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    The Overseas Highway in The Florida Keys:
    From Flagler's Railroad to recently designated "All American Road"

    Seven mile bridge - Florida KeysHenry Morrison Flagler was born January 2, 1830, in Hopewell, New York, the son of a struggling Presbyterian minister. His father died and his mother remarried when he was still a young boy. He left school after the eighth grade to go to work for relatives of his stepfather, David Harkness.

    After working with the Harknesses for a few years, he moved to Belleview, Ohio, where he bought out a partner in one of the Harkness businesses with money he had saved. He courted and married Mary Harkness, his step-father's niece. Henry and Mary had two daughters, Jennie Louise and Carrie, who died at age 3.

    In ensuing years, he was involved in quite a few business ventures until in 1868, at age 37, he went into partnership with John D. Rockefeller and Samuel Andrews to form the Rockefeller, Andrews and Flagler Oil Refinery (RAF Refinery). In 1870, the Standard Oil Company was formed with Flagler as a major stockholder. In that same year, his wife gave birth to his only son, Henry Harkness Flagler. In 1884, Standard Oil was considered the largest and most profitable industrial company in the world, and moved its headquarters to New York City. Flagler and Rockefeller also moved there.

    During that same time, Mary was diagnosed with tuberculosis and her health was declining. Her doctor told her that moving to a warmer climate might help her condition so the family moved to Jacksonville, Florida for the winter in 1878. Henry didn't like Jacksonville much and had to manage Standard Oil from afar. After just a couple of weeks, the Flaglers returned to New York. Mary died in New York on May 18, 1881. Young Harry was only 10 years old and Henry had his sister, Carrie, move in and help with his care.

    Flagler Moves to Florida

    On June 5, 1883, Flagler married one of his wife's nurses, Ida Alice Shourds. He didn't have the time to honeymoon that summer, so the next winter the new family went to St. Augustine, Florida. This time, Henry liked Florida and decided to become more involved in the area while reducing his workload with Standard Oil.

    In St. Augustine, he built two hotels and purchased a third. Florida was pretty unsettled at that point so, to make his hotels more accessible, he purchased and rebuilt a short-line railroad company, thus entering the railroad business. This was just the beginning of his huge financial investment in Florida, and he quickly built a hospital, water works, electric and sewer facilities, and a winter home for his family, all in the St. Augustine area.

    Of course, Henry couldn't remain idle. He began to build his railroad southward, all the way to Palm Beach. There he also built schools, churches, hospitals, fire stations, utilities, and courthouses. In 1893, at his board of directors meeting, Flagler promised to take his railroad all the way to Key West.

    To Warmer Climes

    But St. Augustine didn't always have warm tropical weather and, the story is told, after all the orange trees had died in the St. Augustine area due to the cold winter of 1894/95, Julia Tuttle delivered to Flagler's hands a beautifully blooming branch of orange blossoms she had cut that morning from a tree on her property in the Miami area and transported to Flagler by train. What she wanted to prove to Flagler was that Miami didn't get the freezing weather that areas farther north did. There were other things to help Flagler along in his decision to extend the Florida East Coast Railroad there. The State of Florida granted Flagler 8,000 acres of land for every mile of railroad track he built. In addition, he was awarded a gift of 600 acres of downtown Miami.

    In 1897, Henry's second wife was committed to an insane asylum in New York. Flagler wanted a divorce, but insanity was not grounds for divorce in New York or Florida. He put pressure on the Florida legislature to change the law, and divorced and remarried to Mary Lily Kenan. As a wedding present for her, he built a new Palm Beach mansion and named it Whitehall. He was also generous to Miami. There he built an electric company, water company, schools and churches.

    Flagler's Biggest Challenge

    With the building of the Panama Canal, Flagler looked to the deepwater harbor at Key West to be the shipping hub for all ships passing through the canal, connecting all of South and Central America, the United States and Cuba. Many government officials and legislators pushed the idea of a railroad to Key West, but they didn't propose how to finance it. So, Flagler decided to do it with his own money. He hired a group of engineers under William J. Krome to survey the best route and author a feasability study. Krome took two years and only got the very upper Keys surveyed, and Flagler got tired of waiting. He ordered the project to begin and the commitment was made public in the New York Herald on June 28, 1905.

    After all the investment he had made in Florida, you would think Flagler would be concerned. But when it came time to start the Key West extension project, he didn't borrow any money, he used his own. He hired Joseph Carroll Meredith as chief construction engineer and William Krome, then 28 years old, became an assistant construction engineer. Because he wasn't given any grants in the Keys, land had to be donated, leased or purchased. He employed many of the ships on the Atlantic to dedicate their time solely to the transportation of supplies and materials for his project. As the highway would literally be built at sea, Flagler had to purchase or lease most of the heavy marine equipment on the East Coast, and what he couldn't obtain he had to build. The project would involve large bridges and he had large floating concrete mixers constructed for that purpose.

    Flagler wanted the highway to be built as quickly as possible, so the job was broken down into several projects at several locations going on at the same time up and down the Keys. The work camps were numbered from north to south. Key Largo was Camp #1 and Key West was Camp #82.

    The final goal was to have the railroad arrive in Key West, but the intermediate goal was Knight's Key. Flagler wanted to lay as much track as quickly as possible so that he could use his trains to transport whatever supplies and materials were needed up and down the line.

    The progress of building had its problems. When fill was dumped into Lake Surprise, it sank and quickly disappeared. It took 15 months to get it right. Wages were very low but included food, lodging and medical care. The Keys lack a lot of fresh water, so 4.5 million gallons had to be delivered each month. Of course, hurricanes often hampered progress.

    Original plans called for a causeway that would actually be a barrier between the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico, but the federal government wouldn't allow that and insisted on bridges or viaducts.

    The first train to arrive at Knight's Key did so on January 20, 1908. By February 4, a twice-daily schedule was intact. A seaport city was built south of the area, with a railroad station capable of handling two complete trains, docks for two small steam ships, a hotel boat, customs and a post office.

    Flagler Takes His Train to Key West

    Work on the Seven Mile Bridge, at that time referred to as the Flagler Viaduct, began in the spring of 1909 and took three years. Bahia Honda Bridge was difficult because, at this location, the water was deeper than anywhere else on the Key West Extension. Then, tragedy struck with the death of Joseph Meredith on April 20, 1909. William Krome was available and stepped into his shoes. As luck would have it, a hurricane hit that same year and almost all the dredges, pile drivers, concrete mixers and other equipment being used to build the Seven Mile Bridge were either sunk or badly damaged. Twelve lives were lost when the tugboat Sybil was sunk.

    In March of 1910, a fire started by one of the train engines burned almost all the fruit trees and crops between Jewfish Creek and Newport. As a result, a decision was made to replace coal with oil as fuel for the locomotives used in the Keys.

    Flagler's associates wanted him to realize his dream of riding his private railroad car into Key West. But, time was running out as he was getting old. His 82nd birthday party was postponed for a few weeks so that he could celebrate it with the completion of the project. At 10:43 a.m. on January 22, 1912, engine number 201 safely delivered Flagler and his wife in his private car, Rambler, for three days of celebration in Key West. As tears were streaming down his face, he said, "Now I can die happy. My dream is fulfilled."

    Fortunes Dwindle

    Henry died quietly in his home at Palm Beach on May 20, 1913. And, with his death, the future of the "Flagler System" was in jeopardy. His son, Harry, disappointed him after leaving his employ after only two years for a career in music. Harry never met his father's third wife, Mary Lily.

    Mary Lily married Robert Bingham on November 16, 1916. Bingham had signed a prenuptial agreement, proving he had no designs on his new wife's estate. Mary Lily made a handwritten change to her will on June 17, 1917, giving him $5 million. She died suddenly on July 27, 1917 of an acute heart attack.

    Although Mary Lily kept her financial promise to Robert Bingham, she left most of her estate to her brother, William, and two sisters, Jessie and Sarah. A sizable portion, including her houses, went to her niece, Louise Wise. The Florida East Coast Railroad was willed to her brothers and sisters who kept it until its bankruptcy in the 1930s. Ed Ball of the DuPont Company gained the controlling interest.

    Flagler's second, and divorced wife lived in a sanitarium in New York and was well taken care of until she died on July 10, 1930. She left an estate of $13 million.

    Flagler's Legacy

    Henry Morrison Flagler gave a large portion of his life, and his money, to the State of Florida. Experts estimate that he spent about $50 million on all the sites he developed. Surprisingly, this would equate to about one-third of the whole value of Florida at the time. Two-fifths of this money went to the Key West Extension of the Overseas Railroad. It is estimated that, in today's dollars, this great project would have cost about $640 million.

    Without Flagler running the show, the railroad declared bankruptcy in 1932. On Labor Day in 1935 a powerful hurricane dealt a deathblow. Hundreds of people in the Islamorada area lost their lives and 40 miles of railroad track were washed out. The railroad's right-of-way was sold to the State of Florida for $640,000. The intent was to modify it into a highway for autos. This project went quickly and was completed in 1938.

    An All-American Road

    The famous Florida Keys Overseas Highway was recently awarded one of the highest honors a roadway can receive. It was dubbed an “All-American” Road by the U.S. Transportation Secretary, Ray LaHood, and a plaque was presented by Victor Mendez, administrator of the Federal Highway Administration, during a ceremony in Washington, D.C.

    In 2001, the Overseas Highway was named a Florida Scenic Highway, which paved the way for its most recent recognition.

    To become All-American, a roadway must have very unique features and possess characteristics of national significance that make it a visitor destination in and of itself. Millions of people travel up and down the Overseas Highway each year simply to catch a glimpse of the beautiful scenery and its historic significance.

    The roadway was originally completed in 1938 and incorporates 42 bridges over the waters of the Atlantic Ocean, Florida Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. They include the Seven Mile Bridge at Marathon, which stretches 6.79 miles across open water and was referred to on its completion as "the eighth wonder of the world."

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