Building the railroad that Went to Sea with photos.
by Jerry Wilkinson


     The goal of this page is show most phases of building the Key West Extension using photos with a minimum of text. A more detailed text is on the web page for Henry Flagler and the Railroad.

     Building the railroad involved three basic areas of railbed construction; building bridges, building earthen fills and clearing existing land. The actual railbeds was then built on top of this surface. Even the concrete bridges have a trough filled with material for the crossties to lay. 

     Bridges could be long or short; wooden, concrete or steel; fixed; openable or a combination of all.

     Earthen fills could be long or short, over shallow water, swamp land, shallow creeks or sloughs; or the approaches to bridges.

     Cleared land area was the cutting of trees, removal of stumps and leveling of a prepared grade. Transition areas from hammock to water was a combination of cutting and fill.

     Work began throughout the Keys, not just from the mainland. However, the laying of steel track did proceed from the mainland southward. The overall goal was steam railroad ferries to Havana, Cuba. Intermediate goals were sea and rail terminals at Knight's Key and Key West. It was expedient to extend the tracks from Homestead as far and as fast as possible.  Where tracks were serviceable the  heavy duty and powerful rolling stock equipment could be brought into service. The delivery and laying of 60 pound per foot steel track is extremely slow using manpower alone.

     Let's begin with filling a 18 mile railbed through the Everglades from Florida City on the mainland to Jewfish Creek. This photo shows a problem we would not think of today - large water pipes. Most all early 1900s heavy equipment was steam operated, therefore required large amounts of fresh water for the boilers. Two pipelines are seen on both sides for the steam dredges or excavators. As they got farther away from the mainland, barges brought water in 7,000 gallon tanks. The center line for the railbed can be seen in the photo's center. 

      To begin the excavating, a canal was dug in from Barnes Sound and a small shallow-draft excavator brought in. It is not certain which way it started, but it piled material in the center while at the same time dug a canal for it to float forward. A quarterboat, pumps, etc. accompanied the operation. The excavator is in the foreground, a quarterboat follows, a pump on the left and a movable dock in the left foreground. 

     Below is a section of completed railbed 10 miles south of Homestead. Note telephone/telegraph lines are installed. 

     Following as close as possible was the track laying crew. They put down the ballast stone, crossties and tracks. 

     A side track (called Glades) was put in about six miles from the mainland. This was to be able to leave loads of supplies in wait for use nearby. A second siding (Manatee) was made about 12 miles from the mainland for the same purpose, plus a fresh water pumping station was later installed. Manatee Creek was a fresh water creek.
     The two sidings today correspond with the vehicle passing lanes. Notice the progression of time in each photo. Remember, work crews are working throughout the Keys. At this time it was mostly preparation work because the floating concrete plants are still being built. Floating pile drivers, quarterboats, etc. are also being obtained for bridge construction. Piles are being driven at Knight's Key dock south of presentday Marathon. Also about this time the Hurricane of October 1906 strikes the units farther south.

     Shown here is the 100,000 gallon fresh water tank at Manatee Creek siding. This is crucial to the successful completion to the project. Prior to this water was pumped from Homestead, but due to distance the majority was barged down from Miami. Remember, Key West does not have any spare fresh water.

     At first water was placed in tanks on barges as little track was installed. I am not certain of the exact date, but by the opening of Knight's Key Dock (1908) a system of filling many water tank cars all at once replaced the barges.

Railbed construction continued on page 2

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