Miami - Key West
Florida East Coast’s ‘railway that went to sea’, 1908-1935

by Geoffrey Blyth

This page was updated on 18 January 2004.

Miami, FL - Homestead - Key Largo - Islamorada - Marathon - Knights Key - Key West, FL

Most of the information here is summarised from The Railroad That Died At Sea, published by Langley Press (ISBN 0-911607-05-6). Another relevant book, telling the story of the Florida East Coast Railway, is Speedway to Sunshine, recently republished in Canada by Boston Mills Press (ISBN 1-55046-358-6).

1] Introduction: A map of Florida reveals the unique nature of the 251km (156mi) Key West Extension, marketed by its owners Florida East Coast Railway as ‘the railroad that goes to sea’, but more popularly dubbed ‘the overseas railroad’. It was perhaps the railway with the highest proportion of bridges and viaducts per km ever built, and owed its existence entirely to the determination of the wealthy oil and railway pioneer Henry Flagler. Nobody is quite sure of his motives for making this huge and ultimately ill-starred investment, but Key West is only 145km (90mi) from Havana, Cuba, and is nearly 500km closer to the Panama Canal than any other US port.

2] Choice of route: Flagler seems to have decided to attempt the line in about 1901. He spent two years trying to find a route south through the swamps of the Everglades to Cape Sable at the south-western tip of Florida, from which a lengthy line over open sea would have been required, but eventually gave this up as impossible and adopted a route from south of Miami at Homestead, the FEC’s then railhead, hopping from island to island south-west down the Florida Keys to Key West.

3] Construction: the first phase: In 1904 construction began on the Homestead - Key Largo section, using excavators on shallow-draught barges to cut canals on each side of the line and pile up the spoil to form the roadbed. Squads of black labourers were brought in to hack through the jungle on the 48km-long island of Key Largo, where a lake 1.5km wide was discovered which had not shown up on preliminary surveys and whose peat bed was too unstable to support a trestle bridge. The railway engineers had planned to connect all the Keys by solid embankments, but the US federal government, fearing that such a solid wall would impede tidal flow, insisted on a number of bridges. The initially-agreed plans allowed for some 10km of bridging but local people who knew the severity of local storms insisted that this would not be enough. The first of the big viaducts came at Long Key, west of Islamorada, where 3km of tidal water had to be crossed. A concrete viaduct was built, with 186 arches of 11m span, using special cement imported from Germany that would set under water. In 1906 a storm damaged the partly-built viaduct but construction work continued through the hurricane season and it was completed in 1907..

4] Homestead - Knights Key: opening of the first section: On 22 January 1908, a special train conveying Henry Flagler ran through to Knights Key, just west of Marathon and 171km (106mi) from Miami. Public passenger services began on 5 February 1908. A through Pullman service began running on 4 January 1909, leaving New York, NY at 14:10 and arriving at Knights Key at 07:30 on the third day. A large dock had been built at Knights Key, from which a steamship service to Havana took 6 hours.

5] Construction: the second phase: Flagler was now faced with the biggest obstacle of all, the so-called Seven Mile Bridge. This construction, actually some 14km (9mi) long in total, comprised four separate viaducts. The first three (Knights Key Bridge, Pigeon Key Bridge and Moser Channel Bridge) were plate-girder spans laid on concrete foundation piers, with a 77m arched-girder swing-span inserted to facilitate the passage of ships between the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic. The fourth structure, Pacet Channel Viaduct, comprised 210 16m concrete arches similar to those used on Long Key Viaduct. A further hurricane in 1909, with 200km/h winds, did greater damage than that of 1906. Five girder spans that had not yet been bolted into place were blown into the sea and more than 60km of embankments in the Upper Keys were washed away; but the concrete viaducts withstood the storm. Repairs to the damage delayed completion of the project by two years. A large 26-span arched-girder viaduct, with nine approach spans and an aggregate length of 1541m, was built to cross the much deeper Bahia Honda channel. In September 1910 yet another hurricane hit the line, this time in the Lower Keys, where the construction work was in progress. Again much of the trackbed was washed away and, more seriously, the foundation of the centre span of Bahia Honda viaduct was displaced. The revised target year for completion of the line had been 1913 but this was now brought forward to 1912 in the hope that Flagler, whose health was failing, would survive long enough to ride by train all the way to Key West. At both ends of the uncompleted section, which included Niles Channel Bridge, more than 1.5km long, and the sizeable Pine, Kemp, Bow and Boca Chica viaducts, construction work continued round the clock, with the help of electric lighting. At the terminus, Key West, the settlement had grown substantially in population since 1820, and by 1890 had become the largest town in Florida, with most of the small island’s useable land already built on. Seabed mud was dredged to create some 60ha (134 acres) of space for sidings, and a 520m-long pier was built.

6] Knights Key - Key West: opening of the final section: On 21 January 1912 an engineer’s train made the first journey from Knights Key to Key West. Early the following day Flagler’s special train, carrying government dignitaries and diplomats representing Latin American countries, left Miami for Key West, where its arrival triggered a three-day fiesta. Public passenger services began a few days later, but the actual start-date seems not to have been recorded among the festivities! A New York - Key West limited-stop express connected with the Havana steamer. The first northbound trip was timed to leave Havana at 10:30 on 2 August 1912, docking at Key West 18:30. The train was to leave at 19:30, to call at Jacksonville, FL at 13:55 the next day, and to arrive at New York’s Pennsylvania station at 19:55 on the third day.

7] Services: The line seems never to have had more than two passenger trains daily each way: the Havana Special and a local which was allowed 4h between Miami and Key West but apparently more usually took 6 or 7 hours. Speeds on the Extension line were slow, with trains rarely exceeding 60-70km/h (35-45mph) on the Keys themselves and being limited to 25km/h (15mph) on the bridges. Thus almost 15min was required to cross Long Key viaduct and its approaches, and half an hour for Seven Mile Bridge. The viaducts were of course equipped with wind-gauges, and signals were set automatically to danger when the wind speed reached 80km/h (50mph). When the Extension was first finished, only passenger steamers served Key West pier, but the line did carry freight. Flagler had envisaged building at Key West twelve piers, each some 250m long and 60m wide, served by train-ferries for both freight and passenger traffic. His dreams were never realised, but a train-ferry berth was constructed and three freight-only ferries were put into service.

8] Decline and fall: The line had but a short life. It never made a profit and indeed never even covered its maintenance costs. Unsurprisingly perhaps, FEC management showed little interest in the Extension after Flagler died. As early as 1927 an automobile drove over Long Key viaduct, bumping along on the wooden ties (= sleepers), eventually continuing all the way to Key West. By 1931 passenger traffic had fallen to one train daily each way and the line went into receivership. Already a road was being built parallel to the line in places. The economic Depression, followed by yet another storm, finished it off. On 2 September 1935 a hurricane hit Islamorada, 145km (90mi) from Miami. Over 500 people were killed by a 5m tidal wave that swept over the island. A rescue-and-evacuation special train from Miami reached Islamorada, but could go no further. Some 67km of trackbed was washed away and long lengths of track were left upended, resembling a bizarre fence. Key West itself was scarcely touched by the storm and a train that was marooned there was eventually brought back to Miami by barge, to taunting headlines of ‘FEC’s Havana Special arrives from Key West months late’. It is claimed that Flagler had left several million dollars as a contingency fund to cope with this type of disaster, but this was of little interest to the FEC, who now had a good excuse to rid themselves of this white elephant. The line had cost over USD27M to build and could have been repaired for USD1.5M, but the remains were sold for a mere USD640,000.

9] The Extension since closure: The remains of the line were used to construct highway US1 to Key West, which has obliterated much of the railway’s course, but the formation can be seen in places to one side of the road. Cars and trucks began to use the lengthy structures, Long Key viaduct and Seven Mile Bridge each carrying a single-lane road. Some form of ‘single-line working’ was presumably required and, with the growth of traffic, long delays seem to have been the result by the 1950s. A more radical solution was employed at Bahia Honda viaduct, where a two-lane road was constructed on top of the girder spans through which the railway had run. At the eastern end a new ramped approach was built but at the western end the plate-girder spans were raised up to a much steeper angle to create the approach ramp. Surprisingly, it was not until the early 1980s that the old railway viaducts, inappropriate and inadequate for highway traffic, were replaced by purpose-built two- or four-lane road bridges. The railway viaducts are largely intact and are now designated as National Historical Monuments. Some spans have been removed, presumably to ease the passage of ships, but substantial parts of Long Key and Seven Mile Bridges are available to pedestrians and are used by fishermen. A rubber-tyred tourist ‘train’ operates between Knights Key and the tiny island of Pigeon Key in the middle of Seven Mile Bridge.