Sunday, February 5, 2012

Last Train to Paradise Readalong: Week 3

A quarterboat, which housed railroad workers until the
disastrous 1907 hurricane. Photo from the Monroe County
Public Library collection.
"It is perfectly simple. All you have to do is build one concrete arch, and then another, and pretty soon you will find yourself in Key West." -- Henry Flagler

Perfectly simple? Not exactly.
In this week's section of the readalong, as construction begins on the Over-Sea Railroad, Flagler, his supervisors and his crews discover what they're really up against in the project.
Mosquitoes, for one. Anyone who's gotten out of a car in the Everglades or North Key Largo on a still July day can imagine how it felt to Flagler and an engineer researching a newspaper story, who accompanied him on an inspection tour to Key Largo in 1905: "The mosquitoes on this key are almost unbearable, and the problem is to persuade the laborers not to run away, for it means certain death as there is no possible outlet to the mainland," Russell Smith wrote.
The crews also encountered a whole body of water they didn't expect, just where the Everglades reach Key Largo. They named it Lake Surprise and they built an embankment across it (creating the divide that altered the ecology of Florida Bay and North Key Largo, and that was partially rectified in the recent 18 Mile Stretch project).
Another problem was labor. I can hardly imagine living in the Keys before air conditioning, mosquito control, even simple electricity to power a ceiling fan. But the crews were dealing with all of that, while doing backbreaking labor in our climate. No wonder many of them jumped off the trains from New York before they even reached the Keys -- and spread tales of harsh practices. The FEC and a New York labor recruiter were actually indicted in New York for violating an anti-slavery law -- though the witnesses proved unreliable and the charges didn't stick.
And there was the issue of freshwater, needed for thirsty men to drink, needed to mix concrete, none of it available in the Keys, where to this day we pipe all of our water in from the mainland. "By the time the line was nearing its latter stages, water was being hauled well over one hundred miles to men surrounded by a sparkling blue ocean that might as well have been an endless stretch of desert sand," Standiford writes.
But the biggest challenge of all was the most ominous to us, both because of the loss of life and because it is the same challenge that ultimately proved the railroad's doom: hurricanes. At the beginning of the project, many of the crews were housed on quarterboats, or floating dormitories. In October 1906, a strong hurricane struck the project (possibly a Category 3, according to this account on Wikipedia), destroying at least one quarterboat and killing at least 125 railroad workers.
One of my favorite details in the book so far is where some of the survivors wound up, after they were picked up by ships that continued on to their destinations. So a guy goes to sleep one night on a boat off Long Key and winds up in Savannah, Mobile, Galveston, New York -- even Liverpool, London and Buenos Aires. Goes to show that globalism has been going on for awhile, if at a slower pace.
This wouldn't be the last hurricane to strike the project during its construction, as I'm sure we'll see in future chapters. And that will lead to more changes -- like changes to the initial surveys that predicted the project would need only six miles of bridges and the rest could be covered by causeways. "In fact one of the preliminary studies suggested that the entire route could be constructed atop a solid rampart that could wind its way down the line of the Keys like a version of the Great Wall of China," Standiford writes.
Now there's an image for you.

Have you ever tried imagining what it was like to live here before all the modern conveniences we take for granted today -- the Overseas Highway, for one thing, along with electric power, sewers, water and mosquito control? Why do you think any one would have agreed to work on this project under these conditions? Do you think, after reading this section, that Flagler's company treated its workers fairly? Do you think surprises were inevitable or, given how long people had lived in the Keys (since at least the 1820s), they should have had a better idea what challenges they would be facing?

As always: These questions are just suggestions. Feel free to comment on whatever aspect you wish.

1 comment:

  1. When I read about the conditions the workers experienced I do wonder why they did it. Maybe some wanted an adventure?
    When reading books such as this I wonder about living down here before electricity or more important mosquito control. It sounds pretty horrendous. I’ve experienced a few days here and there with no power after hurricanes or tropical storms and was SSOOOO happy once the power was back on!
    I say Flagler was pretty fair in how he attempted to treat the workers. Although my impression of Flagler so far is that he was NOT a micromanager so who knows what his scouts were telling the men about the conditions they would be working in. Flagler could try to make the conditions as hospitable and comfortable as possible but I think someone getting on a train in New England or the Mid-West would still be surprised getting off the train in Miami. Sometimes words cannot paint a complete picture.
    I also wondered about Lake Surprise. Did Flagler not have any locals on the crew? I’m sure many a Conch knew about that body of water!
    One of the things that struck me about this section was the resolve and dedication of both Flagler and those who worked for him. They were going to get this bridge built come hurricanes, mosquitos, doubts from the press or government. They just kept on going.
    (Also I got a laugh out of Flagger’s comment about Theodore Roosevelt at the end of chapter 13.)