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FLORIDA'S RAILROAD DREAMS

SPEEDWAY TO SUNSHINE: The Story of the Florida East Coast Railway

By Seth Bramson

Boston Mills Press, $39.95, 352 pp

A SHORT HISTORY OF FLORIDA RAILROADS

By Gregg Turner

Arcadia, $24.99, 160 pp

FLORIDA'S GREAT OCEAN RAILWAY: Building the Key West Extension

By Dan Gallagher

Pineapple Press, $19.95, 198 pp

Reviewed by SUSAN FERNANDEZ

With its hot, humid climate, swamps, alligators and mosquitoes, Florida historically has offered challenges to railroad builders not encountered in other parts of the country. To extend the railroad to Key West, for example, millions of tons of rock and sand had to be moved; viaducts had to cross miles of open water.

The visionary who introduced rail into Florida was Henry Morrison Flagler, a onetime partner in the Standard Oil Co. and a wealthy man. Flagler had built luxury hotels and he needed a way to get people to them. He also wanted to ship the state's abundant year-round crops north. Railroads provided passengers and shippers a form of transportation that was fast and dependable. The early 1900s would see the golden age of the state's railroads.

Three books on the story of Florida's railroads have been published in the past couple of months, two of them updated and revised editions.

Speedway to Sunshine by Seth Bramson is the most glamorous of the three, containing more than 450 photographs, many in color. Unfortunately, it is poorly organized (there is no index) and its narrative is weak. Bramson, the official company historian of the Florida East Coast Railway, is more a cheerleader for the railroad company than a balanced historian. He has been a collector of railroad photos and materials for 50 years and his knowledge is sweeping, but he overwrites. Here, for example, is how he introduces the the hurricane of 1935 that did so much damage to Florida: "The coquettish Caribbean, mothering horrors that had struck hard at the Sunshine State, bred another demon."

The original Speedway was published in 1984. For this edition, Bramson has added rare photos, timetables, booklets, track diagrams and lots of other insider tidbits from his massive collection of railroad memorabilia.

A plainer sister to Speedway is A Short History of Florida Railroads by Gregg Turner. The layout is not so lavish, the book is smaller, the photos are black and white, and the writing is more concise. Part of Arcadia Publishing's series entitled The Making of America, which records the remarkable contributions made by individual communities to our nation's heritage, this book is exactly what its title promises and is a good choice if you prefer a story that moves along, on time, like a reliable choo-choo. It is, however, short on detail. The section on the building of the Key West extension, which is arguably the most interesting aspect of the history of Florida railroads, is given a mere five pages.

For a more extensive treatment of that subject, there's Dan Gallagher's Florida's Great Ocean Railway: Building the Key West Extension. A retired historian, boat captain and railroad buff, Gallagher has expanded and updated his original self-published history of what would prove to be an unparalleled feat of engineering. "The most ambitious construction project in the world during the first decade of the twentieth century was the great canal across Panama," he writes. "The second-largest project _ the Florida East Coast Railway Key West Extension _ similarly captured the attention of the U.S. and international public."

From 1905 to 1916 some 4,000 workers toiled under the subtropical Florida sun to build 128 miles of railroad that would extend the existing railroad from Miami to Key West. About 160 workers died during construction. Critics called the project "Flagler's Folly." One of the biggest obstacles facing the planners was making sure that the right tools and massive amounts of raw materials were in the right place at the right time. Under the direction of construction engineer J.C. Meredith, the planners used local materials whenever possible.

Gallagher has combed private and public photo collections and has chosen some fascinating snapshots _ many of them taken by amateurs during construction. His selection is more people-oriented than the photos in Bramson's and Turner's books. We see the living quarters, the various boats used to haul supplies and materials, and the men at work and at play. (And they were mostly men.) He even includes some pictures of the cement mixers that were floated from site to site.

The biggest challenge to extending rail to Key West was constructing the Long Key Viaduct, which connected Long Key and Conch Key and had to cross 2.7 miles of ocean. Tides could be rough, and a causeway was ruled out because it could get washed away in big storms. The plans called for 180 arches built of steel and reinforced concrete.

On Jan. 22, 1912, the first engine pulled into Key West amid great festivities. Of course Henry Flagler was on board. In September 1935 a great hurricane hit the Keys and destroyed the Key West extension. It could have been fixed, but it wasn't. Travel had changed again, and now money was going toward new roads. The railroad to Key West was never rebuilt.

Susan Fernandez is a writer living in Bradenton. Her email is suefernandezmail.com.

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