November 06, 2012
As the year winds down, scores of anglers will look back on 2012 with fond memories of awesome Key West fishing. And with fourth-quarter chill driving a mass migration of gamefish to these warm, current-rich waters, the forthcoming winter season promises a briny bonanza for America's southernmost city.
No doubt, the sport fishing world holds Key West in high esteem, but it was one man's vision, resolve and unflinching spirit that brought this angling oasis into mainstream awareness. Who's that man? Well, for those who blurted out "Hemmingway," yeah, Papa certainly has his place in Key West history. But we're talking about Henry Flagler -- the pioneering railroad magnate who, in 1904, decided to extend his East Coast Railroad all the way out to Key West. In doing so, his monumental project, which marked its 100th anniversary in January, forever changed how this once distant subtropical getaway relates to the U.S. mainland.
Back then, Key West was considered something of an exotic flower; a multi-cultural bouillabaisse awash with the legend and lore of pirates, rum runners and sport fishing adventurists. Recognizing the island as the nearest deep water port to the Panama Canal project, Flagler saw his railroad's extension as a freight route for construction materials, as well as a new mode of passenger transportation.
Linking Flagler's Florida East Coast railroad to Key West took 42 million tons of steel, 92 million tons of gravel and an initial workforce of 4,000. Cutting a path through dense coastal forests and across swamps, the project saw workers endure relentless mosquitoes, bouts of yellow fever and the often brutal South Florida heat. Tropical weather also took its toll, as the hurricane of October 1906 claimed 135 workers when quarter boats sank.
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Constantly challenged by logistical issues far exceeding today's technology-aided construction industry, Flagler lacked not for bad news. Story has it though, that each telegram with woeful news from a frustrated construction manager received a simple reply: "You shall proceed to Key West."
That they did and at 10:30 a.m. on Jan. 22, 1912, an 82-year-old Flagler arrived on the first train into the Southernmost City. Having lived to see his life's dream accomplished, Flagler died the next year and after two decades of service, financial hardships threatened the Key West Railroad's future. The Labor Day hurricane of 1935 sealed its fate by washing out 40 miles of track. The State of Florida bought the right-of-way and moved quickly to convert the rail system into an automobile highway. Completed in 1938, the Florida Overseas Highway - an All-American Road and Florida Scenic Highway - has since provided a straight shot from Miami to Key West's angling abundance.
Sure, today's angler can fly into Key West Airport from several cities throughout the U.S.; but if you've never driven the 113 miles and 42 bridges - including the Seven-Mile Bridge at Marathon - you're missing a real treat. For one thing, inviting island culture beckons a visit all along this strip of some 1,700 keys (43 connected). Fresh-as-it-gets seafood is never far away, souvenir shells are really easy to find and between the major land masses, the ocean views are simply intoxicating.
Modern transportation may have changed its purpose, but regardless of what rolled above, Henry Flagler's massive expanse of concrete and steel has granted access to a peerless angling mecca, while also serving as a giant reef system that attracts everything from tarpon to goliath grouper. So, the next time your schedule accommodates some drive time, roll down the windows, crank up the Buffet and soak up that soul-cleansing Florida sunshine. You'll want to mind the speed limit, but many find a slower pace preferable. It's one of those trips in which you'll appreciate the journey as much as the destination.
I'm pretty certain Mr. Flagler did.
For information on The Florida Keys and Key West, visit http://www.fla-keys.com/.