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.