Monday, February 13, 2012

Last Train to Paradise Readalong: Week 4

Image from the Monroe County Public Library collection.
In chapters 15-19 we reached the Big Kahunas of the Over-Sea Railroad construction, its iconic bridges: the Long Key Viaduct, the Seven Mile and the Bahia Honda. I rarely drive up and down the Overseas Highway any more but in previous years I did so often for work and the sight of those three bridges never failed to affect me.
Long Key, with its graceful arches, is perhaps the prettiest bridge on the line from a purely aesthetic standpoint -- according to the book, it was Henry Flagler's favorite. The Seven Mile is impressive in its sheer scale (my favorite moment of the drive was usually when I was heading home and the car came over the top of the Moser Channel arch in the new bridge -- the whole seascape spreads out before you, including old and new bridges -- how incredible that we get to live here???). And Bahia Honda, with its superstructure unique in the Keys, is a beautiful sight, especially at sunrise. Though I am scared of heights so I am always thankful I never had to drive on top of it.
I was particularly struck in this week's reading by the numbers. When I was a newspaper reporter, editors adored details like these and you can see why. The Long Key Viaduct, for example, took 286,000 barrels of cement, 177,000 cubic yards of crushed rock, 106,000 cubic yards of sand, 612,000 feet of pilings, 5000 tons of steel -- and 2.5 million feet of timber for the forms.
Almost as much as the scale of the project, I was struck by the speed -- once the crews reached the Seven Mile, they clearly had it down so they could build four support piers in a single week. You have to wonder whether modern-day crews, even with all their technological advantages, could match that pace.
And I was struck by the persistence and determination of everyone involved in the project, from Flagler on down, as they contended with two more devastating hurricanes, in 1909 and 1910. I loved Flagler's quote: "My recommendation is to hoist Key West's flag high, keep it waving and let it bear the inscription 'Nil Desparandum.'" (I checked with our resident classicist, Library Assistant Marcos Gonzales, and that does indeed mean "never despair.")
Selfishly, I was also glad that Flagler pushed ahead and dredged Key West Harbor to create Trumbo Point, ensuring the rail would reach the island city. It did make me wonder, though, what our lives and history would be like if he had quit and set up his major port in Marathon.

What's your favorite bridge in the Keys and why? Do you ever wonder why these guys kept going, even after major destruction and loss of life from hurricanes? What do you think Key West would be like today if Flagler had failed to dredge a terminal in Key West and had stopped in the Middle Keys?


  1. It’s hard to say which bridge is my favorite. I love the arches of the old 7 mile bridge; I like to watch the old bridge as I am riding by on the newer one—see trees and scrub growing out of the old concrete. I also love the old Bahia Honda Bridge. I like the stories about drivers of the 70’s losing their rear view mirrors because of the narrowness of the bridge. I cannot picture the Long Key viaduct—it’s been a while since I’ve been that far “North” on route 1.
    I first listened to this as an audio book two years ago. I am rereading it now. Both times I had the distinct impression that much of the work was completed out of devotion and respect for Flagler. Had he died after the railway reached Marathon I feel strongly no one would have had the same drive to keep heading to Key West. Just my opinion.
    Without the bridge, maybe Key West would be like No Name Key, with residents living “off the grid.” Or it’s fun to think it might still have been taken over by artists and “hippies.” Of course it probably would have just turned out like Nantucket or Martha’s Vineyard…

  2. What a learning experience this is. After reading these chapters, I took a drive up the Keys to view the bridges. They just didn't look the same to me. I particularly enjoyed the bridge at Bahia Honda. The construction is amazing.
    For me, this book is about tenacity and determination. Everything about the project was daunting-the hurricanes, the heat, the working conditions, the construction challenges, and the various setbacks. And yet the bridge was completed before Flagler's death. Great reading.