Eyewitness Recalled First Train’s Arrival in Key West
On Jan. 22, 1912, when Ruby Whitlock was eight years old, she watched the arrival of the first train that traveled down the Oversea Railway from mainland Florida through the Florida Keys to Key West.
In early 2000, when she was an energetic 96-year-old, Whitlock reminisced about the event that changed the Florida Keys forever. She was believed to be the last remaining Key West resident to witness the historic arrival.
“I was going to Harris School, and the Harris School kids went down to meet the train,” said the woman known as Miss Ruby. “That was a great day when that train came in here.”
Nearly 100 years later, when travelers can drive from Miami to Key West in approximately four hours on the Overseas Highway, many people find it hard to imagine the Keys not being linked to each other or to the mainland.
However, that was the case until Standard Oil tycoon Henry Flagler, called a visionary by some contemporaries and a madman by others, conceived and ordered the construction of the Railroad that Went to Sea.
The work began in 1905. The railroad’s track ultimately stretched more than 100 miles out into open water, requiring trailblazing techniques and backbreaking labor by a crew that sometimes numbered more than 4,000 men.
The line was officially named the Florida East Coast Railway’s Key West Extension, but it quickly became known as the Oversea Railway. Its bridges and viaducts linking the Keys, including the landmark Seven Mile Bridge at Marathon, earned it another title: the Eighth Wonder of the World.
When the first train from the mainland pulled into the Key West terminal, the elderly Flagler stepped out his private car. He was greeted by dignitaries, citizens and hordes of schoolchildren cheering his accomplishment.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” said Whitlock. “Dr. Fogarty was the mayor, and he made a speech when the train came in. I can see him now, and I can see old Flagler with his straw hat on.”
The debut of the railroad transformed Key West from an isolated outpost reachable only by boat to a destination accessible to both passengers and freight.
“Everybody was hollering and whooping, throwing bouquets, hoisting up flags and singing, saying, ‘There’s the train! There’s the train!’” Whitlock said. ”All of Key West was happy that day.”
While Henry Flagler is long gone and Ruby Whitlock died more than 10 years ago, visitors can still delight in events being planned throughout the Keys to honor the Oversea Railway.
Exhibit Celebrates 100th Anniversary Keys Railroad’s Completion
In January 1912, the first Oversea Railway train steamed from the Florida mainland through the Florida Keys to Key West, marking the completion of the railroad that connected the previously isolated islands with each other and the mainland.
The railroad and its construction are showcased in “Flagler’s Speedway to Sunshine,” a comprehensive new exhibit at the Key West Museum of Art & History at the Custom House, 281 Front St. The exhibit also spotlights the upcoming 100th anniversary of the inaugural train’s Key West arrival Jan. 22, 2012.
The Custom House exhibit features a re-created Florida East Coast railcar, a replica of a section of the Seven Mile Bridge, vintage footage of the journey from the Middle Keys to Key West and a film recounting Flagler’s story and the arrival of the first train.
Artifacts include a railroad worker’s tool chest, conductor’s uniform and other rare items from the collection of Seth Bramson, America’s foremost collector of Florida East Coast Railway memorabilia. Quotes from railroad workers, Key West townspeople and Flagler himself help bring alive the railroad’s fascinating story.
In association with the landmark exhibit, a series of Custom House events is planned to commemorate the railroad’s completion. Among them are a model train expo and lectures by noted railroad historians including Bramson.