KEY WEST AND THE OVERSEAS RAILROAD – PART 2: WHAT IF IT STILL EXISTED?

KEY WEST AND THE OVERSEAS RAILROAD – PART 2: WHAT IF IT STILL EXISTED?

Some people have kicked around the idea of what if the railroad was rebuilt? If it did get rebuilt would it ever have become profitable, and what would it look like today? If the government had decided to help rebuild the railroad, it could have seen a boom in business around World War II and the tourist and development explosion after the war. The railroad would have made it much easier for goods and people to reach the Keys in the post war U.S.

 Even before Pearl Harbor, German U-Boats were playing havoc with merchant ships in the Florida Straits and the Caribbean. The railroad would have helped facilitate the military buildup in the Keys, including the movement of personal and supplies. It also could have assisted in the movement of petroleum out of Gulf ports; oil tankers were a prime target of German U-boats. The oil tankers could dock and off loaded their cargo onto tank cars in Key West. In turn the FEC could have delivered those tank cars to Northeastern refineries. This would mean that the tankers would not have to travel the dangerous waters of the east coast of Florida. The U-boats would use the lights of cities on the east coast of Florida to silhouette merchant ships as they passed in the night. Many a ship went to the bottom in sight of these cities, sunk by those German u-boats.

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Burning oil tanker off U.S. East Coast torpedoed by German U-boat, photo U.S. Coast Guard

Once the war was over many a service man who trained or was stationed in South Florida remembered the beautiful weather it had to offer during the winter. Now that life was returning to normal and the depression was over, people began to think of the future once again. And as those service men returned to work, got married, and had children, they began to consider vacations. Where did many of them go for a winter vacation? Florida. Just imagine if the railroad still ran to Key West, how many might have forgone Miami for the Keys.

 Fishing had brought many to the Keys prior to the war, but most of them were the wealthy. In the 1940’s and 1950’s fishing as a hobby or sport was catching on (excuse the pun) with the working class. Now that working class jobs started to pay more, people found themselves able to afford pleasures they once couldn’t.  So if you liked to fish for big game, the Keys was the place to go, just ask Boston Red Sox superstar Ted Williams. Ted Williams loved the Keys and so did Ernest Hemingway; both would make the trek down every winter to enjoy the weather and the sport fishing, and they could have come by train. All those little fishing camps spread throughout the Keys would have grown in size and number.

However, there could have been a downside to the railroad surviving.  The state was building a road to Key West the time the hurricane hit on Labor Day 1935. The railroad bridges became the highway bridges. If the railroad survived and the highway was built it might have ushered in an era of uncontrolled growth in the Keys, destroying its fragile ecosystem.

And don’t forget Cuba. Florida no longer had gambling, but Cuba did, and Cuba was a lot closer to the Northeast then Las Vegas. So how would you get there? Remember that 2000 foot dock in Key West, the Havana Special in the winter would have needed to run in several sections. In fact, my bet is that the FEC would have added more name trains arriving at different times of the day to the run. Perhaps they would have been named them the Ernest Hemingway and the International Limited. The trains the Havana Special, the Ernest Hemingway and the International Limited would be jointly owned and run by the PRR, RF&P, ACL, and the FEC. 

One special feature of the post war streamliners would be dome observations cars that would be added to the end of the trains at Richmond, Va. Remember, no dome cars could run through the tunnels in Washington, Baltimore, and New York, hence the cars being added at Richmond. These cars would be very similar to the California Zephyrs’ dome-observation cars, except for the sleeping compartments. The Key West cars would be all lounge and observation space, plus the dome section would be 15 feet longer.  Each car would be adorned with a neon drumhead of the train’s logo.  The International would be an all Pullman train; the other two would consist of coaches and Pullmans. And of course there would be a special menu for each train featuring both Cuban and American fare, as well as a bar that served plenty of Martinis and Daiquiris. On the wall behind the bar in one of the observation cars of the Ernest Hemingwaywould be mounted one of the sailfish that he had caught.

By 1959 problems would start to return. First the revolution in Cuba would bring an end to travel between Key West and Cuba. And then there was Edward Ball, the new president of the FEC. Under his term as president he transformed the FEC into a totally different railroad, one without any long distance passenger trains. What the Hurricane didn’t end, Ed Ball might have. No matter how you write out an alterative history of the railroad, you can’t hide the fact that the Key West extension would cost a lot of money to operate. Ed Ball hated money losers, and he would have tried to cut anything that lost money.

Enter the federal government and the State of Florida. In this version of history both pull together to save the railroad. The whole line from Miami through Homestead and on down to Key West would become a separate quasi-government corporation, the Florida Keys railroad. Very quickly a joint operation is announced between the FK RR and the SAL and ACL to run two passenger trains in each direction to Key West and New York. Freight service would be run solely by the FK with interchange with both the FEC and SAL in Miami. Much of the freight business would come from outgoing agricultural products between South Miami and Florida City. A big court battle will ensue between the FEC and the FK over TOFC trailers being unloaded at the FEC yards in Hialeah and driven south to Key West instead of being transferred to the FK and being unloaded in Key West. The deciding factor in the case was the AAA complaint that all those tractor trailers would make the overseas highway unsafe.

 

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What could have been?

 Container Ship just arriving from Asia, passes cruise ships (Port Everglades) in Key West. Photo – Port Everglades

Today the railroad would perhaps survive with one Amtrak train in each direction, a continuation of the Silver Star to Key West. There is also a state run passenger local that goes down in the morning and returns to Miami at night. All that agricultural business was lost to trucks, however TOFC and COFC traffic did boom. Key West would deepen its harbor in anticipation that with the widening of the Panama Channel, the larger container ships would call on Key West to unload at. The railroad would have high hopes that this will finally make Henry Flagler’s dream come true.

—Ray Del Papa

Next time modeling the railroad that could have been.

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