Sunday, January 22, 2012
Last Train to Paradise Readalong: Week 1
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!