Here’s the plot line: One of the richest men of the Gilded Age decides to build a railroad through hundreds of miles of Florida coastline, creating luxury hotels along the route, then go one better by taking his train across hundreds of miles of water. He would take it to the place where America either begins or ends, depending on how you set your compass: Key West.
An impossible feat, he was assured. Advice he would wisely—or not—ignore.
This is the true tale of what Henry Flagler, the man who made John D. Rockefeller and himself Croesus-rich through Standard Oil, determined to do in the early 1900s. Ask a Conch, a native of the Florida Keys, about Flagler’s Over-Sea Railroad, and he or she may tell you where you can still see some of the grandly arched bridges, or how to find the one work camp still standing.
But for most of us—even those of us who have lived in Florida awhile—the story was unknown until Les Standiford decided to tell the tale. His book, Last Train to Paradise, first appeared in 2002, sold some 200,000 copies and this year was selected for Palm Beach County Reads. 2012 makes the one-hundredth anniversary of the completion of Flagler’s impossible dream.
Les is a longtime Miamian, a captivating novelist, and a brilliant non-fiction storyteller whom I’m honored to call a friend. He has, in fact, agreed to inscribe copies of the centennial edition of Last Train for Levenger customers. (If you hurry, you can get one inscribed for Father’s Day.)
Levenger Press editor Mim Harrison just finished reading this edition. She talked with Les about his writing of the feat once known as Flagler’s Folly. Come sit in on the conversation.
Levenger Press: There is much talk these days about enhanced eBooks, where videos and other links are embedded in the electronic book. I found reading your centennial print edition just as satisfying because of the preponderance of maps and vintage photos. Maybe more so, because of the immersive experience that print books engender. How did these old photographs influence you as you were writing the story?
Les Standiford: When I am writing, I am pretty much living inside my head, reinhabiting my own memories, and imagining being in another time and place. To me the archival photographs are an interesting complement to the words in the book, but to tell you the truth, I sought out most of them after the book was finished. I think some of the photographs are really spectacular illustrations of places and people referred to in the narrative, but what primarily influenced me during the writing were the written accounts of workers, storm survivors, Keys residents, etc.
LP: Even though many people who’ve been to Key West find it paradisiacal, did you intend your title of Last Train to Paradise to have a certain irony?
Les: Not really. While I understand the laments of some who have witnessed the T-shirtification of Duval Street over the past decades, there is no erasing the essential physical beauty of Key West. I think the enduring appeal of the book is attributable to the fact that most visitors still find the Keys and Key West a paradise.
LP: That famous Key West resident, Ernest Hemingway, makes a cameo appearance in your book. Why do you think he never wrote a story that brought in the building of the Over-Sea Railroad?
Les: That's an interesting question. I can only guess that it is because Hemingway was never much of an historical novelist and was always drawn to subjects that he had personally experienced. He wrote powerful journalistic accounts of the demise of the railroad in the hurricane of 1935, but even that never turned up in the fiction so far as I am aware. An interesting modern-day novel that uses the ‘35 storm and references the Over-Sea Railroad is The Cypress House, by Michael Koryta.
Les: For one thing, I did not realize that Henry Flagler had been the number 2 man in the making of Standard Oil. And I had no idea, really, of the immensity and difficulty of building that railroad across the water, nor did I really appreciate the terror of the night the Labor Day storm swept across the Matecumbes [Keys]. Researching and writing the book made me appreciate this aspect of history—and history in general—far more than I ever had. Trying to recreate such events with the same force and power that I have always tried to bring to my fiction has made me a better writer and a more fully informed person.
LP: If Last Train were a movie, who would be the stars (other than Key West herself, of course)?
Les: Another interesting question. Maybe George Clooney as Flagler and Johnny Depp as Theodore Roosevelt, Flagler's arch-enemy. Kate Winslet for Mary Lily Kenan Flagler, and Charlize Theron for Ida Alice Shourds Flagler. Robert Downey as Hemingway. Roll ‘em!
Now to you, dear reader—have you been to Key West, and had you heard about the Over-Sea Railroad? I’d love to hear. Just click on the Comments link below with your submission. (If you’re reading this as an email, click here and you'll connect to Comments).