Museum to open new Flagler exhibit
Train display will transport visitors to Roaring '20s
Henry Flagler's Florida Keys Overseas Railroad was viewed as a modern marvel when it was finally completed 100 years ago this month.
The inaugural train rolled through the Keys in January 1912, connecting the previously isolated islands with each other and the mainland, beginning the Keys' evolution into a modern-day vacation destination. The railroad stretched more than 100 miles of low-lying coastal areas and bridges over open water, revered as the world's most unique railroad.
The project proved that man cannot build anything that Mother Nature cannot tear down. The railroad came to a tragic end when a portion of the line was destroyed in a 1935 hurricane, which left nearly 400 people dead, and it was never able to fully recover.
In conjunction with the 100-year anniversary, the Key West Museum of Art History at the Custom House will open its latest exhibit about Flagler's famed railroad. The exhibit, which will open Jan. 22 after a 1 p.m. Duval Street parade in Flagler's honor, will take the railroad from its launch in 1912, through its heyday in the 1920s, to its demise in the 1930s.
The museum last year completed a replica of a Florida East Coast Railway car that allows visitors to get the feel of a rail-line journey through the Keys. The exhibit also features a film recounting Flagler's story and the much-heralded arrival of the first train.
The museum has expanded the exhibit with a new Roaring '20s section that allows visitors to step off the train car and be transported to the lobby of Flagler's famed resort hotel, the Casa Marina, during a flapper-style New Year's Eve ball that marked its opening.
Opened on New Year's Eve 1920, the Casa Marina was Key West's most glamorous resort of its day. The hotel was conceived by Flagler and intended to accommodate wealthy railroad passengers.
"In 1912, Key West was the largest and richest city in Florida," said Claudia Pennington, museum executive director. "That's why the railroad came."
The exhibit has dark wooden beams in front of a vintage '20s lobby shot that gives visitors the feeling they are standing in the hotel in its heyday. The exhibit also features the original lamps from the Casa Marina.
The exhibit takes visitors literally to the end of the line and one of the Keys' most historic events -- the 1935 Labor Day Hurricane. That section of the exhibit is loosely being called "The Day the Clocks Stopped," invoking a quote from Bernard Russell -- whose Keys founding family was almost entirely wiped out in the hurricane -- about how they knew when the storm hit.
The exhibit depicts the force of that Category 5 hurricane, with photographs of the wreckage of the Islamorada train station and train cars blown off the tracks. The exhibit also features a photograph taken from Ernest Hemingway's camera that shows bodies floating in a canal.
In addition to the photographs, there is a telling Sept. 2, 1935, telegram between railroad executives about evacuating Florida Emergency Relief Administration workers in advance of the hurricane, which hit later that day.
They requested the dispatch of a "special train form Miami quick as possible with six coaches and five baggage cars and three box cars to Matecumbe (Key) to load between four hundred and five hundred workers for movement to Hollywood. Party will detrain in Hollywood but will desire to return to Matecumbe some time tomorrow when the storm has passed."
Neither the train nor the workers, who were working on a road construction project, ever made it out of the Keys.
The exhibit also features storm sounds and audio narration by Key West maritime historian and painter David Harrison Wright. "It is a hell of a story," he said.
The exhibit ends with the last evolution of transportation in the Keys, the Overseas Highway. By the 1920s, new forms of transportation had begun to encroach on the railroad's popularity and profitability, Pennington said.
While air travel was to become the way of the future, the real competitor was the automobile, she said.
Henry Ford revolutionized many aspects of American life by mass-producing vehicles on an assembly line. As the process evolved, the cost of cars dropped so that in 1920, an assembly line worker could buy a $300 Model T for about three months' salary. By 1927, 15 million Model Ts had been built, Pennington said.
Some of the affluent people who traveled to Key West preferred their private automobiles to the trains. By 1928, they could drive the entire way, except for two lengthy ferry rides in the Middle Keys.
Not without its challenges, the road was a narrow dirt lane that turned into mud in the rain and was frequently submerged at high tide, Pennington said.
By 1938, the Overseas Railroad had been replaced by the Overseas Highway.