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Henry M. Flagler changed the small islands of the Florida Keys forever when he expanded the Florida East Coast Railways. In 1885, Flagler saw the great potential that the state had for growth. He was 75 when the construction for the railway began. It started in homestead stretching 128 miles down to the United States southernmost point, Key West. The railroad brought in goods, money, and tourists by the thousands. Though unfinished, the project was considered the eighth wonder of the world.


  • Pictured is part of the old railway that ran through Bahia Honda Key partially destroyed by the Labor Day hurricane.
  • The Seven mile bridge was one the the most challenging parts of the project. To the right was the railway and to the left is the newly built roadway. About two miles into the seven mile bridge (southbound) stands Pigeon Key. Here, more than 400 workers st
  • A photo of the old railway.

The overseas railroad was created to generate growth in the southern parts of Florida. Henry. M. Flagler became a very successful business man with the help of John D. Rockefeller when they established the Standard Oil Company in 1870. After this, Flagler purchased a small portion of a railroad that started in Jacksonville and ran through St. Augustine. This soon began to reach down the east coast towards Miami and be named the Florida East Coast Railway. In 1885, Flagler decided to expand this railway, opening up brand new doors for the state, and for its 90 mile distant friend, Cuba. Key West was the closest deep water channel to the Panama Canal and would bring in an abundance of trade possibilities. The entire project cost totaled to over $50 million. Materials from all over the world were brought to help build and maintain the railways. Steel from Pennsylvania for the tracks, cement from Germany and Belgium, gravel from the Chesapeake, to name a few. The construction officially began in 1905, though the first segment of the railway was not completed until 1908 (homestead to marathon). 4,000 men were employed throughout the stretch of the tracks. 

Marathon then became business central. Cuban ships brought pineapples and limes to transport throughout the US. Thus the trade within the Caribbean increased as well. The sponge and cigar industry thrived with the help of the railway. The first train to Key West carried its own Henry M. Flagler in 1912. Upon his arrival, he was greeted with heroism and joy. The Keys and its residents thrived with the help of the railroad. 

After the Great Depression hit, the population of the Florida Keys dropped from 20,000 to 12,000. The sponge industry moved north to Tarpon Springs and the cigar industry to Tampa. An extreme loss of resources caused production to slow and residents started to turn to government assistance. In 1928, the county funded the establishment of roadways parallel to the tracks because as the American dollar grew, it was cheaper to haul cargo by car than by train. On Labor Day in 1935 (09/02/1935), the Florida Keys were hit by a hurricane that halted the project and too 432 lives. The production of the railway was never reconstructed due to expenses. The old overseas railroad still stands in some parts of the keys as a great reminder of the beginning of the eighth wonder of the world. 

About the Overseas Railroad. 30 March, 2018. http://overseasrailroad.railfan.net/about.htm.

The History Bandits. The Overseas Railroad: Florida's "Key" to a Perceived Paradise.. March 10, 2017. March 30, 2018. https://thehistorybandits.com/.