Last Train to Paradise: Henry Flagler and the Spectacular Rise and Fall of the Railroad That Crossed an Ocean

Last Train to Paradise: Henry Flagler and the Spectacular Rise and Fall of the Railroad That Crossed an Ocean

by Les Standiford

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The fast-paced and gripping true account of the extraordinary construction and spectacular demise of the Key West Railroad—one of the greatest engineering feats ever undertaken, destroyed in one fell swoop by the strongest storm ever to hit U.S. shores.

In 1904, the brilliant and driven entrepreneur Henry Flagler, partner to John D. Rockefeller, dreamed of a railway connecting the island of Key West to the Florida mainland, crossing a staggering 153 miles of open ocean—an engineering challenge beyond even that of the Panama Canal. Many considered the project impossible, but build it they did. The railroad stood as a magnificent achievement for more than twenty-two years, heralded as “the Eighth Wonder of the World,” until its total destruction in 1935's deadly storm of the century. 

In Last Train to Paradise, Standiford celebrates this crowning achievement of Gilded Age ambition, bringing to life a sweeping tale of the powerful forces of human ingenuity colliding with the even greater forces of nature’s wrath.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781400051182
Publisher: Crown/Archetype
Publication date: 08/05/2003
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 19,379
File size: 9 MB

About the Author

LES STANDIFORD is the author of the critically acclaimed Last Train to Paradise, The Man Who Invented Christmas, Meet You in Hell, and Washington Burning, as well as several novels. Recipient of the Frank O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, he is Founding Director of the Creative Writing Program at Florida International University in Miami, where he lives with his wife and three children.


Miami, Florida

Date of Birth:

October 31, 1945

Place of Birth:

Cambridge, Ohio


B.A., Muskingum College; M.A. and Ph.D., University of Utah

Read an Excerpt

End of the Line

Key West

Labor Day Weekend, 1935

At about four o'clock in the afternoon on Labor Day Saturday in 1935, Ernest Hemingway, by then one of Key West's most notable residents, thought it time to knock off work on weaving together what an editor had called "those Harry Morgan stories," an undertaking that would eventually be published as a novel titled To Have and Have Not. He left his studio, went into the kitchen with its tall, built-to-Papa cabinet tops, to pour himself a drink, then walked out onto the spacious porch of the two-story home on Whitehead Street that he and his second wife, Pauline, had bought in 1931.

The day's work had been good. Now he intended to wind down and have a look at the evening paper.

The weather was typical for late summer in Key West: the temperature in the high eighties, the humidity about the same, but the skies were clear, and there was a sea breeze sweeping over the mile-wide island to soften the heat, especially in the shade of a broad front porch.

It was a new-found pleasure for Hemingway to indulge himself in such a simple fashion, even in his own home. The year before, a zealous Federal Emergency Relief Act administrator had published a pamphlet intended to boost tourism, listing Hemingway's home as among the top twenty-five attractions on the island of some twelve thousand souls.

Though Hemingway well understood the value of cultivating a certain mystique, it had nonetheless galled him to find himself, on the way to or from his workroom on the second floor of a then-unattached outbuilding, staring back at a queue of gawking visitors on the other side of the chain-link fence that protected his property. Thus, only a few days before, and after much wrangling with a city bureaucracy that considered it an eyesore, work had been completed on a stone wall that now marched about the three open sides of the house's corner lot, giving him some measure of privacy at last.

It is easy to imagine Hemingway in a reasonably affable mood that afternoon. "Now that I've gone private," he'd remarked to his longtime handyman, Toby Bruce, once the wall was up, "they might even take me off the tourist list."

And because it was the off-season, there would be no crowds in Sloppy Joe's Bar to annoy him during his late-night rounds. Nor had the "mob"--as he sometimes referred to the annual coterie of friends and hangers-on from the North--arrived to lure him from his work on fishing expeditions out to the nearby Gulf Stream or Dry Tortugas, or to an endless round of parties there on land.

Earlier that summer he had turned in a completed manuscript of The Green Hills of Africa, which he privately considered his best writing since Death in the Afternoon. With publication scheduled in October, Hemingway was eager to see if the public's approbation matched his own. Though he'd had similar hopes for the bullfighting book when it was published in 1932 and had been disappointed by the decidedly mixed opinion of the critics, he was certain he would receive his due this time.

He'd received a nice little bonus in the form of a five- thousand-dollar sale to Scribner's for the magazine serialization of Death in the Afternoon, things were going well between him and his second wife, Pauline, and he was intrigued with his current project in To Have and Have Not, where he intended to bring fictive life to all the Key West lore and legend that he had accumulated since moving to the island city in 1928.

Not a bad moment, then, not by any stretch of the imagination: the end of a good day's effort, a drink in hand, a breezy porch to lounge upon for a glance at the day's events . . . until everything suddenly changed.

Storm warning! was the banner headline Hemingway found in front of him, and, just below, the details of a hurricane feared to be coming Key West's way.

In those days, weather forecasting was primitive, by modern standards. The storm, which had formed off the coast of Africa sometime during the last week of August, had moved across the Atlantic, undetected by the likes of modern-day satellite eyes or storm-chasing converted bomber planes, and now it was zeroing in on the United States.

Ships steaming southward to Havana were the first to encounter the disturbance, then a minimal hurricane with winds hovering in the seventy-five mile-per-hour range. The reports were forwarded by telegraph back to Miami, where, in good time, newspapers had passed along the news. Though there were no computer tracking models to consult, in the Keys the average landmass lay lower than the top of a small child's head above sea level, and any fool--much less Ernest Hemingway--knew enough to get ready for trouble.

The papers reported the location of the storm at press time as just east of Long Island, in the Bahamas, some four hundred miles east of Key West. Hemingway finished his drink, put his paper down, and went into the house to dig out his storm charts, one of which detailed the dates and tracking of the forty hurricanes that had, since 1900, approached Florida during the month of September.

Given the reported rate of speed for the current storm (the quaint practice of naming hurricanes was not adopted by the U.S. Weather Bureau until 1953), Hemingway calculated--without the aid of television newsmen or late-breaking advisories--that he had until noon on Labor Day Monday before the worst might hit.

Hemingway's first concern was his beloved boat, Pilar, a forty-foot powered fishing yacht he'd had built to order in a New York shipyard hardly a year before. His game-fishing forays about the northern Caribbean with Pauline and fellow writer John Dos Passos and Key West barkeep "Sloppy Joe" Russell and famed bullfighter Sidney Franklin and so many others were already the stuff of local legend, and Hemingway was prone to discuss the boat with others in a way that sometimes made casual acquaintances think he was referring to a lover.

As anyone who has tried to secure a boat in the face of an advancing hurricane can attest, however, the process is a tedious and frustrating one, complicated by a steady escalation of panic among other owners, many of whom may not have visited their craft in months. And Hemingway, despite his notoriety, found himself no exception. In a piece he wrote for The Masses, a left-leaning publication of the day, he shares a vivid picture of what he was up against.

Sunday you spend making the boat as safe as you can. When they refuse to haul her out on the ways because there are too many boats ahead, you buy $52 of new heavy hawser and shift her to what seems the safest part of the submarine base and tie her up there.

With the boat attended to as best he could, Hemingway spent the rest of Sunday evening and the following morning feverishly moving lawn furniture, carrying in plants, and shooing the ever-present hoard of cats inside his house, then nailing makeshift wooden shutters over all the windows. By five in the afternoon the storm had not materialized, but the double red and black flags that signified an impending hurricane were snapping over the Key West harbor in a heavy northeast wind. The barometer was falling precipitously, and the streets all over the town resounded with the crack of hammers driving nails into shutters, which nervous owners only hoped would hold.

With nothing more to do at home, Hemingway left Pauline and returned to the navy yard where he'd tied up Pilar:

You go down to the boat and wrap the lines with canvas where they will chafe when the surge starts, and believe that she has a good chance to ride it out . . . provided no other boat smashes into you and sinks you. There is a booze boat seized by the Coast Guard tied next to you and you notice her stern lines are only tied to ringbolts in the stern, and you start bellyaching about that. . . .

Hemingway was enough of a sailor to know that lines attached to a few bolts drilled into the deck of a poorly maintained boat could never withstand the pressure exerted by the winds of a hurricane, but his complaints had little effect on an already overburdened staff. The harbormaster simply shrugged and told him he had permission to sink the rumrunner if she broke free and threatened to ram Pilar.

Just how Hemingway was supposed to manage such a feat in the midst of a hurricane was not made clear, but there was nothing else to be done at the basin. He gave one last baleful glance at the precariously tied-off rumrunner, then made his way back to the house on Whitehead Street, left with the very worst thing to do as a hurricane approaches: wait.

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Last Train to Paradise: Henry Flagler and the Spectacular Rise and Fall of the Railroad That Crossed an Ocean 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 32 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I could not put this book down. It read like a novel, but was completely non-fictional. The writer thoroughly researched all the information, and provides readers w/ an historical account that makes you never want to put the book down. Not only does the book provide you with the visionary insight and accomplishments of Henry M. Flager, but it addtionally provides you with historical accounts of what people used to go through during the past hurricane seasons. It is amazing to learn how limited forecasting was, how huricanes were never named until the 50's, and what amazing feats hurricane survivors achieved to live and tell their stories. Last Train to Paradise will not disappoint you. I promise. I NEVER READ BOOKS, and this book was so AMAZING that I plan to read it twice!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I was truly absorbed in this book. For anyone interested in the Engineering field, it is truly an amazing feat that Henry Flagler did. I would suggest this book to teenagers as a motivation as to what they can do if they have the drive to do things that may seem impossible. Even though I am not an avid reader, this book kept my full attention and I read every word! What an amazing person Henry Flagler was and if we ever travel again to Florida I will most certainly visit the museum of his work.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I love stories of large engineering projects and the people who plan them. This one, though, was curiously weak. Perhaps teh story itself lost drama after the construction began, or after the first hurricane hit the RR in the making. Flagler comes out properly whitewashed (compared to John D. Rockefeller), and the story itself is tragic, but it sagged tremendously in the middle.
hermit on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is one history book you will not want to put down. Les Staniford has done a wonderful job of giving us a brief background on Henry Flagler and his drive to tame Florida. Mr. Flagler was the partner of John D. Rockefeller and instrumental in the formation and success of the Standard Oil Company. This driven self-made man after a very successful career of hard work did not go off to enjoy the fruits of his labors in retirement. Instead he started a second career in as a railroad man, luxury hotelier and land developer. And he did all this in a wilderness no one wanted to go too or thought could be used.Living on both the East Coast of Florida and Lower Matecumbe Key I knew quite a lot about the railroad that Mr. Flagler built over the ocean and the famous Breakers Hotel. I use too love looking at the parts of the railroad that still stood over the water and paralleled the road that now goes to key west. Of course some of the railway was actually used to build some bridges for the highway. All who live here know of the great effort needed to build this over ocean railroad and of the horrible disaster that befell its work crew. But Standiford introduced me to new material I was not aware of and very pleased to learn.The high standards and drive that we learn about in this book showed Mr. Flagler in a different light. Work was his life, but instead of just making money as he did with Standard Oil, with the Florida East Coast Railway he founded and was a driving force in building a State. I was not aware of the number of our famous cities that he caused to be developed that thrive to this day.The author entices us into watching the drive of this man as he carves out a railroad line and cities where none existed and no one would ever consider going. We even get to read where Hemingway becomes part of the railroad history at its end. This nonfiction account of the construction of the railroad that would span 150 miles of ocean and terminate in Key West will be very hard to put down. So be prepared to read the entire book!
DeaconBernie on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Fascinating story of a man who was rich beyond compare and equal to John D Rockefeller, who began an entirely new career at age 51. At first blush his dream of building a railway south from Miami to Key West must seem foolish, but then to do big things one must dream big things, and HMF did dream big. Florida would eventually have been exploited but no one would have thought of a railway going to sea. One huge hurricane nearly ended it and another 29 years later did finish it. But what a dream.
Helene on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
In January 1912 it was hailed as the "eighth wonder of the world", the Florida East Coast Railroad linking New York to Miami and more amazingly Miami to Key West crossing more than 136 miles of open water. The rise and fall of this great engineering achievement can be attributed to one visionary, Henry Flager. Known to most historians as the founder of Florida and Rockefeller¿s partner in the Founding of Standard Oil, Flager was found of saying that he's be the richest man in world "if it hadn't been for Florida" and his dream of creating a railroad across the ocean to Key West. An amazing story full chronicling the challenges (the 7-mile bridge, hurricanes) faced with building such magnificent achievement. In the end the 1935 "storm of all storms" would prove too great an obstacle for this great masterpiece to withstand.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The book started out with a bang, and I was really excitd to read all about this engineering marvel, but not even midway through the book I got bored. It just bogged down -- too many details dragged out. I'm glad I read it for the information I gleaned, but I would be cautious as to whom I would recommend it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
¿Last Train to Paradise¿ is a nonfiction account of the construction of the railroad connecting Key West to the Florida mainland, a project headed by Henry Flagler. It is a well-researched and documented history of an exciting time in the exploration and development of Florida that reads like a novel. Building a railroad over 150 miles of water under the harshest of conditions was the vision of one man, Henry Flagler. Mr. Flagler used his personal fortune to make this dream come true. When he first arrived in Florida he was the second wealthiest man in the country. His fortune was made in partnership with John Rockefeller and the creation of Standard Oil. The ingenuity necessary to accomplish this task is absolutely incredible. The obstacles overcome included the brutal weather (heat and hurricanes), having to import every item from drinking water to food to nails. As I read the story I found the task more impossible with each accomplishment along the way. The closer they got to their objective, the more unattainable I thought the goal was. They truly did the impossible. That Mr. Flagler and his crew succeeded is a testament to the pioneer spirit of America. Dr. Standiford has written a fast paced book. He is a wonderful story teller. It is where truth and fact is so improbable, that one could not make up a superior fictional account. The photographs are a wonderful addition. With all the scandals in business today, it is enlightening to read the story of a man who put his reputation and own money on the line for what he believed in. As Dr. Standiford said: ¿Henry Flagler evolved from acquisitive robber baron to creator.¿ Henry Flagler may not have discovered Florida, but he saw all the state¿s possibilities and created the framework and infrastructure that made Florida livable.
PierresFamily 4 days ago
I expected this to be an informative book -and that, it was! But I didn't expect the suspense. This book about visionary entrepeneur Flager;s dream for our country was hard to put down. Despite three devastating hurricanes, overwhelming hordes of mosqutioes and the oppresive heat of the early 1900s, Flagler and his crew persevered unti the railroad was opreational in 1913. I will not give away any spoilers; you will haev to read the book for yourself, to see if Flagler lived long enough to take the first ride. I especially appreciated photoss. Some publishers don't bother to try to digitalize them for ebooks, but they showed up beautifully in my Nook app!
Anonymous 3 months ago
Henry Flagler was a partner with John D Rockerfeller inStandard Oil. At the age of 55, he became enamored with the winter climate of St. Augustine, FL. He used his financial resources to develop the Florida East Coast Railroad from Jacksonville and created the town of Miami. in addition to developing the railroad, Flagler created a string of luxury resorts along the coast. His last goal in life was to extend his railroad from Miami to Key West. The book gives you an insight to the many challenges that had to be overcome to achieve his goal shortly before his death.
caroren on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
In Last Train to Paradise novelist Les Standiford has written a lively, felicitous account of the building of the Florida East Coast Railway, which, for a little over two decades, connected mainland Florida with Key West. Henry Morrison Flagler, John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil partner and, in many eyes, the true genius behind that company, embarked on the project in 1905 when he was 74 years old. The railroad, which crossed more than 150 miles of open sea, was an engineering feat nearly equal in scale and difficulty to the digging of the Panama Canal. Standiford's narrative skillfully blends tales of construction perils (not the least of which were escadrilles of mosquitoes) with brief, illuminating travelogues and natural histories, pocket descriptions of life in early 20th-century Florida, and a truly gripping description of an epic standoff between Mother Nature, in the form of a monstrous hurricane, and a stalled, 160-ton steam locomotive. With nary a single missed note, this fascinating tale is popular history at its best.
keywestnan on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is the best single-volume account of two epic events. The first was the building of the Overseas Railway that connected the Florida Keys to the mainland. Finished in 1912, it was the final effort from Standard Oil and Florida East Coast Railroad magnate Henry Flagler. The second was the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 that destroyed the railroad and killed more than 400 people in the Keys, many of them destitute World War I veterans who were working on a highway parallel to the railroad. The consequences and visible after-effects of both events are still visible today in the Keys. It's quite a tale and one Standiford tells very well and with admirable economy.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Amazing account of Henry Flagler's contribution to our country. I highly recommend it. He vision and tenacity to accomplish the New York to Havana, Cuba railroad was unbelievable. Imagine getting on the train in NYC and arriving in Havana. This was his dream. Great read.
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Grizzabella More than 1 year ago
My boss gave me this book a year ago - its been on my book shelf - and a couple of weeks ago (March 2015) I picked it up....I'm loving it. The weather has warmed up here in Georgia, with daylight savings now in effect, so I get a nice glass of red wine and sit in my garden...perfect combination. Fascinating book! Critics can say what they wish about the combustion engine on the train - the fact remains that Mr. Flagler has such vision - and poured the last half of his life into his dream. That courage no longer exists because we have too many rules and stockholders....
Taureau More than 1 year ago
"Last Train to Paradise" was exceptionally well written, full of historical information that you would not find anywhere. As a native Louisianan, who has spent 44 years working in the rail industry and mostly in the swamps, Les Standiford had me in his mosquito infested swamps building railroads. It was one of the best reads in a long time. I would certainly recommend purchasing this great work of non-fiction.
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