Children wave at a train approaching Pigeo Key. Image courtesy of Dan Gallagher

What was to be known as Marathon became the general headquarters for the remaining construction. It was supplied by rail, as it was located at the beginning of the remaining construction to Key West. The starting point was the Seven Mile Bridge. This did not detract from the construction of the huge terminal at Key West. There, crews were busy reclaiming 134 acres from the ocean and preparing to build a 1,700-foot pier, 134 feet wide. Track and bridgework was being performed north across Stock Island to Bahia Honda whose depth required another difficult bridge.

Work was intentionally delayed on the Seven-Mile Bridge following a decision by the U.S. Navy to stop Flagler from dredging the needed 134 acres for the rail terminal at Key West. Many F.E.C. offices were closed, workers transferred to work north of Key West and much of the floating construction equipment was taken to storage in the Miami River. Very little work was done in the Lower Keys in 1808, and when the objection to the dredging was resolved serious construction started on the Seven-Mile-Bridge in early 1909. It required three years to complete.

What is today called the Seven Mile Bridge was actually composed of the Knight’s Key, Pigeon Key, Moser Channel, Pacet Channel bridges. The total length was 35,815 feet long and consisted of 335 steel girder 80-foot spans, 9,000 feet of concrete arch viaduct, and a 253-foot swing truss drawbridge span. The steel truss bridge portion rested on 546 concrete piers set securely into bedrock, and was installed by the Terry and Tench Company of New York.

The Pigeon Key portion was originally scheduled to be a filled causeway. This was canceled. The Pacet Channel portion was of the concrete arch viaduct type, as the water was shallower. The overall bridge was sometimes referred to as the Flagler Viaduct. At that time it was not known as the Seven Mile Bridge, a name coined later **.

** Centered on Vaca Key, Marathon got its name from workers constructing the monumental Oversea Railway from mainland Florida throughout the Keys in the early 1900s. Working night and day to meet the grueling construction schedule, crews reputedly said, “This is getting to be a real Marathon.” Crossing the shimmering waters south of Vaca Key is the Seven Mile Bridge, one of the longest segmental bridges in the world. The Old Seven Mile Bridge running parallel to the modern span was the jewel of the Oversea Railway and a turn-of-the-century technological marvel that took four years to construct.

And, at the end of the historic bridge, a 2.1-mile span, is a tiny island with enormous history …   

Explore Historic Pigeon Key

Nestled beneath what is now called the Old Seven Mile Bridge, lies the historical treasure known as Pigeon Key. In the early 1900s, the five-acre island served as a base camp for workers during construction of the original Seven Mile Bridge, the awe-inspiring centerpiece of Henry Flagler’s Key West Extension of the Florida East Coast Railroad. Visitors shouldn’t pass up the chance to explore Pigeon Key, which, despite its tiny size, played an enormous role in Keys history. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, today it houses century-old buildings and a museum chronicling the construction of the Key West Extension, commonly called the Oversea Railway because its track stretched more than 100 miles out into open water.

The Oversea Railway’s bridges and viaducts linking the islands of the Keys, including the landmark seven-mile span at Marathon, were regarded as an engineering marvel. More than 400 workers lived in the railroad village on Pigeon Key, which had a post office, commissary and one-room school, during the Seven Mile Bridge’s construction from 1908 to 1912. Following its completion, maintenance crews continued living on the island.

The work camp at Pigeon Key. Image courtesy of Dan Gallagher

A hurricane destroyed the railway in 1935, and a state highway was built to replace it. Pigeon Key then became headquarters to the Florida Road and Toll Bridge District, whose crews maintained the bridges from Jewfish Creek to Big Pine Key.

Starting in 1968, for two decades the island served as an environmental field station for international researchers studying tropical and subtropical marine and island ecologies with the University of Miami.

In 1993, the not-for-profit Pigeon Key Foundation assumed stewardship of the island and began restoration efforts. Under the foundation’s tutelage, the tranquil, picturesque spot opened to visitors, providing them an opportunity to revisit Flagler’s era.

The railroad museum, located in one of the original 1909 buildings, features exhibits including maps, historic photos, models and a picture postcard collection of the unique line over water.

Visitors can spend the entire day on the island, exploring the fully restored turn-of-the-century buildings, soaking up subtropical sun on a picnic, snorkeling the tidal shoreline and absorbing the history of the early Florida Keys.

Pigeon Key also offers hands-on private educational programs for students from elementary school to post-graduate levels through its respected Pigeon Key Marine Science Camps during summer months.  Accessible by ferry from a visitor center at Knight’s Key on the west end of Marathon, Pigeon Key also welcomes many visitors who walk or bike to it along a breathtakingly scenic portion of the Old Seven Mile Bridge, closed to vehicular traffic since 2007.

Guided ferry tours depart from Knight’s Key daily at 10 a.m., 11:30 a.m., 1 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. Return trips from Pigeon Key depart at 10:30 a.m., 12 p.m., 1:30 p.m., 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. To reserve a seat on the ferry, call 305-743-5999. Reservations are not required but are suggested for holidays and weekends.Cost for a day’s admission to the island, including the ferry transportation and tour, is $11 for adults, $8.50 for children ages 5 to 13 and free for younger children.  During the 100th anniversary celebration honoring the historic railroad, lauded as the most unique railway in the world upon its completion, planned elements include history tours showcasing Flagler sites,  educational presentations and explorations of Pigeon Key.