Thursday, March 28, 2013

Pigeon Key

Ohio Key, Florida
Yesterday was windy and started out cool in the 50s-no beach time, however providing a perfect time to take a tour of Pigeon Key.  Pigeon Key is a small (5 acre) island that is 2 miles west of Marathon and it played a very big part in the building of the Florida East Coast Railroad which in 1912 connected the mainland to Key West.

Pigeon Key from the water.  The railroad bridge is superimposed on the highway bridge beyond.  The piers on the 1908 railroad bridge in the foreground are massive compared to the much smaller piers on the highway bridge built in 1982.

Here is a photo of Pigeon Key and the railroad bridge taken from the highway bridge.  Although the tracks crossed Pigeon Key the newest highway bridge ( the Seven Mile Bridge) does not.  The reason that Pigeon Key was vital to the building of the original railroad is that this is where the main labor camp was for the building of this section.  Believe it or not, in it's hey-day this tiny island was home to 400 laborers, and included 4 bunkhouses, a kitchen and dining hall.  What I initially took for a harbor in the foreground was a pool built by later tennants of the island.
As I wrote in my previous blog, there are 2 ways to get to Pigeon Key.  One is to hike or bike in on the old rail bed from Marathon, and the other is to take the ferry.  We chose the latter, and were taken to the island by Captain Larry aboard the Fantasy Diver IV .

We disembarked at the pier on Pigeon Key and headed up to the museum for our tour of the island.
Our tour guide, Riet, showed us one of the four bunkhouses is still standing.  It was big, but we just couldn't picture 100 workers bunking in this one building.

This photo shows the original construction, pine floors and board and batten walls over timber frame.  Our photo only shows 1/4 of the whole building- the museum has installed walls and is currently leasing out parts of the building for classrooms, and meetings.  The photo below shows the exterior of the one remaining bunkhouse.

The foremen and engineers had much better quarters.

 These buildings were used by maintenance crews after construction was completed.  Why choose such a small island for all theses crews to be housed?  Flagler and his Supervisors wanted to make sure the men could not carouse and get drunk at the bars that  flourished in Marathon and other established towns.
 After a disasterous hurricane in 1935, the highway bridges were damaged and the railbeds were washed out on the land portions. Amazingly the bridge sections built by the railroad have weathered all the hurricanes since with very little damage. Money was not available to fix both the highway and the railbeds, so one had to prevail.  It was decided that the State would buy the railroad right-of-way and bridges (including the island of Pigeon Key) and modify them for use by cars.  In the picture above you can see where cross beams were installed and a concrete roadway was poured which cantilevers out on each side of the original rail bed.

The roadway was a ridiculously narrow 20 feet wide- allowing two 10 foot lanes each direction.  The iron rails were saved and re-used as guard rails on the highway.  The road was so narrow that it was called the road of lost mirrors- so many mirror to mirror collisions occured.

The construction geek in me was fascinated with the models showing how the concrete piers were formed and poured.  Much of the formworks was built on the land and barged into place.  The cement used in the submerged part of the piers was a special formula imported from Germany, that would set-up in salt water.  The whole 7 miles of bridge was built in 3 years- 9000 feet of concrete arch and 330 spans built with 80 foot  girder trusses.  AWESOME!  The railroad was built with many areas of construction happening simultaneously.  During the 3 years this bridge was being built much of the rest of the road bed and bridges were also under construciton

Remember these bridges are now 101 years old and still standing!

The largest construction challenges were the summer heat and the mosquitoes.  More workers quit because of the insects than any other reason.  The total cost of the Key West Extension of the Florida East Coast Railroad exceeded $50 million dollars- in today's dollars that would be 1 billion 293 million dollars!
Why did Henry Flagler push for this?  He was convinced that when the Panama Canal was finished, Key West would become the premier port for cargo coming to the east coast through the canal, and the railroad would profit from hauling this cargo.  Flagler was also profiting from building resort hotels all down the east coast of Florida and wanted to do the same in the Keys.  I could never find out if the venture paid back it's investment.  Flagler died little over a year after the Keys Extension was completed.

This was a very interesting and fun side trip- I recommend it to anyone who visits the Keys.

Our RV park has over 400 spaces and was full to capacity when we arrived at the first of March.  Joan and I have noticed in the last week that many of the snowbirds here for the winter are now either leaving or preparing to leave and head north
Now there are many spaces available, some of which are filling with families on Spring Break.

We are in a period of minus tides, meaning all the low tides this week will be lower than normal.

We have more fun combing the tidepools and checking out the sealife.  We'll be leaving in 3 more days- We can't belive how fast the month has gone by!

Jeff and Joan

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