Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Rails Across the Sea

One place I really wanted to visit in Florida was the Gold Coast Railroad Museum, but it's closed to the general public for three or four weeks due to DOWT.  Why that should be necessary escapes me.

So we headed out to the Keys.  The extension of the Florida East Coast all the way to Key West was one of the greatest accomplishments in railroad engineering of all time.  It was completed in 1912, and lasted until probably the worst hurricane in modern history struck the Keys on Labor Day in 1935.  Hundreds of people lost their lives, and destruction on some of the islands was nearly total.   This coral limestone monument was dedicated in 1937.

In front of it is a crypt with about 300 remains, covered by a mosaic map of the Keys.  Many of the dead were WWI veterans working on WPA projects.  One train was caught out on a causeway and was swept into the sea.  The story of the disaster has been told many times. This is a very somber and moving memorial.

Most of the concrete structure of the bridges survived the hurricane, but there was so much damage to the railroad infrastructure, coupled with the effects of the Depression, that it was uneconomic to repair, and the line to Key West was abandoned.  But it was then converted to a two-lane highway, many remnants of which remain as an interesting example of adaptive engineering.  Fortunately for us, the old road has been replaced by a newer and much better highway.

Here's an example of the concrete causeways.  The original line was single-track, and you can see how the original abutments were later filled in.  The track was supported on transverse steel beams from side to side on the concrete arches.

Of course, this is too narrow for a two-lane road, so there were extensions on either side supported by angle brackets, with little steel railings on either side.  They've been removed in this section.  The whole road appears to have been rather flimsy by modern standards, at least to me, and it may have been OK for auto traffic, but there must have been serious limits on truck weight.

You can see the extensions in some places, but it's impossible to get to.  I had to take these pictures from a moving car.

Most of the line was either concrete causeways or deck truss bridges, but in one section there was a long series of through trusses.  This is my favorite part.  Because there was no way to widen a through truss span, the road was perched on top of them.  In the first picture, the deck girders on the approach were jacked up at an impossible angle and supported on spindly columns, to raise the road up to the top of the trusses.

Then it runs over the trusses, with extensions on either side, and those little railings to keep you from falling into the sea.

And some trusses were higher than others, so it's not even quite level. Driving along here must have been a hair-raising experience.

On land, there's hardly any remnants of the railroad.  I did notice this old heavyweight being used as an office, but didn't bother to investigate further.  I imagine it was brought in by truck.

They told me you could take the train to get around Key West, and sure enough, here it comes.  
Toot toot!


Anonymous said...

The conversion of old railroad lines, or even graded but unbuilt right of ways, into the US's first superhighways is one of the hidden stories of history. Thanks for this exploration, I am sure the weather was hard to adjust to. Sometimes I can see who rebuilt the trucks on cars by casting stamps on parts, it can be a quick way to check on an adaptive reuse railcar. Interesting how they used extra large duct tape to fix the holes in the roof edges.

Samuel D. Polonetzky, P.E. said...

OK Professor--
Your challenge question (and assignment) of the day: How does this bridge to Key West, Fl., which you photographed, relate to the IRM? [Standard gauge doesn't count.]
I have been told that the Elgin & Belvidere Electric Ry. bridge over the Kiswaukee River was a concrete arch, designed by Byon Arnold and/or his friend Octave Chenute. This may have been the first concrete arch railroad bridge. I have heard (undocumented) that Flagler took and used this design for portions of his "Railway across the Sea." I have yet to find any "concrete" documentation, so if you can come up with some documentation, I would be grateful.
Perhaps we could re-purpose the plate girder I have been playing with. and get funding to re-create the historical span. You have your assignment.

Stay warm!

Associate Member, Illinois Railway Museum

Anonymous said...


I remember traveling to Key West in 1972 on the overseas highway. The Bahia Honda rr bridge was unique and a little nerve racking. One thing I do remember vividly is an area paralleling the highway on one of the keys there was still old twisted rr track sticking out of the water. I purchase a paper bound book about the overseas railroad and it's companion about the overseas highway. That kept me pretty occupied heading back home to MI.

Ken MacLeod

Anonymous said...

I also traveled to Key West in 1972. In addition to the sections of track visible under a few feet of water, it appeared that old railroad rails had been re-used as guard rails along the highway.

Mike G.