Monday, January 30, 2012
Last Train to Paradise Readalong: Week 2
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.