Cover image for Last train to paradise : Henry Flagler and the spectacular rise and fall of the railroad that crossed an ocean
Last train to paradise : Henry Flagler and the spectacular rise and fall of the railroad that crossed an ocean
Standiford, Les.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Crown Publishers, [2002]

Physical Description:
x, 272 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations, maps ; 24 cm
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TF24.F6 S73 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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Last Train to Paradise is acclaimed novelist Les Standiford's fast-paced and gripping true account of the extraordinary construction and spectacular demise of the Key West Railroad--one of the greatest engineering feats ever undertaken, destroyed in one fell swoop by the strongest storm ever to hit U.S. shores. In 1904, the brilliant and driven entrepreneur Henry Flagler, partner to John D. Rockefeller and the true mastermind behind Standard Oil, concocted the dream of a railway connecting the island of Key West to the Florida mainland, crossing a staggering 153 miles of open ocean--an engineering challenge beyond even that of the Panama Canal. "The financiers considered the project and said, Unthinkable. The engineers pondered the problems and from all came one verdict, Impossible. . . ." But build it they did, and the railroad stood as a magnificent achievement for twenty-two years. Once dismissed as "Flagler's Folly," it was heralded as "the Eighth Wonder of the World"--until a will even greater than Flagler's rose up in opposition. In 1935, a hurricane of exceptional force, which would be dubbed "the Storm of the Century," swept through the tiny islands, killing some 700 residents and workmen and washing away all but one sixty-foot section of track, on which a 320,000-pound railroad engine stood and "gripped its rails as if the gravity of Jupiter were pressing upon it." Standiford brings the full force and fury of this storm to terrifying life. In spinning his saga of the railroad's construction, Standiford immerses us in the treacherous world of the thousands of workers who beat their way through infested swamps, lived in fragile tent cities on barges anchored in the midst of daunting stretches of ocean, and suffered from a remarkable succession of three ominous hurricanes that killed many and washed away vast stretches of track. Steadfast through every setback, Flagler inspired a loyalty in his workers so strong that even after a hurricane dislodged one of the railroad's massive pilings, casting doubt over the viability of the entire project, his engineers refused to be beaten. The question was no longer "Could it be done?" but "Can we make it to Key West on time?" to allow Flagler to ride the rails of his dream. Last Train to Paradise celebrates this crowning achievement of Gilded Age ambition, a sweeping tale of the powerful forces of human ingenuity colliding with the even greater forces of nature's wrath.

Author Notes

Les Standiford is the director of the creative writing program at Florida International University. He has lived in Miami since 1981.

Les Standiford is a historian and author. He has been awarded the Frank O'Connor Award for Short Fiction, a Florida Individual Artist Fellowship in Fiction, and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Fiction, and belongs to the Associated Writing Programs, Mystery Writers of America, and the Writers Guild.

Standiford's main non-fiction writings include: Bringing Adam Home: The Abduction that Changed America; The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits; Washington Burning: How a Frenchman's Vision for Our Nation's Capital Survived Congress, the Founding Fathers, and the Invading British Army; Meet You in Hell: Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and the Bitter Partnership That Transformed America; and Last Train to Paradise: Henry Flagler and the Spectacular Rise and Fall of the Railroad that Crossed an Ocean. The last title was on the New York Times bestseller list in 2014. His fiction novels include: Done Deal; Raw Deal; Black Mountain; Bone Key; and Havana Run.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 4

Publisher's Weekly Review

A good idea to have a novelist tell the story of Henry Morrison Flagler, the 19th-century mogul credited with developing Florida as a vacation paradise goes sadly astray here. Readers hoping to learn about the man will be disappointed, as will those looking for a good yarn about the engineering marvel that is this tale's centerpiece Flagler's creation, in the early 20th century, of a rail line that traversed 153 miles of open ocean to link mainland Florida with Key West. The narrative bumps along, frequently veering off into tantalizing detours that lead nowhere. Standiford presents pages about the power of hurricanes to destroy property and savage the human body, an emphasis that is the book's undoing: readers are led to believe that storm damage in 1935 was the sole reason for the railroad's abandonment. This prompts Standiford to argue that Flagler's undertaking was a "folly" from the start, as his contemporaries claimed, and that his story constitutes a classic "tragedy." In fact, the Florida East Coast Railway (FEC) was undone as much, if not more, by a force Standiford never mentions: the internal combustion engine. After the hurricane of 1935, investors and the government considered rebuilding the FEC, but decided instead on a highway. The book's conclusion references Shelley's cautionary poem "Ozymandias," a gloss on the impermanence of man's works. The warning might apply to this unsatisfying book. 8 pages of b&w photos. (Sept.) Forecast: An author tour will concentrate on Florida, where this book should sell well. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

Standiford has written a well-written general interest book; however, it has several shortcomings as a book for academic libraries. He successfully interweaves three stories: the life of Henry Flagler, famous as a founder of Standard Oil and as "the visionary robber-baron who founded Florida"; his building, between 1904 and 1912, a 153-mile-long railroad from Miami across the ocean to Key West; and the Labor Day hurricane of 1935, perhaps the strongest ever to hit the US coast, which destroyed the railroad. Although Standiford describes the railroad as "one of the greatest engineering feats ever undertaken," he offers few details of the engineering process itself, concentrating instead on Flagler's battles against age (he was 74 when the "impossible" project began) and the forces of nature to complete the railroad. The book will disappoint some academic readers; as Standiford acknowledges, it is "not ... a work of traditional scholarship...." Beyond noting as "illusory" many of the dreams of an era when rich men felt themselves no longer "at the mercy of the fates, but as masters of their environment," Standiford makes no concerted effort to fit Flagler's quest into any broader historic framework. ^BSumming Up: Optional. General readers; lower-division undergraduates; faculty. G. E. Herrick Maine Maritime Academy

Booklist Review

Henry Flagler, millionaire and cofounder of Standard Oil, was the man who conceived and built a 153-mile railroad from Miami to Key West, much of it over water. The railroad stood for 22 years, until it was destroyed by a hurricane on Labor Day weekend in 1935. (See Willie Drye's Storm of the Century, reviewed on p.1914 ). Standiford, a crime novelist, begins with a brief account of Flagler's early life, then describes Flagler's career building railroads and his conception and creation of the city of Miami. Standiford tracks Flagler's extraordinary vision, effort, perseverance, and sacrifices in his effort to construct the railroad. The greater sacrifice, of course, was suffered by hundreds of laborers, most of them southern blacks, plagued by hoards of mosquitoes, dehydration, influenza, rattlesnakes, and three hurricanes that killed many of them. With an eight-page black-and-white photo insert, this book is a remarkable account of one man's dream that ended in disaster. --George Cohen

Library Journal Review

Standiford (Done Deal, Miami: City of Dreams) brings his novelist's eye to the true-life drama of the railroad built to link Key West with mainland Florida. The book opens as one of the most powerful hurricanes in modern times rages across the Florida Keys, destroying the railroad and killing many unfortunates who sought shelter along its tracks. Standiford then follows parallel tracks, detailing the merciless progress of the storm while tracing the Key West Extension's brief and eventful existence. The brainchild of Standard Oil millionaire Henry Flagler, the railroad was considered an impossible dream because it had to cross 156 miles of water. But Flagler had the will and the millions of dollars, to make his "Folly" a reality. Begun in 1905, the railroad took nearly seven years and $20 million to build. Three hurricanes washed away miles of track during the building, and engineers had to develop entirely new techniques for spanning deep and wide bodies of water. In the end, the track stood for only 22 years before the Labor Day hurricane of 1935 swept all but a few miles of it back into the sea. A powerful story told by a talented writer; recommended for public libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 6/15/02.] Duncan Stewart, State Historical Soc. of Iowa Lib., Iowa City (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



End of the Line Key West Labor Day Weekend, 1935 At about four o'clock in the afternoon on Labor Day Saturday in 1935, Ernest Hemingway, by then one of Key West's most notable residents, thought it time to knock off work on weaving together what an editor had called "those Harry Morgan stories," an undertaking that would eventually be published as a novel titled To Have and Have Not. He left his studio, went into the kitchen with its tall, built-to-Papa cabinet tops, to pour himself a drink, then walked out onto the spacious porch of the two-story home on Whitehead Street that he and his second wife, Pauline, had bought in 1931. The day's work had been good. Now he intended to wind down and have a look at the evening paper. The weather was typical for late summer in Key West: the temperature in the high eighties, the humidity about the same, but the skies were clear, and there was a sea breeze sweeping over the mile-wide island to soften the heat, especially in the shade of a broad front porch. It was a new-found pleasure for Hemingway to indulge himself in such a simple fashion, even in his own home. The year before, a zealous Federal Emergency Relief Act administrator had published a pamphlet intended to boost tourism, listing Hemingway's home as among the top twenty-five attractions on the island of some twelve thousand souls. Though Hemingway well understood the value of cultivating a certain mystique, it had nonetheless galled him to find himself, on the way to or from his workroom on the second floor of a then-unattached outbuilding, staring back at a queue of gawking visitors on the other side of the chain-link fence that protected his property. Thus, only a few days before, and after much wrangling with a city bureaucracy that considered it an eyesore, work had been completed on a stone wall that now marched about the three open sides of the house's corner lot, giving him some measure of privacy at last. It is easy to imagine Hemingway in a reasonably affable mood that afternoon. "Now that I've gone private," he'd remarked to his longtime handyman, Toby Bruce, once the wall was up, "they might even take me off the tourist list." And because it was the off-season, there would be no crowds in Sloppy Joe's Bar to annoy him during his late-night rounds. Nor had the "mob"--as he sometimes referred to the annual coterie of friends and hangers-on from the North--arrived to lure him from his work on fishing expeditions out to the nearby Gulf Stream or Dry Tortugas, or to an endless round of parties there on land. Earlier that summer he had turned in a completed manuscript of The Green Hills of Africa, which he privately considered his best writing since Death in the Afternoon. With publication scheduled in October, Hemingway was eager to see if the public's approbation matched his own. Though he'd had similar hopes for the bullfighting book when it was published in 1932 and had been disappointed by the decidedly mixed opinion of the critics, he was certain he would receive his due this time. He'd received a nice little bonus in the form of a five- thousand-dollar sale to Scribner's for the magazine serialization of Death in the Afternoon, things were going well between him and his second wife, Pauline, and he was intrigued with his current project in To Have and Have Not, where he intended to bring fictive life to all the Key West lore and legend that he had accumulated since moving to the island city in 1928. Not a bad moment, then, not by any stretch of the imagination: the end of a good day's effort, a drink in hand, a breezy porch to lounge upon for a glance at the day's events . . . until everything suddenly changed. Storm warning! was the banner headline Hemingway found in front of him, and, just below, the details of a hurricane feared to be coming Key West's way. In those days, weather forecasting was primitive, by modern standards. The storm, which had formed off the coast of Africa sometime during the last week of August, had moved across the Atlantic, undetected by the likes of modern-day satellite eyes or storm-chasing converted bomber planes, and now it was zeroing in on the United States. Ships steaming southward to Havana were the first to encounter the disturbance, then a minimal hurricane with winds hovering in the seventy-five mile-per-hour range. The reports were forwarded by telegraph back to Miami, where, in good time, newspapers had passed along the news. Though there were no computer tracking models to consult, in the Keys the average landmass lay lower than the top of a small child's head above sea level, and any fool--much less Ernest Hemingway--knew enough to get ready for trouble. The papers reported the location of the storm at press time as just east of Long Island, in the Bahamas, some four hundred miles east of Key West. Hemingway finished his drink, put his paper down, and went into the house to dig out his storm charts, one of which detailed the dates and tracking of the forty hurricanes that had, since 1900, approached Florida during the month of September. Given the reported rate of speed for the current storm (the quaint practice of naming hurricanes was not adopted by the U.S. Weather Bureau until 1953), Hemingway calculated--without the aid of television newsmen or late-breaking advisories--that he had until noon on Labor Day Monday before the worst might hit. Hemingway's first concern was his beloved boat, Pilar, a forty-foot powered fishing yacht he'd had built to order in a New York shipyard hardly a year before. His game-fishing forays about the northern Caribbean with Pauline and fellow writer John Dos Passos and Key West barkeep "Sloppy Joe" Russell and famed bullfighter Sidney Franklin and so many others were already the stuff of local legend, and Hemingway was prone to discuss the boat with others in a way that sometimes made casual acquaintances think he was referring to a lover. As anyone who has tried to secure a boat in the face of an advancing hurricane can attest, however, the process is a tedious and frustrating one, complicated by a steady escalation of panic among other owners, many of whom may not have visited their craft in months. And Hemingway, despite his notoriety, found himself no exception. In a piece he wrote for The Masses, a left-leaning publication of the day, he shares a vivid picture of what he was up against. Sunday you spend making the boat as safe as you can. When they refuse to haul her out on the ways because there are too many boats ahead, you buy $52 of new heavy hawser and shift her to what seems the safest part of the submarine base and tie her up there. With the boat attended to as best he could, Hemingway spent the rest of Sunday evening and the following morning feverishly moving lawn furniture, carrying in plants, and shooing the ever-present hoard of cats inside his house, then nailing makeshift wooden shutters over all the windows. By five in the afternoon the storm had not materialized, but the double red and black flags that signified an impending hurricane were snapping over the Key West harbor in a heavy northeast wind. The barometer was falling precipitously, and the streets all over the town resounded with the crack of hammers driving nails into shutters, which nervous owners only hoped would hold. With nothing more to do at home, Hemingway left Pauline and returned to the navy yard where he'd tied up Pilar: You go down to the boat and wrap the lines with canvas where they will chafe when the surge starts, and believe that she has a good chance to ride it out . . . provided no other boat smashes into you and sinks you. There is a booze boat seized by the Coast Guard tied next to you and you notice her stern lines are only tied to ringbolts in the stern, and you start bellyaching about that. . . . Hemingway was enough of a sailor to know that lines attached to a few bolts drilled into the deck of a poorly maintained boat could never withstand the pressure exerted by the winds of a hurricane, but his complaints had little effect on an already overburdened staff. The harbormaster simply shrugged and told him he had permission to sink the rumrunner if she broke free and threatened to ram Pilar. Just how Hemingway was supposed to manage such a feat in the midst of a hurricane was not made clear, but there was nothing else to be done at the basin. He gave one last baleful glance at the precariously tied-off rumrunner, then made his way back to the house on Whitehead Street, left with the very worst thing to do as a hurricane approaches: wait. Excerpted from Last Train to Paradise: Henry Flagler and the Spectacular Rise and Fall of the Railroad that Crossed an Ocean by Les Standiford, Henry Morrison Flagler All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Author's Notep. ix
Map of the Key West Extensionp. xi
1. End of the Linep. 1
2. The Road to Paradisep. 17
3. Citizen Flaglerp. 35
4. Paradise Foundp. 45
5. Empire Buildingp. 53
6. The City That Flagler Builtp. 63
7. The Stage Is Setp. 69
8. The Eighth Wonder of the Worldp. 77
9. Charting the Territoriesp. 85
10. Jumping-Off Pointp. 93
11. A Surprise, the First of Manyp. 113
12. Nature's Furyp. 117
13. Duly Notedp. 129
14. On Toward Key Westp. 137
15. The Signature Bridgep. 143
16. Seven Miles of Hellp. 153
17. Learning Curvep. 169
18. Railroad Builder Overboardp. 179
19. Deep Bayp. 191
20. Wonder to Beholdp. 201
21. Failedp. 207
22. Rolling Onp. 215
23. Storm of Stormsp. 225
24. A Fine, Improper Placep. 255
Acknowledgmentsp. 260
Selected Bibliographyp. 262
Indexp. 265