Big Pine Key
Big Pine & the Lower Keys
Content courtesy of Jerry Wilkinson, Florida Keys historian
Big changes came to Big Pine during the building of the Overseas Railway from 1905 to 1912, when the railway was complete to Key West, though permanent railroad facilities were not built here like the other areas of the Keys. For one reason, there was not the population on Big Pine. ( As a point of reference in 1910 the population of Big Pine Key was 17 and No Name Key was 22.)
There was little press about Big Pine Key during the railroad construction. One Florida Times-Union article dated April 11, 1907 stated “The extension camp at Big Pine Key, which is the largest now in operation, will be broken up this week and the entire force of nearly 400 men will be moved to Sugarloaf Key where a new camp will be established.”
Henry Flagler, during the construction phase, had built a fresh water “resource” on Big Pine, erecting a large water tank, to accommodate the hundreds of workers that descended on the area, living in crude quarters, eating at a common mess hall. Two large open seepage ditches called “collecting ditches” with a pump and a 60,000-gallon storage tank (The tank was larger but leaked badly over 60,000 gallons). It was started in late 1906 and in use early 1907. It easily pumped 50,000 gallons a day. After the construction of the railroad was completed, the facility was abandoned.
At that time, one late, great landmark, the Big Pine Inn, was already standing, accommodated the railway personnel.
A big hurricane in 1909 set back but did not stop construction. Interestingly, it was around this time that metal screens became common – a savior to all who were battling swarms of mosquitoes.
While the Big Pine Inn is lost — the victim of a fire in 1978 — a few vestiges of the railroad era still exist. The Spanish Harbor Railway Bridge consists of 77 concrete-arch spans crossing 3,311 feet to West Summerland Key. Closed to vehicular traffic in 1982, it is now used in part as a fishing pier.
Additionally, the ruins of an old mess hall used by railway workers stand on the eastern shore of Big Pine, in the woods off Warner Street, facing the water. Meanwhile, the home of a woman who used to cook for the railway workers — Maggie Atwell — is now in Key West, forming a part of the Flagler Historeum on Caroline Street.
Other means of transport opened up in the next few years: the county approved a bond issue in 1917 to build a single lane dirt road on Big Pine. Ferry service to and from No Name Key began five years later.
By 1928, workers completed the first Overseas Highway, utilizing a series of wooden bridges linking the Lower Keys to Key West.