Book Review - Last Train to Paradise: Henry Flagler and the Spectacular Rise and Fall of the Railroad that Crossed an Ocean by Les Standiford
Having an interest in Florida history, I saw this book at the library and had to pick it up... Last Train to Paradise: Henry Flagler and the Spectacular Rise and Fall of the Railroad that Crossed an Ocean by Les Standiford. The Key West railroad was a fascinating concept to begin with... building a railroad line from Miami to Key West, spanning miles of ocean in the process. Set the whole project at the turn of the century, and it becomes even more incredible. And to watch it all get destroyed by the hurricane of 1935 is a sad and ironic ending to a structure that was supposed to stand as a monument to Mr. Flagler and his vision for what Florida could become.
Flagler is one of those people who hasn't seemed to get much notice in history, given the role he played. He actually worked side-by-side with Rockefeller in building Standard Oil to the mega-monopoly that it became. As such, he ended up with far more money than a single person could ever spend. After spending some time off down in Florida, he became enamored with the state. He also saw a potential business opportunity... The Panama Canal was being built, and Tampa was the nearest deep water port on the Atlantic side. Flagler felt that he could turn Key West into the new destination, 300 miles closer to the Canal than Tampa. A railroad from Key West to the mainland could make a fortune. Thus... it was time to start building "Flagler's Folly", an engineering feat that many said couldn't be done. 20 years and millions of dollars later, Flagler experienced his dream... riding a train down the Florida coast, onto the Keys, and finally ending up at Key West. But yet little more than 20 years later, it all lay in ruins, a victim of the 1935 hurricane, thought by many to be the strongest storm ever to hit the US (over 200 mile per hour winds). But its short life doesn't negate the enormity of what Flagler was able to accomplish, as well as how it laid the groundwork for the highway that would soon link all the keys in the same way the rail line did.
Standiford does a good job weaving the story of Flagler's trials to get his dream built. He also does an excellent job in showing exactly what obstacles were overcome to make it happen. It truly was a monumental feat of engineering for the time and technology. The hurricane portion of the story seems to get short billing, however. I've read stories of the hurricane and devastation, and it's really not captured here at the level I'd expect. But even with that caveat, Last Train is worth reading to recapture a sense of what dreamers (albeit with a lot of money) used to dream...