FLORIDA KEYS — Henry Flagler’s Florida Keys Over-Sea Railroad ceased operating in 1935, but two Keys women vividly remember childhood experiences riding the “railroad that went to sea.”
Completed in 1912, it was called the Over-Sea Railroad because its track stretched more than 100 miles out into open water. For 23 years it carried passengers from mainland Florida to and through the Keys, affording them a breathtaking sense of steaming across the ocean.
Minnie Dameron, who spent much of her childhood on Plantation Key in the Upper Keys, remembers trips to visit family in Key West — and taking the train’s final journey just before portions of its track were irreparably damaged in a 1935 hurricane. Marie Gasser, who spent childhood summers in Ohio and winters in Miami, recalls her family’s one-way train trip from Miami to Key West.
Dameron remembered her father flagging down the train at the Plantation Key freight station with a white handkerchief, and a lantern signaling the family had boarded.
“We’d get so excited when we knew we were coming to get the train and go all the way to Key West — we put on our best clothes,” said Dameron, 86, who now lives in Key West.
“My sister and I used to love to ride the train and look out the window,” she recalled. “But when we’d come to the Seven Mile Bridge, it looked like you were riding on the water, so we’d get scared and hold one another’s hand.”
For Dameron, arriving at Key West was the trip’s highlight. On special occasions, she remembered, Cuban bands and dancers greeted arriving passengers.
Gasser, 95, recalled her family boarding the train in Miami when she was 5 and walking back to the last seat, which resembled a church pew. Her mother sat by the window and her father on the aisle, while she rode between them.
“Everybody was excited — take a train down to Key West,” said Gasser, now an Islamorada resident.
During the journey, they walked to the dining car.
“It seemed like a long ways to get to something to eat,” said Gasser, who remembered a waiter in a white shirt and black pants helping her. “He brought a highchair for me, lifted me up and put me in the highchair.”
The journey was pleasant, she said, until her mother looked out the open window as the train crossed a bridge so narrow it seemed she was sitting over water. After arriving in Key West, her mother refused to take the train back to Miami and insisted they return by boat.
“She said boats were made to go on water and trains were not!” Gasser chuckled.
Dameron and her family’s last ride was the train’s final journey to Key West just before the Labor Day 1935 hurricane that slammed into the Upper Keys, damaging that area’s railroad line. The trip wasn’t inspired by foreknowledge of the storm, but instead to get treatment for her sick sister.
“She had a temperature and my mother tried everything to get it down and couldn’t, so we got the train to Key West,” Dameron said. “We would have been in it (the hurricane), but I was on the last train in here (Key West) because of my sister being ill.”
Three years after the hurricane, the Overseas Highway debuted, built on a foundation that incorporated most of the original railway spans. Today, it contains 127 miles of roadway and 42 bridges over water connecting the Keys. The original train bridges were retired in 1982, but many became fishing piers.
A celebration commemorating the 100th anniversary of the railway’s completion is to culminate Jan. 14-23, with Keyswide events marking the centennial of the first train’s journey.
“It changed the Keys forever, and what a blessing it was,” said Dameron. “I just wish it was still there — that’s how much we loved it.”
Over-Sea Railroad centennial information: www.FlaglerKeys100.com
Florida Keys visitor information: www.fla-keys.com or 1-800-FLA-KEYS (1-800-352-5397)