Sunday, February 19, 2012

Florida Keys Challenge - 8

The sweeping beach of Bahia Honda.

Our lay day on Bahia Honda gave us a great chance for rest, reading, exploring the island, laundry, and fishing. I’m not a fisherman, but as a tangent for those who are, note that I’ve added a new link by Jason Self in the right margin called Kayak Angler. You may find it interesting.

The old Rt. 1 now framed by a grove of sea grapes.

The old Bahia Honda Channel bridge spans 5,055 feet. Its approach is now abandoned and framed by sea grapes. The road bed is now a tourist path from the state park up to the deck of the old bridge. They finally had to re-deck and add width to the roadway. It doesn’t take much imagination to look at this bridge and visualize the pieces of side-view mirrors and fenders scattered on the roadway.

After the railroad right-of-way was sold to the State of Florida, the road deck was
built over Flagler's railroad trestles.

Compare Flagler's roughly 105-year old concrete work with the much
newer concrete work of the highway department.

I find the character of Henry Flagler, like other successful people, as revealed by his projects as interesting as the projects themselves. There is a single-mindedness that I wish I had understood when I was much younger. When he revealed his plans for building his railroad bridge to span the Keys, he was told it was impossible. Even after his successes in creating Standard Oil and the projects of St. Augustine, he was still told it couldn’t be done. He, on the other hand, couldn’t see why everyone thought it was such a big deal. He said, “It is perfectly simple. All you have to do is to build one concrete arch, and then another, and pretty soon you will find yourself in Key West.” Or, as I will elaborate tomorrow, when told there was no land to build a seaport on, he responded, “Well, then make some.” Along with single-mindedness was commitment. The railroad was started in 1905 and would take until 1912 to finish. Over 10,000 men worked to make the dream of one man a reality.

Crossing Bahia Honda Channel.  The current Overseas Highway is seen
in the right edge of the picture.

Also, he was very attentive to details and was quick to change his approach to a project based on what he learned in the process. Wanting to use a concrete that would work well in sea water, he found a mixture he liked in Germany and imported it to the Keys. Realizing that steel reinforcement would rust when concrete was mixed with salt water, he carried fresh water from the mainland. I was told that this hundred-year-old lesson wouldn’t be RE-learned by the Florida Department of Transportation until about 20 years ago. In Flagler’s era, carrying cement from Germany, and every gallon of water up to a hundred miles or more to the construction site, would not be too unlike us now starting a major project and having all the building materials brought in from the moon.

Our camp site from the old bridge.

While the railroad opened the East Coast, brought life, commerce, and tourism (something that had never really existed before) to Florida and the Keys, it never made a penny of profit for Flagler. It operated from 1912 until 1935, and was then driven into bankruptcy by two events---the Great Depression and the devastating hurricane of 2 September 1935. The Labor Day hurricane, the third strongest ever to hit the United States, produced 185-200 mph. winds and a 20-ft. storm surge. It has been surpassed only by Wilma in 2005 and Gilbert in 1988. To put the storm in better perspective, Katrina, still fresh in our memories, ranks sixth. Also, remember the average height of the Keys above sea level is only ten feet.

Hurricane Memorial
Credit: google pictures

The hurricane killed 408 people, nearly all of them in the Keys. The ten-car evacuation train was swept from the tracks with only the locomotive remaining. The bodies of those who lost their lives were recovered from all over the Keys, Florida Bay and Cape Sable, the tip of the Florida peninsula. About 300 of their remains were cremated and interred in a tiled crypt at the foot of the Florida Hurricane Monument on Islamorada Key. A large percentage of those lost were World War I veterans that had rushed to the Keys in search of work on the construction of U.S. Rt. 1. The railroad would never be rebuilt, and the right-of-way was sold to the State of Florida for the construction of the Overseas Highway, which would extend Rt. 1 to Key West.

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