Last Train to Paradise

Last Train to Paradise
By Les Standiford (Crown)

Juxtaposed on the cover are two images: one of palm trees blurred by heavy rain, swaying uniformly with the wind; and one of an elderly and dapper-looking Henry Flagler staring out above a railroad track. The title "Last Train to Paradise," positioned in between, suggests quixotic desperation, and it is a suggestion that is strengthened by the collage of art and text. Surely, quixotic desperation could serve as a thesis for Florida development, and Henry Flagler could be seen as the guru.

Les Standiford's new book is a true account of the construction of the Key West railroad. It is also full of conversations that are not likely verbatim and more likely never occurred. It is a book that would fit more comfortably on a creative nonfiction shelf than the history shelf that the back cover suggests. But that's not a bad thing. "Last Train to Paradise" should not be passed up regardless of what shelf you find it on. Standiford is a fitting chronicler of Flagler's life and has cleverly fleshed out the facts without disturbing them.

As director of the creative writing program at Florida International University and author of a half-dozen novels (including "Deal With the Dead," "Opening Day" and "Bone Key"), Standiford understands Florida but is not caught up in sentimentality or predictable tirades. He tells an objective, well-written story about how Flagler, an obsessed visionary, impacted Florida's early development.

A co-founder of Standard Oil along with John D. Rockefeller, Flagler was one of the wealthiest men in America by the late 1800s. It was in 1905, when he was already 75 years old, that Flagler and his crew began construction on the railroad that would eventually link Homestead to Key West. Before the train, Key West could only be reached by boat, but with 20,000 residents it was the most populated town in Florida at the end of the 19th century. What many called "Flagler's Folly" eventually became the Florida East Coast Railway and was considered the "eighth wonder of the world." The project was completed in 1912, but not without many disastrous chapters.

For starters, in 1906, Joseph R. Parrott, general manager of the FEC Railway, and chief engineer Joseph C. Meredith decided to continue construction during the hurricane season. A major hurricane hit, reportedly killing 125 laborers; some thought the number of deaths was closer to 200.

Then there were the questionable working conditions. Workers were constantly trying to escape through the swamps or by swimming. Some died trying; others went back to the site with "encouragement." We find out that in 1908, Flagler and some shady witnesses beat the prosecution in court on charges of violating the slave labor laws instituted in 1866. Ironically, U.S. Sen. Stephen S. Mallory had stated in 1850 that Key West could be the new Gibraltar.

Standiford also writes of another unsavory association in Flagler's closet. In 1898, the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine in Havana's port led to the Spanish-American War. The war was over in months and pesky Spanish colonials were ousted. Many historians believe the sinking was an inside job. The lineup of suspects can only be viewed in retrospect, but all stood to gain something by U.S. dominance in Cuba. Standiford assures the reader that many historians suspect Flagler to be the curator of the Havana incident.

Fueling Flagler were his dreams of Key West's future as a major deepwater port, from which his railroad could then supply freight to the rest of the United States. His plans also called for Key West to be an integral component to the proposed Panama Canal. While some of Flagler's visions came true, Key West never did become the center of trade that he had predicted.

The passenger train to Key West was more of a success. Writer John Dos Passos, longtime friend to Hemingway and a frequent visitor to his Key West home, referred to the ride as a "dream journey." Standiford uses some poetic license when re-creating convincing dialogues between Key West's most famous resident, Papa Hemingway, and his colleague during the calm before the storm Ð the storm being the legendary Labor Day hurricane of 1935.

Indeed, Papa Hemingway was the most famous survivor of the hurricane that hit Key West on Sept. 2, 1935. At that time, the storm, with winds over 200 miles per hour, was the most powerful hurricane ever to hit the United States. The Red Cross estimated 408 people died. Other estimates were as high as 600 Ð the heavy transient population made it difficult to count. Along with the unparalleled loss of life, most of Flagler's railroad was obliterated in the storm.

The first highway to Key West was completed in 1938 and was built on the trail blazed by Flagler. As you travel the Overseas Highway today, the traffic is routinely lagging, but the views are still breathtaking, with the Gulf of Mexico on one side and the Atlantic Ocean on the other. Sporadic ruins are the only remaining evidence of the "dream journey."