By Diane McDilda
What a difference a century makes. From a collection of isolated coastal communities to a popular tourist destination and sports fishing capital, the Florida Keys look nothing like they did a hundred years ago. All the changes were made possible by the dream of one man and the hard work of many.
In 1904, Henry Flagler had a vision. He saw a continuous railroad reaching out beyond Miami, skipping away from Florida City, across the spoil islands, and making its way down to Key West. Today, travelers drive on US Highway One, a two-lane road that stretches more than 100 miles and includes 42 bridges.
The Seven Mile Bridge stands out above the others. Today, drivers crossing between Marathon and Bahia Honda State Park see two bridges standing side-by-side - one tall and contemporary - the other compact and majestic: There is history there, but the story of the Seven Mile Bridge cannot be told without looking beyond the bridge of U.S. 1.
Flagler had amassed a small fortune after forming Standard Oil with John D. Rockefeller and Samuel Adams. Flagler convinced other private investors to take part in financing the Florida East Coast (FEC) Key West Extension.
Construction of the original bridge began in 1908 as part of the Florida East Coast Rail Line. Pigeon Key, a five-acre coral island in the middle of Moser Channel, served as the base camp for construction crews. Upwards of 400 workers lived on the island, many with their families.
Building was menacing. With deep water rushing below it, the Seven Mile Bridge had to be taller than the other bridges. Workers drove piers—the legs of the bridge—down into coral rock below the water. Twenty feet above the water, the piers were connected with riveted steel spans each weighing in at 19 tons. Near Pigeon Key, the low standing bridge included a swing arm, a section of the bridge that rotated 90 degrees, giving room for boat traffic to pass.
Four years after construction began, the bridge was complete. On Jan. 22, 1912, Henry Flagler, friends and FEC associates celebrated the occasion by riding in his private train all the way to Key West. He lived to see the bridge come to life, but with his health declining Flagler died 16 months after the trip.
The train continued shuttling passengers and included regular stops at Bahia Honda. Here, families left the confines of the train for the sandy beaches, sun and surf. By the 1920s, local governments decided that an overseas highway was needed to give travelers the freedom of driving their own cars. The Overseas Road and Toll Bridge District was formed to manage the funding, and construction of a highway that would take a route alongside the rail line.
While the popularity of the railroad continued, miles of roads and a number of bridges were constructed. Ferries, transporting car from shore to shore, were used where bridges had yet to be built.
Spaniards invested much interest
Construction of the highway system was expensive, and in the early 1930s, President Franklin Roosevelt and Congress agreed to offer assistance. As part of the New Deal, veterans and their families were sent to the Keys to work on the construction. By 1935, 700 veterans lived and labored on the South Florida islands.
Shortly after, tragedy struck. A hurricane blew through the Keys, changing lives, the railway and the highway forever. With winds reported as high as 200 to 250 miles per hour, the storm pummeled the islands and the railway connecting them. A train sent from Miami to rescue the working veterans was washed from the tracks by a 17-foot storm surge, taking with it hundreds of workers and their families.
After the storm passed, damaged was assessed. Although the cost to repair the bridge was relatively low, the FEC had lost interest in the Overseas Railroad. The group sold the right-of-way for the entire track—from Florida City to Key West—to the District for $640,000. In November 1936, workers began to transform the railway into the Overseas Highway.
To convert the old railroad, the tracks were topped with steel Ibeams, welded across the top of the original railroad to create a narrow roadbed. The bridge was a mere 20 feet wide, with 9-inch-tall curbs on each side. The Overseas Highway and renovated Seven Mile Bridge officially opened as a toll road on March 29, 1938.
Over the decades, development continued, and traffic on U.S. 1 soared. It became obvious a larger bridge was needed. Construction of the new bridge began in 1979 and was finished three years later. It is the longest continuous concrete segmental bridge in the world and was the first application of precast, prestressed concrete sections in the United States. A total of 440 spans were used to complete the bridge. The new bridge rises over the channel to a height of 65 feet, allowing boats to run underneath without hindering traffic above.
The stately bridge spans approximately 35,867 feet, and, at 6.67 miles, it is just shy of making the seven miles touted by its name. It stretches between mile marker (MM) 47 and MM 40.
The bridge is celebrated annually when traffic is closed for the Seven Mile Bridge Run.
The swing gate on the old bridge was removed, and the bridge is now closed to cars. Foot traffic is welcome, with parking at both ends. The old bridge is a popular fishing spot, especially at night when folks camp in the moonlight, making themselves comfortable with tents and cooking gear.A parking lot at MM 47 allows pedestrians to park and walk the two miles to Pigeon Key. A trolley dubbed “Henry” takes visitors from the parking lot to the island.
Pigeon Key, once home to workers and their families, is now a landmark, with seven of its original buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The not-for-profit Pigeon Key Foundation, an organization that has converted one of the buildings into a railroad history museum, cares for the buildings. Visitors can tour the museum or just relax on the island. A visit to the island is a trip back in time , when Henry Flagler first envisioned his Overseas Railroad.