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!


  1. I was also struck by this book beginning at the end of the railroad, literally and historically, so to speak. But then the story took off so quickly with Hemingway preparing for the storm that I was sucked in (no hurricane pun intended.) When I finished the first chapter I had the feeling the story itself was going to be like a hurricane and now we were in the eye of the storm, it’s sort of calm but you know more badness is coming! Most readers I assume already know the eventual ending of the railroad so it lends an ominous feeling to the reading of the tale as we read the story of Flagler’s life and what lead him to build this “eighth wonder of the world.”
    I would call the Overseas Railroad a triumph that ends in tragedy.
    Yes, reading Les’ description of driving down Route One was much easier to imagine having ridden the road many times. His descriptions are so powerful and almost other worldly I had to remind myself often that I had indeed ridden this exact road. I almost felt nostalgic reading about the 18 mile stretch and the drawbridge. I wonder what Les’ take is on the new wider stretch?
    I’ve lived here for over 17 years at this point and while I do not drive and do not make the trip out of the Keys by road that often I still consider it a treat to ride U.S. 1 out of the Keys. I especially like the stretches when the old bridges are visible. I cannot help but wonder at the construction that allows some of them to still be standing.
    I was struck by Les’ comment in the Author’s Note: “No one today would undertake what Flagler did.” From what I have read of Flagler so far I am not surprised Flagler took on the Key West Extension. Not to sound negative but it seems it was also a triumph against nature—building a railroad across the ocean, conquering a new frontier, that’s what men did back then.
    As I finished the reading for the week I was struck by the descriptions of the decadence and grandeur of Flagler’s hotels on the mainland I did wonder about our view of such wealth today as compared to 100 years ago. One hundred years later we view Flagler as a great historical figure. How will Bill Gates or Donald Trump be viewed in one hundred years?

  2. Reread the first four chapters a few days after I travelled up and down the Keys. While driving, I was paying attention to the landscape...and seascape...imagining how daunting it must have been to build this railroad and then get caught in a Cat 5 hurricane which destryed it. But also I noted how 100 years after Flagler's Railroad came to Key West, I was reading his story not in a traditional book but as an E-book downloaded to my I-pad. Later, I travelled to Big Pine to the dentist and regretted not bringing my I-Pad to read while I was waiting, and remembered, I could continue reading the story on my I-phone! Many changes since 1912 when the railroad came to Key West, but still one road, one long journey, and now a celebration of what is still considered to be one really remarkable feat!

  3. I’m really enjoying Standiford’s book. The parade last weekend really got me in the mood! Standing there at the Customs House and watching the re-enactment of the railroad’s arrival, I appreciated what a difference the railroad made to Key West at the time. I wondered what it would be like today if the hurricane hadn’t wiped it out. Most likely it wouldn’t have survived financially, but what a contrast it would be to have the train pulling up beside a cruise ship!

    I thought Standiford’s description of the workmen and their ultimate plight was very compelling. Today when I visited the Custom House exhibit, I was touched by their photographs in the video narrated by Dan Gallagher. Seeing the faces of the men who worked under such dreadful conditions and many of whom lost their lives in the storm is like reaching back into history.

    BTW, I’m tickled that I could borrow the book for my Kindle! Jane

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