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

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by Les Standiford

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Last Train to Paradise is acclaimed novelist Les Standiford’s 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…  See more details below


Last Train to Paradise is acclaimed novelist Les Standiford’s 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 and the true mastermind behind Standard Oil, concocted the dream 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.

“The financiers considered the project and said, Unthinkable. The engineers pondered the problems and from all came one verdict, Impossible. . . .” But build it they did, and the railroad stood as a magnificent achievement for twenty-two years. Once dismissed as “Flagler’s Folly,” it was heralded as “the Eighth Wonder of the World”—until a will even greater than Flagler’s rose up in opposition. In 1935, a hurricane of exceptional force, which would be dubbed “the Storm of the Century,” swept through the tiny islands, killing some 700 residents and workmen and washing away all but one sixty-foot section of track, on which a 320,000-pound railroad engine stood and “gripped its rails as if the gravity of Jupiter were pressing upon it.” Standiford brings the full force and fury of this storm to terrifying life.

In spinning his saga of the railroad’s construction, Standiford immerses us in the treacherous world of the thousands of workers who beat their way through infested swamps, lived in fragile tent cities on barges anchored in the midst of daunting stretches of ocean, and suffered from a remarkable succession of three ominous hurricanes that killed many and washed away vast stretches of track. Steadfast through every setback, Flagler inspired a loyalty in his workers so strong that even after a hurricane dislodged one of the railroad’s massive pilings, casting doubt over the viability of the entire project, his engineers refused to be beaten. The question was no longer “Could it be done?” but “Can we make it to Key West on time?” to allow Flagler to ride the rails of his dream.

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

From the Hardcover edition.

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Editorial Reviews
The Barnes & Noble Review
This riveting biography of Henry Flagler, the driven oilman who helped establish Florida as a vacation destination, reads like a Raise the Titanic for the railroad set. Flagler, who dreamed of building a railway that would connect Key West to the Florida mainland, was a determined entrepreneur whose dream would, ultimately, be obliterated by forces he never imagined.

Flagler made his fortune as co-founder of Standard Oil with John D. Rockefeller. When he retired, he dedicated himself to a dream: creating access to Florida's Gold Coast. He built a string of resorts, from Jacksonville to Key West. The centerpiece was the Florida East Coast Railway, running over open ocean for an incredible 156 miles from Miami to Key West. When it was completed and operational in 1913, Miami was an immediate benefactor and soon became both a destination and a point of departure for the Keys (and, further south, Havana). The Railway stood until 1935, when the worst hurricane to hit the U.S. mainland ripped many of the bridges from their anchors, destroying Flagler's quixotic dream.

Last Train to Paradise is a compelling mix of suspense, heroism, and determination, written by an author with a deft touch. Get on board! Elena Simon

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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.

From the Hardcover edition.

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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. 23 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.
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.
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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great read, exciting to follow Flagler through Florida. have recommended it to my florida friends and anyone else. Although I knew some information about how our east coast of florida was built up, most of this was new to me. If you read this and The Land Remembered you will get a great picture of central and east coast Florida
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Michael Seko More than 1 year ago
Being from the west coast, local history east of Nevada is hard to come by. This story is fascinating, and well told. I read the book start to finish over two days, using all spare time. Loved it.
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Having just visited St. Augustine, Florida, I was well aware of Henry Flager's ability to make dreams reality. The hotels and churches he built there are testament to that. But "Last Train to Paradise" lays claim to Flager's even grander dreams, dreams that put Ft. Lauderdale and Miami on the map as well as a coastal railroad to Key West. Impossible to imagine in this day and age due to understandable environmental concerns, Lee Standiford's riveting book explains how a determined, aged Flager made the impossible possible, even in light of personal tragedy and natural disasters. Standiford's coverage of the 1935 hurricane that put a final end to Flagler's dream rivals Erik Larson's "Isaac's Storm" in intensity. Standiford does justice to this amazing story. Highly recommended.