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Henry Flagler and the Spectacular Rise and Fall of the Railroad that Crossed an Ocean

by Les Standiford

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 2002
ISBN: 0-609-60748-0
Publisher: Crown

A History Lite tale chronicles the building, between 1892 and 1912, of the 156-mile railroad from Miami to Key West, once billed as the Eighth Wonder of the World.

As he readily acknowledges, Florida resident and novelist Standiford (Bone Key, p. 296, etc.) owes much to those professional historians who dug out the details of the remarkable story he swiftly and ably summarizes. He begins at the end: Labor Day, 1935, when a massive hurricane struck the Keys, an event exhaustively detailed in William Drye’s Storm of the Century (above). Among those scurrying around trying to protect life and property were Ernest Hemingway, whose house and boat suffered minor damage, and Bertrand Russell, who lost family members and very nearly died himself. Just as a 20-foot tidal wave hits a train, the author whisks us away to the year 1904. Henry Flagler, a trusted associate of John D. Rockefeller and an extremely wealthy man himself, courtesy of Standard Oil, has decided to develop Florida. Standiford fleshes out Flagler’s remarkable career as hotel-builder and resort-developer, portraying him as an innovative entrepreneur with an unflagging faith in himself and in his structural engineers. Although the press characterized the projected railroad across swamp and sea as “Flagler’s Folly,” he never doubted it would one day exist and turn a tidy profit. He was right about the former, wrong about the latter. Standiford does an admirable job of keeping the story afloat as the project is plagued by hurricane, mosquitoes, and vast cost overruns, and he has an eye for the memorable detail (e.g., each morning, alligators had to be shooed away from the construction equipment), as well as a weakness for clichés. At the end, he returns readers to his exciting account of the 1935 hurricane that destroyed much of the roadbed and exiled the railroad to history.

Engaging, but facile. (8 pp. b&w photos, not seen)