Exactly 100 years ago, Key West was in a tizzy, getting ready for the arrival of the First Train. On Jan. 22, 2012, the train would arrive bearing oil tycoon-turned-railroad magnate Henry Flagler and marking the completion of the Over-Sea Railroad.
These days, we’re in a bit of a tizzy ourselves, getting ready to commemorate the Centennial of that event — a major one by the standards of any small town and, you could argue, in the history of Florida and the nation. It was certainly a remarkable achievement, crossing mangrove swamps and open water. Crews endured hurricanes, mosquitos and the relentless humidity of the subtropics — without the modern comforts we take for granted now.
Lots of events are planned to mark the Centennial — more information is available at the official Centennial committee’s website. At the Key West Library, we’re celebrating with our One Island One Book program. This year we’re reading Last Train to Paradise by Les Standiford, which tells the story of the construction of the Over-Sea Railroad — and its destruction, barely two decades later, when the Upper Keys were hit by one of the strongest hurricanes ever to strike the continental U.S.
Most of our One Island One Book events don’t start until mid-February — Standiford will be speaking at the Library on Monday, Feb. 27. But one event is starting in the next few days: our first every online readalong. What does that mean? It means you read about 50 pages a week of the book (there’s a reading schedule on the blog), and comment about it at the blog. We’ll start things out with some comments and questions but this isn’t a class and our posts are not a syllabus — everyone is welcome to chime in on whatever aspect they like, from wherever they are. So if you’re curious about the railroad and feel like learning some more — and interacting with others who are doing the same, please join in.
Some of you, especially those familiar with the Keys, may have noticed that the image above does not show Key West. It’s Pigeon Key, the island in the bend of the Old Seven Mile Bridge (and one the best places these days to get a feel for how things were back in the railroad days). Even though it’s not Key West, this is one of my favorite images of the railroad, probably because of the human element introduced by the kids waving below. And it comes from the library’s spectacular collection of historic images that have been scanned and placed online for open public access — including a collection of 700 images about the Over-Sea Railroad. Many of the library’s images, incidentally, were used for a beautiful new Centennial edition of Last Train to Paradise, published by Books & Books and the Flagler Museum.