Palm Beach, FL

The Story of a Railway That Ran Far Out to Sea

Henry Flagler’s mansion on wheels, Railcar #91, is now at the Flagler Museum in Palm Beach, Florida

Railcar Number 91, Henry Flagler's mansion on wheels, was part of the tycoon’s first train that ran over the sea from mainland Florida to Key West. It is now in the Flagler Museum in Palm Beach, Florida.
MITCHELL SMYTH/Meridian Writers’ Group

“FLAGLER’S FOLLY” his critics called it, when Henry Morrison Flagler announced that he planned to run a railway out to sea, down the Florida Keys all the way to Key West.

But Flagler persisted and seven years later he was aboard his private railcar on the first train into Key West. That was in 1912.

That railcar, No. 91, its livery polished and its brasses gleaming, a sumptuous relic of America’s Gilded Age, stands in an enclosed pavilion in the Flagler Museum in Whitehall, the mogul’s former mansion here in Palm Beach.

Some 80,000 visitors every year tour the museum, where they learn how Flagler’s east coast railways opened Florida to tourism in the third quarter of the 19th century. When the rails reached Miami, in 1896, everyone thought it was the end of the line.

But Flagler wasn’t done yet. He set his mind on what he called his “Over-Sea Railroad”—another 250 kilometres to the tip of the Keys, just 145 kilometres from Cuba—and in 1905 work began. The project wasn’t entirely a folly: in those days there was considerable passenger and freight traffic between the U.S. and Cuba.

Artifacts, photos, wallboards and archive drawings are on display in the museum, as well as a replica of a golden telegram that the workers gave Flagler when the line was completed.

In a glass case is one of Flagler’s diaries, in which he notes progress and expenditures and showing how he micromanaged the project.

When he announced his plan, the engineers pointed out that he would have to build roadbeds and bridges across 29 islets, some of them kilometres apart. And the workers would have to fight heat and bugs and disease and tides, even hurricanes.

It can’t be done, some said. Yes it can, said Flagler. “All you have to do is build a concrete arch and then another and pretty soon you’ll find yourself in Key West.”

“Henry, you need a guardian,” a friend said. What Flagler needed, instead, was 5,000 men and $27 million of his own money, for no one else would back his dream. He got the men, he had the money, and more to spare for Standard Oil of Ohio had made him and partner John D. Rockefeller fabulously rich.

His railway would transform the Keys, that ribbon of coral and limestone islets on the southern tip of Florida, from a godforsaken wilderness into the tourist haven it is today.

Flagler’s railway is no more. As the museum records, it was destroyed in the killer hurricane of 1935, but much of the rest of what he built a century ago is still in use.

The roadbed that his men levelled and banked is now the basis of U.S. 1, the auto route that runs all the way to Key West, carrying some two million visitors a year. The bridges that they built carried U.S. 1 until the 1980s, when new bridges were erected. (Some of the old bridges are now super-long fishing piers.)



For more information, including details on exhibitions, visit the museum website at www.flaglermuseum.us.

For information on travel in Florida go to the state’s Visit Florida website at www.visitflorida.com.