Henry Morrison Flagler built a railroad into the ocean.

In 1905 when the United States announced the construction of the Panama Canal, Key West was the third most populous city in the state of Florida.  Yet the islands of the Florida Keys could only be reached from the mainland by boat.  Henry Flagler had been the partner of John D. Rockefeller at Standard Oil, but upon retiring he moved to Florida and became something of a railroad tycoon.  His Florida East Coast Railway closely followed the Atlantic coastline, and by 1904 had reached Miami.  Realizing that the Panama Canal would raise the profile and importance of Key West even further, Flagler decided to connect the port to the mainland.

And so like Flagler’s foolish railroad our love was swept into the sea

Initially called Flagler’s Folly, the Overseas Railroad came to be known as the Eighth Wonder of the World.  The project cost more than $50 million, requiring incredible innovations in engineering and employing four thousand people over the course of seven years.  In 1912 Flagler took the first train over the 127 miles of rail that connected the islands through a series of extraordinary bridges.  Key West exploded with life.  Yet in 1935, little more than twenty years later, the Keys were hit by a devastating hurricane.  Hundreds of people died, sections of the railroad were destroyed, and a train was blown into the sea.  The Florida East Railroad Company, already bankrupt from the Depression, couldn’t afford to rebuild.  The roadbed and remaining bridges were sold to the State of Florida for a mere $640,000.

(Ciera with the nearly tame, miniature deer that roam Big Pine Key)

Ciera Wells (“Keys That Don’t Open Locks”) and I took a trip together to the Florida Keys.  We flew into Palm Beach and then rented a car and drove down Highway 1.  The Overseas Highway still invokes an awe similar to the initial accounts of Flagler’s railroad.  At times it seems as if you are driving through the sky, in the middle of the ocean.  The water is an exquisite turquoise, a color so vivid it seems unreal. The Keys are almost unspeakably beautiful.  Ciera and I, however, broke up not long after that trip.  We had helped each other through difficult times in our lives (for both of us really) but timing, as they say, is everything. Yet just as the Overseas Highway was built from the wreckage of Flagler’s railroad, so too Ciera and I now find ourselves in a friendship that began as something else.

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