Take a drive back in time down U.S. Highway 1 in the Florida Keys and relive the history of the Over-Sea Railroad.
Construction to link the isolated islands to the mainland began in 1905 when oil tycoon Henry Flagler envisioned Key West as an ideal deep-water port for trade with Cuba, Latin America and ships passing through the Panama Canal. The railroad was destroyed during a tragic hurricane in 1935, but you can still explore remnants of what was once called the “Eighth Wonder of the World.”
Just south of Marathon, stop at the Pigeon Key Visitor Center in the vintage red Flagler railway car. From there, it’s a 15-minute ferry ride to this five-acre island, which was once a camp for workers on the Old Seven Mile Bridge. The seven-year project to build the railroad employed thousands of men working in harsh conditions, and more than 250 died. Eight historic structures still remain of the camp, and a guide shares what life was like there in the early 1900s. A small museum showcases a 20-minute film and old photographs, as well as exhibits of construction tools and materials. Make a day of it and bring a picnic lunch; you can enjoy the unique views of the old and new bridges side by side as you snorkel and swim.
1 Knights Key Boulevard, Marathon, 305-743-5999; http://www.pigeonkey.net/
Instead of riding the ferry back to the visitor center, walk along the two-mile stretch of the Old Seven Mile Bridge, now a pedestrian path. You can almost feel the vibrations of the steam-powered locomotives in the rusted guardrails, which were made from the original tracks. Look down at the thick concrete pilings and imagine the workers using the early diving techniques — big helmets and steel boots with someone on the surface cranking the air pumps.
About 10 miles farther south, Bahia Honda State Park offers not only white sandy beaches but also the only camelback-type steel bridge used on the Overseas Railway. As it spanned the deepest water — over 24 feet — Bahia Honda Bridge posed the greatest challenge for the engineers along the Key West Extension, hence its unique construction. Snorkel at Calusa Beach in the shadow of the iron-trestle bridge or take the steep trail to the top for the perfect sunset perch with panoramic views of the island and turquoise waters.
36850 Overseas Highway, Big Pine Key, 305-872-2353, http://floridastateparks.org/bahiahonda/
When you reach Key West, the end point of the original railroad, visit the Museum of Art and History at the Customs House near Mallory Square. Its Speedway to Sunshine exhibition features items such as a railroad worker’s tool chest and conductor’s uniform. Sit in the replica rail car and watch vintage footage of Flagler’s travails (three hurricanes, sinking bridges and a $50 million price tag) and triumph with his arrival on the first train to Key West in 1912.
281 Front Street, Key West, 305-295-6616; kwahs.com
There’s no more appropriate place to stay on Key West than Casa Marina Resort, the luxurious “house by the sea” that Flagler built to accommodate wealthy passengers coming down on his train. This elegant 331-room resort, now operated by Waldorf Astoria, has hosted a who’s who of presidents and celebrities since its opening on New Year’s Eve, 1920. Flagler died before the completion of the hotel, but his influence is everywhere. The Mediterranean archways echo bridges like the Long Key Viaduct, and the same saltwater-resistant concrete used in the Seven Mile Bridge was poured for the foundation of the hotel.
1500 Reynolds Street, Key West, 305-296-3535; http://casamarinaresort.com/