Following A Train To Sea

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At the end of Marathon lies little Knight’s Key, whose far end is an especially dramatic place. There the two famous Seven-Mile bridges—Flagler’s and its 1980s replacement—put out to sea. The Seven-Mile was the longest bridge of all, resting on 546 concrete piers in a row plus a long archway beyond that. The trains were allowed a top speed of fifteen miles an hour over water, so they took nearly half an hour just to cross this one bridge and were almost beyond sight of land a good part of the time. It’s easy to see why John Dos Passos called the voyage a “dreamlike journey.” Like all the surviving original bridges, the Seven-Mile is used today mainly by fishermen.

I overheard an elderly couple discuss the span as they strolled out on it. “See, this is the old highway bridge,” the man said.

Long Key Bridge spans open water like a Roman aqueduct lost in the tropics. It’s easy to see why Dos Passos spoke of a “dreamlike journey.”

“Yes, it’s the old railway bridge,” the woman answered.

“No,” he said. “It’s the old highway bridge.”

After the Seven-Mile Bridge a cluster of smaller keys leads to Bahia Honda Key, home to a state park with the best beach on the Keys. I stopped off there not only to put my feet in the water but also to view the old Bahia Honda Bridge, which you can walk out onto at the far end of the park. If the Seven-Mile was the longest bridge, Bahia Honda was the most challenging, for it had to cross the deepest channel. Workers took weeks to find bedrock under the sand. Boxlike steel trusses were built to support the railroad; when the two-lane highway was laid in the late 1930s, there was no way to widen the trusses for it, so it went on top, where it looks and must have felt like a roller coaster.

Bahia Honda was the last big open gap the railroad had to leap. From there on, for the last thirty miles, the keys are bigger and closer together. On Key West there was no available land for a railroad terminal, so Flagler made land—134 acres of it dredged from the Gulf of Mexico. He had the depot designed so the trains could pull up right next to steamships bound for Havana. Today that part of the island is a naval facility closed to the public. Through a big fence I saw a couple of bored-looking sailors and some nondescript industrial buildings.

The next day I got a look around Key West. The main strip, Duval Street, gives the impression that the local economy is based only on T-shirts, postcards, and hangovers, but elsewhere there is plenty to see—not only Hemingway’s house but also hundreds of other beautiful old homes and, among other things, a fine historical museum in a Civil War fort (the East Martello Museum); a museum in the oldest house of all devoted to the town’s former main industry of salvage from sunken ships; and Fort Zachary Taylor, begun in 1845, declared obsolete in 1866, and reactivated for three wars since. Key West is worth a whole article in itself. But don’t look for signs of a railroad there.

—Frederick Allen TO PLAN A TRIP