Tuesday, February 28, 2012

An illustrated presentation

Terrific turnout for Last Train to Paradise author Les Standiford, both on Sunday at Key West Island Books and on Monday at the Library. Thanks, folks! It's great to see so much interest in our community in books, in local history and in a Library program. And wait -- there's more!

On Thursday morning our Cafe Con Libros -- that's coffee with books -- series joins the One Island One Book train for a presentation from Tom Hambright, the Monroe County Library's historian. Tom, as many people know, is the pre-eminent local history expert on many topics, including the Over-Sea Railroad. He oversees the Library's collection of documents and artifacts and, in the last few years, has taken on the immense project of getting thousands of historic images online. That includes 700 just about the railroad, including all the images on this blog -- and many in the beautiful new illustrated edition of Last Train to Paradise.

The program starts when the library opens at 9:30 a.m. Thursday, with coffee and treats; the talk starts at 10 a.m. As always, all are welcome -- you don't need to be a Monroe County Library patron or even have read the book to attend.

Friday, February 24, 2012

And now ... the author

We've been reading the book, we've been talking to patrons about it and blogging for more than a month ... and in just a few days we'll get to hear from the author himself.
Les Standiford will be in Key West Sunday and Monday so you can hear from him directly and ask him questions about Flagler, the train, the hurricane, about the process of writing the book -- anything you like.
Here's where he'll be:
Sunday, Feb. 26, 3 p.m. Key West Island Books, 513 Fleming St.-- Book signing.

Monday, Feb. 27, 3 p.m. Key West Library, 700 Fleming St. -- Presentation and discussion of Last Train to Paradise.
 Monday, Feb. 27, 6 p.m. Friends of the Library Lecture Series at The Studios of Key West, 600 White St. --In this final appearance he'll talk about his most recent book, Bringing Adam Home, about the 1981 abduction and murder of Adam Walsh.
Questions? Stop by the Library or call us 305-292-3595. Hope to see you at these events soon.

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.

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?

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.