Monday, March 07, 2016

The Story of Pigeon Key

We followed up attendance at the Pigeon Key Arts Festival with a boat ride to Pigeon Key. Pedestrian and bicycle access to the key are unavailable because the ramp off the Seven Mile Bridge is so deteriorated it is unsafe. Restoration work, funded in part by the Arts Festival and other fund raisers and, hopefully supplemented by a pending state grant, is to be completed by 2017. 

The boat was way better than walking or riding the bridge and ramp. Our tour guide gave us a fairly detailed understanding of the history of railroad construction project and the role Pigeon Key played as a housing location for railroad work crews. Railroad construction project managers liked the idea of housing their work crews on an island -- ingress and egress and access to recreation, including alcohol, could be easily limited.

Also a part of the tour was an oral biography of Flagler who was the mind and money behind the railroad. It finished in an all-out effort to complete the project before he died. Flagler was a visionary and his work converting this particular vision into reality was a significant accomplishment with far-reaching implications for south Florida, especially the Keys.

For me, the more important history was that of the workers who actually built the railroad was more interesting -- without them, Flagler's railroad would have remained a vision. Too often, the muscle, sweat, and tears of thousands of workers build these extraordinary structures we see around us and upon which we depend -- from the railroad through the Keys to the skyscrapers of New York to the Golden Gate Bridge -- simply soak into the earth, disappear and are forgotten. 

I've excerpted sections from the Flagler Centennial website ( to provide further detail on the railroad, Marathon and Pigeon Key.

Once construction was completed as far as what was to be known as Marathon, Marathon became the general headquarters for the remaining construction to Key West. The starting point was the Seven Mile Bridge. Serious construction started in early 1909. It required three years to complete.
Centered on Vaca Key, Marathon got its name from workers constructing the monumental Oversea Railway from mainland Florida throughout the Keys in the early 1900s. Working night and day to meet the grueling construction schedule, crews reputedly said, “This is getting to be a real Marathon.”  (A FWIW anecdote, to be sure.)

The overall bridge was sometimes referred to as the Flagler Viaduct. At that time it was not known as the Seven Mile Bridge, a name coined later.

What is today called the Seven Mile Bridge was actually composed of the Knight’s Key, Pigeon Key, Moser Channel, Pacet Channel bridges. It crosses the waters south of Vaca Key and is one of the longest segmental bridges in the world. 

The Old Seven Mile Bridge running parallel to the modern span was the jewel of the Oversea Railway and a turn-of-the-century technological marvel that took four years to construct.

~~~~ Pigeon Key, following photos ~~~~

Boat landing at Pigeon Key
Pinfish at Pigeon Key Dock

On board the boat to Pigeon Key. Billy, Betty, me and Bob, Jr.

These houses were reserved for managers and engineers and their families
. The workers slept in tents.

And, at the end of the historic bridge, a 2.1-mile span, is a tiny island with lots of history,

Beneath what is now called the Old Seven Mile Bridge, lies the historical treasure known as Pigeon Key. In the early 1900s, the five-acre island served as a base camp for workers during construction of the original Seven Mile Bridge. 

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, today it houses century-old buildings and a museum chronicling the construction of the Key West Extension, commonly called the Oversea Railway because its track stretched more than 100 miles out into open water.

More than 400 workers lived in the railroad village on Pigeon Key, which had a post office, commissary and one-room school, during the Seven Mile Bridge’s construction from 1908 to 1912. Following its completion, maintenance crews continued living on the island.

Children on Pigeon Key waving at the train.
A hurricane destroyed the railway in 1935, and a state highway was built to replace it. Pigeon Key then became headquarters to the Florida Road and Toll Bridge District. Starting in 1968, for two decades the island served as an environmental field station for international researchers studying tropical and subtropical marine and island ecologies with the University of Miami.

In 1993, the not-for-profit Pigeon Key Foundation assumed stewardship of the island and began restoration efforts. The railroad museum, located in one of the original 1909 buildings, features exhibits including maps, historic photos, models and a picture postcard collection of the unique line over water.

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