The Railroad That Went to Sea
by Claudia Miller
Imagine life on the island of Key Largo in 1908 when the Overseas Railway first began daily train service as far south as Marathon, connecting the once-isolated Upper Keys to the mainland and each other.
Standing at about MM 105.6, just south of the Key Largo Chamber of Commerce, you can visualize the tracks running down the southbound lane of U.S. 1 and the passenger depot standing in the median strip.
Most of the cleared land in Key Largo was claimed by crops, and the only other buildings were simple homes with outhouses, a church and a limited one-room grocery store combined with a post office.
There was no telephone, radio or daily newspaper, so the mail was your main contact with the outside world, and even that had to be taken out by boat to a hook in the water where it would be picked up by ships sailing past.
The store held only food staples like beans, rice, canned milk and crackers and basic supplies, which had to be brought in by boat from Miami or Key West.
Most of the income was self-generated through trading or sales of farm or marine goods, but the lack of quick transportation of perishables to distant markets was a constant problem, as most items would spoil within days of harvest.
There was no electric power, and the water came from rain that was captured in cisterns. There were no cars or horses pulling buggies, and nor any roads for them to use – only coral rock walking trails.
With the arrival of the train, the first leg of the Florida East Coast Railway’s Key West Extension, life in Key Largo became markedly improved. The Key West Extension, also known as the Overseas Railway, was the brainchild Standard Oil tycoon Henry Flagler.
After an announcement that the Panama Canal would be built, he envisioned Key West as an important port and trade route with Cuba and Latin America, as well as a vital supply stop for ships entering or exiting the Panama Canal.
Construction began in 1905 and the tracks stretched more than 100 miles out over the open water, requiring many engineering innovations as well as vast amounts of labor and money.
There were times when more than 4,000 men were employed, and Flagler spent $50 million, earning the railroad the nickname, “Flagler’s Folly.”
While the extension did not reach Key West until 1912, daily service was running to Key Largo by 1908, and life began to change.
Depots were established at Jewfish Creek, Rock Harbor, Key Largo and Tavernier, and Keys historian Jerry Wilkinson said that one of the first noticeable improvements was dependable mail service, delivery of dry goods and a new delicacy – ice.
“The train ran regardless of the weather,” he said. “It delivered the mail on schedule and dry goods on a more regular basis. The stores weren’t more than a room with some shelves in it, but they could be restocked.
“It was a much more stable way of life than having to wait on somebody to go on a sailboat to either Miami or Key West to buy staples or depend on a passing ship.”
Everett Albury, a descendant of one the five Albury families that came from the Bahamas in 1870 and homesteaded on Key Largo, remembers his father shipping limes and Florida lobster (which he calls “crawfish,” in typical old-timers’ lingo) on the train.
“This guy from Jacksonville had gotten in touch with my father, and my father would ship limes on the train to him on consignment,” Albury said. “He would sell them and send my father the money minus a percentage.
“My father and his brothers would also catch crawfish and ship them to New York in wooden barrels layered with seaweed. They would still be alive 48 hours later when they got to New York.”
Albury, who was born in 1928, said that the train also brought in extra water to augment what was caught in the cisterns.
“At the time, everyone used rain water, but they built a water tank in Tavernier across from where the Sunshine Market [MM 91] is today. The train used to bring water from Homestead and put it there. People would get water there if they ran out.
“My dad had a thousand-gallon cypress water tank. That meant you washed your clothes, took your baths and everything on 1,000 gallons of water.”
Another boon to the area was the creation of jobs outside of the farming and marine industries.
“As far as I can see it, in 1908 there was no one here to hire anybody,” Wilkinson said. “How did you get your spending money? You had to either sell fish, turtles, tomatoes, pineapples and such. The railroad people with their work crews provided a source for people to go to work and get jobs.”
In 1912, the Overseas Railway was finally operational, and on Jan. 22, a passenger train rolled from the Florida mainland 128 miles south through the Florida Keys to Key West for the first time.
Albury remembers taking the train to Key West to visit his grandmother twice in the summer of 1934 when he was 7 years old.
They didn’t take the train that often because it was during the Depression, but the trip would otherwise take two days or more by boat. His most vivid memory is of traveling across the metal truss bridge at Bahia Honda Key.
“As a kid, you always had the windows down, and you were looking out the window,” he said. “When you went across Bahia Honda Bridge, they made you close the windows because the track was probably about 5 feet wide, and they didn’t want people sticking their hands out.”
Throughout the Keys, visitors slowly started to become the most important product and charter fishing would become an industry onto itself.
On Sept. 2, 1935, tragedy struck, and the Overseas Railway was destroyed in the Labor Day Hurricane. The railroad company had gone into bankruptcy in 1932 and was unable to rebuild, so the State of Florida purchased the remaining rights of way to create the Overseas Highway.
Wilkinson and Albury still ponder the ramifications of the Overseas Railway in the Keys.
“I don’t know where we would be today had Flagler not built the extension,” Wilkinson said. “I think it sped up everything about 20-30 years.
“After the hurricane, if there had not been that opportunity for the state to buy the whole right-of-way from Homestead to Key West for a little amount of money, I don’t know when we would have had a highway connecting all of the Keys.”
Albury mused, “To this very day I wonder what the Keys would be like if the railroad was still here.”