January 21, 1912 – Key West, Florida: At 10:34 a.m. the train from Miami arrived at the new Key West depot. Joined by dignitaries from North and South America, eighty-two-year-old Henry Flagler, with tears in his eyes, sat on the front seat of the first passenger car. More than ten thousand people cheered the first train in history to arrive in Key West.

Newspapers referred to the 153-mile railroad extension project from Miami as “The Railroad Over the Ocean.” Critics referred to the project as Flagler’s Folly; they laughed at the absurdity and cost of his project. But on this day, when at long last the project was completed, civil engineers called it the Eighth Wonder of the World.

Fifty years before Flagler’s Key West train ride, he met John D. Rockefeller and the two became friends and business associates. In 1867, they built their first oil refinery in Ohio and co-founded the Standard Oil Company. Over the next twenty-five years, Standard Oil became the largest company in America and the two partners among the nation’s wealthiest men.

In 1879, Flagler and his wife traveled by train to Jacksonville, Florida, the end of the rail line. They took a boat to St. Augustine and fell in love with the charm of the oldest city in America. Flagler purchased several short line railroads and formed the Florida East Coast Railroad. His first project was to lay fifty miles of track to connect Jacksonville to St. Augustine.

By 1896, Flagler’s railroad extended another seventy miles south to a small, mosquito-plagued, swamp town of 1,500 fishermen and trappers known as Miami. At the time, Key West, the southernmost community in the Florida archipelago chain was the largest town in Florida with a population of 50,000.

In July 1905, there was talk of a canal in Panama connecting two oceans and Flagler saw Key West as a vital port. The seventy-five-year-old chairman overrode the advice of his company’s financial analysts and announced the Key West extension, a project with an estimated price tag of $27 million. No construction company wanted to tackle the thought-to-be-impossible railroad over the ocean, so Flagler did the project with his own company.

Work began at multiple locations along the chain of islands with 3,000 construction workers employed in the massive undertaking. In October 1906 a hurricane hit Key Largo killing 125 men and destroying 20 miles of railroad. In October 1909 a second hurricane hit the Keys with 125 mph winds, killing 19 men and washing away 40 miles of track. The following October a third hurricane washed away 17 miles of rail.

Railroad officials urged Flagler to scrap the project before he bankrupted the company, but giving up was not in his vocabulary. Flagler would finish what he started, or die trying. Despite failing health, financial issues, and the death of his chief construction engineer, 80-year-old Flagler borrowed $10 million from J.P. Morgan to continue construction.

Galvanized by the old man’s resolve, his construction team was determined to have the chief “ride his own iron” to Key West before he died. It was apparent to them the only thing keeping Flagler alive was seeing the project completed.

It took seven years, $50 million, and a trainload of persistence but in January 1912 the Florida East Coast Railroad Key West extension was completed. The railroad line featured 15 major bridges over the ocean, including a seven-mile bridge thirty feet above the water, which at the time was the world’s longest continuous bridge. Henry Flagler, who lived to see the completion of his dream, died 15 months later in St. Augustine.

Today U.S. Highway 1, the spectacular Overseas Highway, which stretches from Miami to Key West follows the old Flagler Railroad bed. It is a breath-taking reminder of Henry Flagler’s perseverance.

 “He never knew when he was whipped and so he never was.”        Louis L’amour