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.


  1. Yes I think there is a sense of inevitability in Flagler’s story. There was the initial competition from Henry Plant that I’m sure kept Flagler going, but then Plant decided to not bring his west coast railroad to Miami. Considering the tiny out post of “Fort Dallas” drew Flagler’s attention it only made sense he would want to continue to Key West which was the largest city in the state at that time. I believe even if Flagler had been able to build up Miami as a deep water port he still would have been drawn to Key West, especially with its proximity to Cuba and especially, I think, with the desire to conquer that final frontier (yes the theme music from Star Trek is running through my head!)
    It is interesting the technological advances occurring around the same time as the Overseas Railway. It seems those advances were more physical whereas the advances today are digital. But I can see a similarity with hearing news on almost a weekly basis about the newest digital gadget and reading a newspaper 100 years ago and seeing the newest rail from Flagler plunging further south into the wilds of Florida. But I don’t necessarily think destruction of such advances is inevitable. While the discretion of the Titanic could have been avoided the destruction of the railroad by a hurricane was just an act of nature.
    I do love reading about “old Florida.” The swamps, insects, humidity, as William Krone called it “a most God-forsaken region,” I think more than the technological advances that made the Railway possible I am amazed at someone wanting to go further into such a region!

  2. "The work is done, let it speak for itself-forever." Forever didn't last very long. Ironically, it was only a few years before environmental forces-in this case a hurricane-intervened and destroyed Flagler's technological wonder. Similarly, the Titanic, another modern phenomenon, was destroyed by nature on its maiden sail. We ignore history at our own peril. Key West is embroiled in a debate about widening a channel that will make it possible for larger and larger cruise ships to stop in Key West. A short term benefit for a few business people but a potential disaster for our fragile environment?

  3. I'm a little late getting on board, so to speak, but just want to say what a thrill this ride has been for me, from the very beginning. I first thought about writing Last Train to Paradise back in 2000, and worried then if anyone was going to be interested. Given that about 100,000 books have gone out the doors over the past ten years, my fears on that score have vanished, but I still am a little surprised (and certainly gratified) that so many people both in Florida and elsewhere continue to be fascinated by the story. I'm looking forward to my visit to Key West later this month to talk more about such things, but meantime want to say how happy I am to have this forum up and going. The Key West Library, including Tom Hambright, was a great help to me in the early going and the fact that they have selected Last Train as this year's One Book pleases me no end.

  4. I, for one, have caught the railroad centennial fever. I went to the parade, loved reading the book and went over to the Customs House to see their exhibit. I’m haunted by the photographs of the workers who were almost-certainly among those that died.

    Another bit of interesting information: The individual who was responsible for getting Vaca Station was George Adderley, a black Bahamian who bought land at what is now Crane’s Point and established a small community there, fishing, sponging, and making charcoal and selling it in Key West. He wouldn’t sell the land for Flagler’s railroad, but insisted instead that there be a “flag station” where the train would stop when signaled. George and his wife, Olivia, are buried in the Key West cemetery.