Sunday, February 19, 2012

Last Train to Paradise Readalong: Week 5

The Beginning
Wow what a finish this section (chapters 20-26) is -- from the triumph of Flagler's arrival in Key West on his private train car to the tragedy of the 1935 Labor Day Hurricane, with terrible loss of life and destruction of the Over-Sea Railroad after only 23 years of operation. I've indulged myself at the end of this post with images, all of which come from the Monroe County Public Library's fabulous online photo archive, showing both the joyous beginning and, later, the catastrophic end of the railroad.
The celebrations were obviously huge on Jan. 22, 1912 -- one hundred years ago last month. From photos and contemporary accounts, we know that tens of thousands of people showed up, including a good portion of the island's population, military bands and visiting dignitaries from around the country and even the world.
Reading this section, I was struck with sympathy for anyone who tries to write about Flagler, both when he was alive and even now, as an historian. The man was clearly a journalist's nightmare -- a fascinating subject who is a horrible interview. In Chapter 22, Standiford quotes a contemporary journalist describing Flagler as having "a personality so elusive as to be unseizable." You know when a journalist admits that in print that he's tried everything else he can think of to get his subject to open up.
The historian has it slightly easier because at least at that point, you aren't under pressure to make the subject open up. Standiford concludes that Flagler's legacy is, in the end, "not the doer, but the deed." Or as Flagler himself put it, "I prefer to let what I have done speak for me."
I was glad once more, reading this section, that Flagler lived to see the completion of his ambitious project -- and kind of glad, in a way, that he wasn't there to see its terrible end.
I was surprised and saddened, too, to read that John D. Rockefeller did not attend Flagler's funeral. Years ago, I read Ron Chernow's excellent Rockefeller biography, Titan -- I'm going to go look it up now and see if there's any mention of a falling out between the men at the end of their lives or other explanation. Perhaps traveling relatively great distances for funerals in that period wasn't common. But it does seem odd, for the two figures who forged such a gigantic enterprise together. I especially liked Standiford's comparison of their legacies, in which he points out that Flagler could have, like Rockefeller, simply benefited from the multiplying proceeds of the Standard Oil empire -- and be remembered now through universities, national parks and major real estate developments like the Rockefellers -- but chose not to. "Rockefeller did the safe and sane thing," Standiford writes, "and Flagler built his Speedway to Sunshine."

The end
It's always hard to read about hurricanes when you live in the Keys, especially about the 1935 Labor Day Hurricane, which killed so many. You inevitably start to question your decision in building your life here. I was fortunate enough to interview a number of survivors of that hurricane (yep, that's me name-checked on p. 232) -- and looking back now, it's remarkable how many people decided to stay even after going through that horrific storm. Even those who, like Bernard Russell, lost most of their extended family. I hope that, if the worst were to happen here, I would have the emotional wherewithal to do the same. And I pray that, with our advanced forecasting and analyzing technologies, we will prepare for such a storm to avoid that kind of loss of life (even though, like a lot of Key West residents, I am highly dubious about evacuating for all but the worst case scenario storm). I found I took no notes while reading the section about the hurricane -- it felt like I couldn't stop long enough even to put pen to paper.
It was a relief and, I think, highly appropriate that Standiford ends the book not with that terrible hurricane but with an assessment of Henry Flagler, the inscrutable, indomitable, unbelievably determined individual who made the improbably railroad happen -- and created not only a remarkable transportation link but a monuments that we can see and even walk on to this day.

The author
Don't forget the end of the readalong means the heart of the One Island One Book program begins. Les Standiford himself will be in Key West and will sign copies of his books at Key West Island Books, 513 Fleming St., at 3 p.m. on Sunday Feb. 26.
The next day, he'll be at the library, 700 Fleming St., at 3 p.m. Monday, Feb. 27, to talk about Last Train to Paradise. So save up your questions and come on down.
Later on Monday, at 6 p.m., he'll be speaking at the Friends of the Library Lecture Series at The Studios of Key West, 600 White St., about his latest book, Bringing Adam Home.

Henry and Mary Lily Flagler arrive in Key West
on the First Train, Jan. 22, 1912.
Huge crowds turned out to greet Flagler
when he rode his own iron to Key West.

The remains of Long Key station in February 1936.
The Federal Emergency Relief Administration sent a rescue train
-- but it was too late to save the people in Islamorada.


  1. Last week I talked about my doubts that Flagler ever did such a cowardly thing as to give carnival tickets away to a group of shantytown squatters so he could burn them out while they were away having fun...but here is an example of Flagler's storied negotiating style that can be documented. Early on, Flagler built a spur from the FEC's main line to the then-burgeoning town of Rockledge near the north central Florida coast. The spur was a great boost to the developing town and things looked bright for a while. But then, city fathers and businessmen decided that Flagler was charging too much for freight traveling back and forth on the spur. They petitioned Flagler for a reduction, but he declined. Finally, the burghers of Rockledge decided to withhold payment of monies due to Flagler until he relented. Flagler issued overdue notices, which were ignored. Then, early one Saturday morning, citizens heard a commotion down by the rail station. A closer look revealed that a service train had come down the spur from the main line and a work crew was busy at work, pulling up track to load on flat cars and backing their way toward the main line. It being a Saturday, no judge could be found to issue an injunction stopping the work. By nightfall, the Rockledge spur was no more, and the once-promising town would eventually wither to near-nothingness. Moral of the story? I will let YOU decide, dear readers.

    See some of you on Sunday and Monday, I hope. I will bring along a few copies of the new clothbound, centennial illustrated edition of LAST TRAIN TO PARADISE for your inspection. A fabulous artifact it is!

    --Les Standiford

  2. What an ending. I agree it was nice to have this amazing story end with a recap on Flagler as opposed to the devastating storm that essentially brought his empire to an end. I was also so into the reading that I forgot to take copious notes other than to think “wow,” and “oh my god” often. With such vivid descriptions of the storm and its aftermath I was glad to be reading this book well before hurricane season begins again.
    I was also surprised that Rockefeller did not attend Flagler’s funeral. But I think by that time Flagler had far surpassed his Standard Oil days. When I hear the name Rockefeller I think of only a rich business man, but when I hear the name Flagler I think of a “railroad” man. I think the description near the end of the book (p. 393 in the large print edition) says it all –Flagler was a “visionary in businessman’s clothing.” And he is more than just the man who built the extension to Key West—he built Florida. Maybe the FLA abbreviation did stand for FLAgler.
    This is a great book, in my opinion to instill pride in this state. When I first moved here I felt like I lived in Key West but that it was not really a part of Florida. But the rich history in this book makes me want to explore the rest of the state (someday…) and I am slowly accepting that, yes, I do live in Florida.