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Railroads America - The Road Across The Keys

( Originally Published 1927 )

EVERY important railroad has tackled great engineering problems in constructing its lines. The western roads of the United States had to overcome waterless deserts and mountain fastnesses; in the east the difficulties were of a different nature, but they taxed ingenuity and skill. The pioneer American railroad, the Baltimore and Ohio, fought through all sorts of obstacles before it established its through rail route from Chesapeake Bay to the commerce-carrying Ohio River. The Erie Railroad built' bit by bit from New York northward and westward to Lake Erie and thence to Cleveland. The Pennsylvania crossed from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh over the Alleghanies and was in a position to render important service to the government during the Civil War. The New York Central, taking over one small road after another, weaved an amazing net of rails over the populous territory between Manhattan Island and the Great Lakes.

Each of these great systems made important contributions to the history of railroad construction. They, and many other lines, have unique achievements to their credit. Look across the country : there is the Hoosac Tunnel through the Berkshire hills that took twenty-four years to build. It runs straight from end to end for approximately five miles, and is the longest railroad tunnel in the United States. There is the Horseshoe Curve in Pennsylvania; when a freight train is rounding this with a loco-motive at the front and the rear the two engines seem to be running side by side, though separated a mile across the gap, and are apparently moving in opposite directions. There is the Lucin Cut-off, where the trains of the Southern Pacific cross Great Salt Lake, a body of water that long defied railroad builders.

Among so many remarkable achievements there are several of particular interest. One of these is the railroad that was built over or through the water.

From the southeast corner of the peninsula of Florida a chain of small islands stretch in a southwesterly curve towards Cuba. These islands, most of them coral reefs, are known as the Florida Keys. The most southerly is Key West, which became an important naval base during the Spanish-American War of 1898. The distance from Key West to Havana, in Cuba, is about ninety miles. To Key West a railroad has been built from the Florida mainland.

The water between the Keys is comparatively shallow and is bridged by tracks that stretch from reef to reef across the 130 miles from Miami to Key West. The road is actually built over the sea, and at many places the passenger, looking through the car-window, sees only the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.

Henry M. Flagler, a railroad and hotel magnate, originated the enterprise. The work was begun in 1905 as the Florida East Coast Railway Extension. The builders met with many difficulties. It was no easy task for the surveyors to make a path through the Everglades, the well-nigh impassable swamps and wilderness that cover the southern part of Florida. The business of surveying among the Keys was hardly less difficult, as much of the work of making observations had to be done from boats and often the air was polluted with the exhalations of man-grove forests and filled with swarms of mosquitoes. Some of the Keys were so low and so widely separated from each other that the surveyors had to build towers on the reefs in order to raise their theodolites high enough to view land across the water.

From Miami the railroad was constructed for thirty miles along the edge of the Everglades to the first of the Keys. In making this section giant dredges were used to excavate two parallel canals and pile the mud in an embankment between them, which formed the roadbed for the rails. When the builders came to the Keys they had to blast the coral and limestone of the little islands. The shorter spaces between the reefs and the lagoons were spanned by mud embankments constructed with the aid of shallow-draught dredges; the longer stretches across the water necessitated trestle-work and arched via-ducts of considerable length, made of reinforced concrete and bordered by walls to protect the trains from the battering of wind and water when hurricanes sweep over the Gulf.

One of the stretches is two miles, another four miles, and the leap from Knight's Key to Bahia Hondo is seven miles. This seven-mile space was crossed partly by a viaduct of 120 arches, each sup-ported by twenty-eight piles, capped with a nine-foot layer of concrete. To build this one link there were required 300,000 barrels of cement, 200,000 cubic yards of rock, 3,000,000 feet of timber, and 7,000 tons of steel reinforcing rods; and all this material, as well as the rest used in constructing the road, had to be brought from the mainland on board ships. The transportation of these supplies necessitated the use of a large fleet of good-sized vessels and hundreds of flat-bottomed boats to carry the building material through the shallow water to the islands. Moreover there was the problem of feeding several thousand workmen so far removed from any base where pro-visions could be obtained in large quantities.

The railroad was constructed to Key West, and practically its whole length is made of embankments and viaducts. It crosses thirty miles of swamps and lagoons, and thirty miles of open sea; and so well was it built that it has withstood the fury of all the storms that have beat against it.

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