Science And Development
A 'floating' highway on the sea

The ‘floating’ highway on the sea is said to be a unique engineering marvel

With the start of summer in the U.S. and many Americans taking to the streets, we’re sharing our favorite travel stories about an engineering marvel spanning 113 miles of ocean that changed Florida forever.

Seagulls screeched overhead as I cruised through the miles of strait between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. Apparently, the sky was melting into the sea. It was a blue scene as far as the eye could see.

As I adjusted my sunglasses, I felt a slight movement in the waters out of the corner of my eye. There was a bottlenose dolphin. His friends joined him, and soon, the group performed an aquatic ballet dance, forming graceful arcs before falling back into the waves.

Fishing boats were moving around me, and I wanted to put my hook in to catch a fish, but it would have been difficult to do so while driving at 50 mph on the highway.

Traveling from Miami to the island of Key West, Florida, has never been as comfortable as it is today. In the early 20th century, the only way to travel to the southernmost point of the continental United States was a day trip by boat, and even that depended on the weather and tides.

Thanks to a fantastic engineering marvel known as the ‘Overseas Highway’ that stretches 113 miles from the southern tip of the mainland over 42 bridges to 44 tropical islands, I was on my way to a place where North America And the Caribbean meets, so I was apparently swimming between mangrove forests and cays (rocks).

The Overseas Highway actually began as the Overseas Railroad and was the brainchild of visionary developer Henry Morrison Flagler (known as the ‘Father of Modern Florida’). In 1870, Flagler co-founded the Standard Oil Company with businessman John D. Rockefeller, and it became one of the largest and most powerful corporations in the world at the turn of the 20th century.

After visiting Florida and recognizing the tourism potential of ‘The Sunshine State,’ Flagler spent much of his fortune in the region, building luxury resorts that transformed one of America’s poorest states into the Northeast. It has turned into a winter paradise for travelers. Even so, there was no way for visitors to reach Flagler’s magnificent but remote recreation areas.

So in 1885, Flagler connected a series of separate railroad lines along Florida’s Atlantic coast from Jacksonville at the northern tip of Florida to Miami near the southern tip of the state.

Miami was supposed to be the end of the line. Still, when the United States began construction on the Panama Canal in 1904, Flagler saw great potential for Key West, the closest piece of land to the canal and the deepest harbor in the southeastern United States.

The busy center was already thriving thanks to the cigar and fishing industries (Key West was Florida’s largest city by 1900). Still, the island’s remoteness made it difficult to move goods northward. It became expensive.

So Flagler decided to extend his trek 156 miles south to Key West, much of it on the open ocean.

This so-called westward extension was dismissed as impossible by many of his contemporaries and his approach was dubbed ‘Flagler’s Folly’ by his critics. Three hurricanes hit the construction site between 1905 and 1912, killing more than 100 workers.

Undaunted, Flagler pressed on, and it took seven years. Five million dollars ($1.56 billion today) and four thousand African-American, Bahamian, and European immigrants battled alligators, scorpions, and snakes to build the railroad.

When the railway was finally completed in 1912, it was called the ‘eighth wonder of the world.’

During the train’s inaugural trip, a wood-burning locomotive arrived from Miami to Key West, carrying the then 82-year-old Flagler, who stepped out of his private luxury car (which can be seen at the Flagler Museum in Palm Beach). Sakthi) and reportedly told a friend, ‘I can die happy now. My dream has come true.

“The fact that Flagler provided more than $300 million of this out of his pocket is remarkable,” says Florida historian Brad Bertelli. Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates might be able to do that today. The best modern comparison might be with Elon Musk’s SpaceX.

The railway operated until 1935 when the deadliest hurricane of the century swept away miles of track. Instead of rebuilding, Flagler’s masterpiece was recreated to accommodate America’s newfound love of cars.

In 1938, the U.S. government decided to build one of the world’s longest overwater roads, relying on Flagler’s seemingly invulnerable bridges that could withstand 200 mph winds.

Crews paved the tracks to accommodate cars and the newly opened Overseas Highway forever transformed the remote Florida Keys into the thriving tourist destination they are today.

More than a century after the railroad was completed, 20 of the original bridges still carry passengers from Miami to Key West.

You can drive in less than four hours, but traveling the route is part of the fun.

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A series of stops help travelers better understand how this engineering marvel came to be. Located 69 miles south of Miami, Key Largo is the northernmost and first stop of the Florida Keys.

Crocodiles, snakes and other aquatic creatures may have terrified Flagler’s construction crew. Still, these days, travelers flock to Largo (the self-proclaimed ‘diving capital of the world’) to see its marine life.

The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary adjacent to John Penny Compa Coral Reef State Park attracts divers to North America’s only living coral reef.

The seagrass beds here provide essential habitat for fish, manatees (sea cows) and sea turtles, but the main attraction is the 9-foot-tall bronze statue of ‘Christ of the Deep’ with outstretched arms, which has been attracting tourists since 1965. is watching

Once you’re on land, head to Islamorada, a community between Miami and Key West that was once the site of a railroad station over the ocean.

The museum also features artifacts from the train’s golden age, including dishes served in the car, as well as an original menu showing a sirloin steak at $1.60.

From 1908 to 1912, about 400 workers living in a camp on Pigeon Cay, a small coral island 35 miles south of Islamorada, built the most challenging section of the railroad over the ocean, the famous Seven Mile Bridge (known as commonly called the Old Seven) that connected the Central and Lower Keys.

In 1909, civil engineer William J. Croom was tasked with the daunting task of crossing a 6.8-mile stretch of open water. Construction crews worked around the clock, driving more than 700 support pilings (pillars) into the middle of the ocean to build the longest bridge of its kind, sometimes about 30 feet below sea level.

They were assisted by divers who helped build an underwater concrete pedestal to support the weight of the railway track.

The remnants of the old construction camp can be accessed by trolley over the old bridge from downtown Marathon to Pigeon Key.

The 2.2-mile section (the only portion that is accessible) reopened in January 2022 after a five-year renovation at a cost of $44 million.

Closed to all traffic except trolleys, the bridge is now a haven for those who want to cycle or skate 65 feet above the clear water or observe marine life, such as sea turtles and sharks.

Today, only four permanent residents live on the island. The five-acre island is now a National Historic Landmark and runs primarily on solar energy.

There is also a museum that offers tours of the various buildings that once housed the crews who worked here and explains what daily life was like for the crew during the construction of the Seven Mile Bridge.

Travelers on the Overseas Highway today know their trip is complete when they see the U.S. 1 landmark in Key West. The black-and-white markings mark the southernmost point, meaning travelers are now closer to Cuba (90 miles south) than Miami (132 miles north).

Although many tourists head straight for downtown Duval Street or the home and museum of American author Ernest Hemingway, the Rail Museum is also worth a visit.

The museum covers 500 years of Key West’s history, showing how the 7-square-mile island transformed from a pirate haven to a trading center and tourist destination.

Artifacts from the railway era include the paymaster’s car which served as a sort of mobile bank for disbursing salaries to railway employees.

The Eighth Wonder of the Modern World exhibition highlights the evolution of the railway and explains how every obstacle was overcome by pushing the boundaries of early 20th-century technology.

“If I had to name the most influential event in the history of the Florida Keys, it would undoubtedly be the completion of Flagler’s Oversea Railway,” says Florida Keys historian and author Dr. Corey Convertito.

‘Through his vision, dedication, enterprise and foresight, the Keys were first linked to American soil. The commercial and tourism benefits for residents and visitors to the islands cannot be overlooked. It forever impacted the trajectory of the Keys economy and opened the door to the tourism industry we have today.

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Floating Highway

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