By Jane Feehan
Henry Flagler was the first to connect Key West to the U.S. mainland with the completion of his overseas railroad in 1912. It operated until the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, which killed hundreds and damaged miles of rail. But motor vehicle travel to the southernmost city in the U.S. was not cut off for long. The Overseas Highway, first proposed in the early 1920s, opened March 29, 1938.
Key West had been a thriving city of 20,000 before the railway closed. Without tourists, and during the Great Depression, prospects were brighter elsewhere. Greeks fishing for sponges moved to Tarpon Springs. Cigar makers moved to Tampa. The population of the island city dwindled to 8,000 (population in 2012 nearly 25,000).
The depression era Public Works Administration – the PWA - loaned Florida $3.6 million for the overseas highway project. It was the largest loan awarded Florida and at that time, one of the largest granted for highway construction in the entire country.
The overseas highway commission purchased 40 miles of rail from Flagler’s company (Flagler died May 1913) between Lower Matecumbe and Big Pine keys. The $640,000 purchase (it could have been as high as $7 million without cooperation from Florida East Coast Railway) included 13 miles of bridges and 15 miles of railroad bed. When completed, the highway's seven mile span was the longest continuous highway span in the world and featured a bridge 65 feet in the air. Total cost of the 127.5-mile highway project was $7.4 million.
More than 100 automobiles as well as a number of buses lined up to make the maiden trip across the scenic highway when it opened in 1938. Within a day, Key West housing accommodations were filled. The overseas highway now carries US. Route 1, which stretches to Maine. Copyright © 2013. All rights reserved. Jane Feehan.
For more on Flagler, visit Jane's Bits:
Standiford, Les. The Last Train to Paradise. New York: Crown Publishers (2002).
Miami News, Mar. 30, 1938.
Miami News, Jun. 30, 1938
Tags: Overseas highway, overseas railroad, Henry M. Flagler, Florida East Coast Railway, Key West history