose stones, the surface of the islands is as level and smooth as a ballroom floor," Browne wrote. He also discounted the possibility of damage from hurricanes, pointing out that the lighthouses on the reefs had withstood decades of storms and said the reef itself formed "a continuous breakwater from Fowey Rocks to Key West, protecting the road from high seas even in the severest hurricane."
Key West, Browne proclaimed, "is destined to become the Newport of the South." And Henry Flagler, he said, was just the man to build the railroad that would allow Key West to fulfill her destiny.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Last Train to Paradise Readalong: Week 1

And we're off -- welcome to the first week of our first ever One Island One Book readalong!

This week, we're reading Chapters 1-4 of Last Train to Paradise, Les Standiford's account of the building and destruction of the Oversea Railroad. The railroad, you may have heard, was officially opened 100 years ago TODAY.

Re-reading the first four chapters of Last Train to Paradise, especially in light of the Centennial of the opening of the Over-Sea Railroad, I was struck by three things:

Beginning at the end

Author Les Standiford starts the book in 1935, with the approach of the Labor Day Hurricane that would kill more than 400 people and destroy the Over-Sea Railroad, washing out enough of the tracks that it wasn’t worth rebuilding for the bankrupt Florida East Coast Railroad.

It made sense to me, because you can’t really consider that railroad without thinking about its tragically brief history and catastrophic end. In Chapter 2, Standiford calls the story of the railroad’s building and its destruction “tragedy incarnate.” He also calls its construction “an undertaking that marked the closing of the American frontier” (an idea most of us associate more with building railroads to the West and the homesteading that accompanied the lines).

Do you think of the story of the Over-Sea Railroad as a tragedy or a triumph – or both? Do you find yourself thinking about the Labor Day Hurricane even as we celebrate the Centennial of the completion of the line?

Our lifeline -- and the bane of our existence

In Chapter 2, The Road to Paradise, Standiford takes the readers on a drive down the Overseas Highway in the present day (the book was first published 10 years ago). I tried, but it’s impossible for me at this point to imagine reading this as someone who has never driven U.S. 1 to Key West. It did, however, make me think about how being so accustomed to that road – and viewing it as a necessary and inescapable endurance event anytime you want to leave or return to the Keys by car – inures you to its splendors. It is a remarkable thing, a highway that crosses tiny islands and long stretches of water. Even more remarkable are the original Over-Sea Railroad Bridges, still standing alongside their 1980s-era replacements. Looking at the old Seven Mile Bridge or the old Bahia Honda bridge is like walking over the Brooklyn Bridge or another major monument to American ambition.

If you live in the Keys, do you find yourself thinking about the railroad when you drive the Overseas Highway – or do you just count down the mile markers till you get home? If you don’t live here, did this chapter make you imagine driving down an island chain, alongside the remains of the railroad?

Why on earth would Henry Flagler (or anyone) do this?

Key West was one of Florida’s wealthiest and most populous cities in the 19th century, with a natural deepwater harbor and a location strategic to the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean and the Straits of Florida. People had been talking about running a rail line there as early as the 1830s and a route was first surveyed in 1866. But it took the building of the Panama Canal – completed in 1914, two years after the railroad – and the money and determination of Henry Flagler, who made his fortune as one of the founding partners of Standard Oil, to make the project a reality. Flagler began building hotels in Florida in 1883, with the Ponce de Leon in St. Augustine, and entered the railroad business as a way to move people, and freight, south to warmer settlements where he built more hotels – Daytona Beach, Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale, Miami. When Flagler built the Ponce de Leon, Standiford writes, “In a small way, he had become a creator instead of an accumulator, and had found a more substantive sort of satisfaction in such accomplishments.”

Still, I always find myself wondering why anyone would take on such a project – especially someone who was 74 years old in 1904, when he decided to build the Key West Extension. “Flagler’s railroad across the ocean never earned a dime of profit and it is difficult to imagine how a businessman as bright as he was ever thought it would,” Standiford writes. Perhaps he saw it as his ultimate legacy. “Certainly the drive to make money had little to do with his decisions in those days, even if money, or the lack of it, had been the central force in the first part of his life,” Standiford writes.

Why do you think Flagler took on this project? Was it totally crazy of him to do so or did it make sense in that time and place, both in the nation’s history and his life?

These questions are meant simply as starting points – if you had other thoughts, questions or comments about the first four chapters of Last Train to Paradise, please feel free to share them – and don’t forget to tell your friends!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

What the heck is an online readalong anyway?

We hope by now you've heard that this year will feature One Island One Book's first online readalong.
Perhaps you are wondering what, exactly, that means.
It does NOT mean you must read the book online, although you are welcome to do so -- we even have a copy in our digital collection, accessible via Overdrive.
But what it means is that we have created a schedule for reading the book, at about 50 pages a week, and that we hope to host an online conversation. That means you can chime in from wherever you are, whenever you like.
If you want to see a couple examples of how this works, check out the online readalong for Their Eyes Were Watching God, hosted by The Heroine's Bookshelf website, or the online readalong for Gone With the Wind, hosted by the same website.
No promises that we'll reach the same level of technical and web design expertise as Erin has -- this is our first try at this! -- but we'll do our best and hope that you, the readers, will take part and let us know what you'd like to see in future years.
Remember, the readalong schedule is posted at the upper righthand corner of this blog. We start the week of the Centennial itself and finish right before Les Standiford joins us for book signings and a discussion. Thanks for checking it out and hope to see you back here for the readalong!

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Interview with the Author

As we get closer to One Island One Book, we had some questions for the author of Last Train to Paradise, this year's selection. And Les Standiford graciously agreed to answer them. We hope this interview whets your appetite for this year's One Island One Book. Remember, the Readalong begins the week of Jan. 22 -- we'll be posting about Chapters 1-4 here at the blog, and hope you'll chime in with comments and questions -- and Les will be in Key West Feb. 26 and 27.

Why and how did you choose to write this book?

Actually, I wrote the book after a talk with my agent from New York who drove the Overseas Highway at my suggestion and found the story of the railroad and the hurricane that destroyed it fascinating. I had written 9 novels by then, but LTTP was my first stab at book length non-fiction. I was stymied for a while after doing all the research, wondering what I was going to do with all those factoids. Finally, I decided to do what I had been trained to do: tell a story. The only difference was that this one is true.

How did writing a work of nonfiction differ from your earlier writing experience?

When you get to a point in your novel where you need a fact, as I am fond of telling my students, you can just make it up. However, if you get to a point where you don't have a fact to support the non-fiction story narrative you are trying to construct, you have to go back to your sources and find it, or you have to change your story to fit the facts you have. Of course, if one were just listing facts about a subject instead of trying to tell a story about a subject, it would be a lot easier, but that is encyclopedia writing, not narrative non-fiction.

What kind of research did you undertake for the book? How long did it take you?

I read the few pamphlet-styled books about the building of the railroad and the three biographies of any consequence about Flagler. The rest came from contemporary newspaper and journal accounts of the building and destruction of the Oversea Railroad as well as interviews with local historians and a very few people who had endured the hurricane. And of course I drove the highway many times and simply poked around. This all went on for about a year before I began the writing itself, which took about another year.

Why would Henry Flagler, who must have realized he was an old man, take on this project?

His purported justification was the approval of the Panama Canal by Congress. The Oversea RR was to connect with a deep water port in Key West also proposed by Flagler which would be by far the closest to the eastern terminus of the Canal. However, I think that was just an excuse for his deciding to do something that everyone else thought was impossible. He'd been in railroading in Florida for almost 25 years when he announced he was extending his line to Key West, and he well knew how difficult it was to make any money at the endeavor. But he was forging the trail through the last American frontier, and I believe he simply found such a project interesting. The port was never built, incidentally, due to the US Navy's objection.

Is this a story of triumph (finishing this project against the odds) or of tragedy (because of the destruction by the hurricane – or because it took away the Keys’ identity as true islands)?

I think that someone would have built a road--if not a railroad--down the Keys to "The Rock" sooner or later. Key West was after all the largest and most important city in Florida at the time Flagler began his project. So I don't see this undertaking as any more tragic than the building of the Interstate Highway system, which essentially erased the character of small town America, for instance. Whatever one thinks about change, it seems to be inevitable. Given the geography, the limitations of existing infrastructure and the lack of any previous model for such an undertaking, however, Flagler's accomplishment in building the railroad at the time that he did is truly remarkable.

Where do you think the railroad is most visible in the Keys today?

In the vestiges of the original broad channel bridges: Long Key, Seven Mile (never referred to as such by the railroad builders), and especially at Bahia Honda. They appear to me like bits of some modern day Stonehenge jutting up out of the sea.

How did the Over-Sea Railroad change the Florida Keys and South Florida in general?

Well, the railway that was touted as a boon to Key West--supposed to bring even more development to an already burgeoning economy--turned out in the end to provide an escape route for thousands eager to leave the island and travel to a part of the state where lands were available for expansion of business, for homesteading, etc. By the time the hurricane blew the railroad away in 1935, the population of Key West was about half what it was when the project was announced. A number of factors had to do with Key West's economic decline, of course, but the Oversea RR never turned a dime's profit. Passenger traffic (never profitable outside the urban corridors) was brisk and helped popularize Key West as a tourist destination, however.

Do you have any other recommended reading for people who are interested in Henry Flagler, South Florida or Keys history or the Over-Sea Railroad?

I'd recommend Seth Bramson's Speedway to Sunshine as a compendium for those interested in the development of the entire Florida East Coast rail system and Michael Grunwald's The Swamp for an excellent and exhaustive treatment of the Everglades and their historical and ecological importance to this region. There are many wonderful books about the Keys, far more than I can name, including Willie Drye's Storm of the Century, Joy William's lovely guidebook, and all the delightful mysteries that so adroitly mine Keys geography and culture, including those by James W. Hall, Lawrence Shames, John Leslie, and Tom Corcoran.