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.

In "Key West: The Old and the New," Browne incorporated Walter Maloney's Sketch of the History of Key West, from 1876, and updated it with all the events and facts in the island's history since. The penultimate chapter is called "Florida East Coast Railway." Browne refers to himself in the third person, as "Senator Browne, of Monroe county," who introduced a bill in 1893 granting the Jacksonville, St. Augustine & Indian River Railway Company (ie, Flagler) a charter to build a railroad down the Keys. He then refers to and quotes from the National Geographic article -- without mentioning that he wrote it -- and calls it "a fairly accurate forecast of this great work."
Then he really lets himself go in praise of Flagler: "The writer of that article in hazarding the opinion that the intervening channels would be crossed by bridges constructed of steel piling such as are used in the light-houses on the Florida Reef, underestimated the magnificent genius and Roman courage of Henry M. Flagler, who in building this road has made use of a construction rivalling that of the aqueducts of ancient Rome, which will last long after the accretions of centuries shall have filled the space between the islands, and in the aeons to come, the archeologist will marvel as he uncovers these remains of a vanished and forgotten civilization."
Browne seems to be obsessed with comparisons to Rome. "Where the Romans built one arch, he constructed a score; where they crossed streams, he bridged arms of the ocean; where they went over valleys, he covered surging waters; where they encountered hills, he found channels; where they met with barreirs, he came to quicksands; where the precipice halted them, the quagmire threatened him; they cut through rocks, he filled chasms; the obstacles that barred their way they gribbed with iron claws, and made them do the work of the master; his obstacles -- the bog, the quagmire, the quicksands -- evaded, eluded, shifted, swallowed up tons of concrete with their capacious maws and ravenous stomachs." ...
"Why attempt to give in detail the history of the building of this road?" Browne writes. "Only in an epic poem may it be adequately described. The Greeks before Troy suffered no greater hardships, exhibited no greater heroism, practiced no greater self-denial, endured no more discomforts, met no greater terrors, experienced no more annoyances, bore no greater burdens, showed no greater courage, than the men who build this road."
And while he praises those men, and notes that a good number were drowned or blown up during construction, he leaves no doubt about who is the real hero:
"Every pile that was driven, every foot of water covered, every concrete column that reared its head from its coral foundation forty feet below the sea, obeyed the will of one man, who was thinking only of how mankind was to be benefited, and his country saved in some great foreign war, through his achievement.
"He was humanity crystallized, patriotism embodied! As Henry M. Flagler was the brain, Joseph R. Parrott was the arm, Meredith the hand, and Krome, Wilson, Coe, Cotten, Smiley and Cook the fingers, that did the work the brain conceived.
"The work is done! Let it speak for itself, now and forever!"

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like an interesting guy. I love it when he describes his own work in the third person as being “fairly accurate.” I wonder if he was referencing the line about how easy the construction would be over the Keys with a surface “as level and smooth as a ballroom floor.”