Last Train to Paradise follows Henry Flagler and the spectacular rise and fall of the railroad that crossed an ocean.
In the Last Train to Paradise, novelist Les Standiford has written a lively, felicitous account of the building of the Florida East Coast Railway, which, for a little over two decades, connected mainland Florida with the southernmost city, Key West.
Henry Morrison Flagler, John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil partner and, in the eyes of many, the true genius behind that company, embarked on the project in 1905 when he was 74 years old.
The railroad, which crossed more than 150 miles of open sea, was an engineering feat nearly equal in scale and difficulty to the digging of the Panama Canal. Standiford’s narrative skillfully blends tales of construction perils (not the least of which were escadrilles of mosquitoes) with brief, illuminating travelogues and natural histories with pocket descriptions of life in early 20th-century Florida. Eye witness accounts describe the storm’s terror and a truly gripping description of an epic battle against the monstrous 1935 Labor Day hurricane that lead to yet another devastating setback to the already bankrupt Florida East Coast Railroad. Being unable to escape the storms rage, the stalled rescue train’s surviving engineer and crew survive a 20 foot storm surge in the cab of the FEC 160-ton 4-8-2 steam locomotive, #447. With nary a single missed note, this fascinating tale is popular history at its best.
Historian and author Les Standiford appears in this 100th Anniversary video of the building of the Overseas Railroad
Flagler’s Train – The Florida Keys Over-Sea Railroad as seen on PBS. See more from WPBT2 Presents.
By john purcell: Les Standiford has put together a spell-binding tale of the last of the privately financed infrastructure projects undertaken by the larger than life 19th century businessmen. Here Henry Flagler races against his own mortality to complete a railroad from Jacksonville to Key West, with the final run south from Miami requiring herculean engineering, management, and financial resources. Flagler was a partner of John D. Rockefeller in an earlier venture known as Standard Oil who decided in his 70′s to pursue a second career in railroading, land development, and luxury hotels in the then desolate country of South Florida and the Keys.
Standiford weaves together Flagler, Rockefeller, their arch-rival trust-busting Teddy Roosevelt, WWI bonus armies, and big-game hunting author Ernest Hemingway. While Rockefeller also owned vacation homes in Florida, he and Flagler ultimately had a parting of the ways, with Rockefeller pointedly not attending Flagler’s funeral. Flagler had been an early supporter of Roosevelt in his successful bid for the New York governorship after Roosevelt’s success in the brief Spanish American war. Later Roosevelt brought antitrust action against Standard Oil and at least in Flagler’s mind was behind government resistance to his plan to build a deep water harbor in Miami. Ironically, the US victory in the Spanish American War, together with confirmed plans to build the Panama Canal, were the motivation for Flagler’s railroad adventures, as Flagler projected, incorrectly as it turned out, that Miami and Key West would grow in stature as ports.
The final thread introduces Hemingway into the mix. The author was already a well-known Key Wester when the hurricane of Labor Day 1935 ravaged the Keys. Although Hemingway’s home and his beloved boat Pilar were not seriously damaged, Flagler’s railroad was destroyed. A group of WWI bonus army veterans were working on road construction. Many were killed, despite a daring railroad rescue attempt. By 1935, Flagler was long dead and the railroad was in bankruptcy. It was never rebuilt, although some bridges are still standing, for the exclusive use of fishermen and birds.
Last Train to Paradise is a nonfiction account of the construction of the railroad connecting Key West to the Florida mainland, a project headed by Henry Flagler.
It is a well-researched and documented history of an exciting time in the exploration and development of Florida that reads like a novel.
Building a railroad over 150 miles of water under the harshest of conditions was the vision of one man, Henry Flagler. Mr. Flagler used his personal fortune to make this dream come true.
When he first arrived in Florida he was the second wealthiest man in the country. His fortune was made in partnership with John Rockefeller and the creation of Standard Oil.
The ingenuity necessary to accomplish this task is absolutely incredible. The obstacles overcome included the brutal weather (heat and hurricanes), having to import every item from drinking water to food to nails.
As I read the story I found the task more impossible with each accomplishment along the way. The closer they got to their objective, the more unattainable I thought the goal was. They truly did the impossible.
That Mr. Flagler and his crew succeeded is a testament to the pioneer spirit of America.
Dr. Standiford has written a fast paced book. He is a wonderful story teller. It is where truth and fact is so improbable, that one could not make up a superior fictional account.
The photographs are a wonderful addition.
With all the scandals in business today, it is enlightening to read the story of a man who put his reputation and own money on the line for what he believed in.
As Dr. Standiford said: “Henry Flagler evolved from acquisitive robber baron to creator.”
Henry Flagler may not have discovered Florida, but he saw all the state’s possibilities and created the framework and infrastructure that made Florida livable.
- Flagler Museum – A visit into the life of Henry Flagler (turosdolci.wordpress.com)
- Visit the Henry Flagler Museum – West Palm Beach