Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Connecting Key West to the Florida Mainland Part 2

Ferry "Key West"
      The ferry service was not adequate, it had a very limited capacity, slow, unreliable, inconvenient and relatively expensive for the service it provided.  The ferries would often run aground, or be delayed due to low tides.  One ferry captain commented that there was not quite enough water for swimming and too much for farming.   Key West was not satisfied, so plans were being made to bridge the water gaps, in order to eliminate the ferries.   Army engineers estimated that it would cost another $7.5 million, but money could not be attained for the project.
     Monroe County was already in debt to the hilt, so the Overseas Highway Bridge Corporation for a toll road was formed in 1932.  Plans to the Reconstruction Finance Corporation to borrow $10.7 million to be amortized over 19 years, at which time the highway would be deeded to Monroe County.  The United States was in the midst of a depression, times were hard and money scarce.  October 12, 1932 the Reconstruction Finance Corporation forwarded its request to President Franklin Roosevelt and Congress, had placed $3.3 billion in the hands of the federal Board of Public Works. On July 4, 1934, the government created the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA). Both Key West and Monroe County had declared bankruptcy at this point and FERA was sent in to bail them out.  Some of the “Bonus Army” veterans were sent to the Keys to build a highway from Lower Matecumbe Key to Grassy Key. The engineering and supervision were under the State Road Department and the veterans had their own supervisors making the coordination between the two groups problem some.  There were three FERA work camps were built at Snake Creek on Windley Key, at the upper end of  Lower Matecumbe Key and at the lower end of Lower Matecumbe Key.   By 1935, about 700 veterans were at work. There hadn’t been this much dredging, digging and concrete operations seen in the Keys. 
Aftermath of the Hurricane of 1935
     Labor Day, September 2, 1935, train crews were called to form a train to evacuate the veterans in the Keys from the approaching hurricane.   About an hour later, locomotive number 447 pulled a train out of Miami in route to Lower Matecumbe.   The train was too late. At about 8:24 that evening the clocks and much of life stopped in the Islamorada area.  Suddenly, the wind and a 17-foot storm surge of water turned the train cars over. Locomotive number four-forty-seven had a mission impossible.   Four-hundred-and-twenty-plus lost their lives that night. Over one-half were veterans and their families.  One ferry boat was lost.  All of the large concrete railroad bridges stood tall and straight. Many miles of the rock-made causeways and rail beds were washed out. Only a eight of the concrete highway bridge piers built by the WW-1 vets remained as evidence of the veterans' work.  

Laying the Road Bed over the Rail Bridge
     The debate to rebuild the railroad or build a complete highway began.  After the Hurricane, transportation in the Florida Keys was by plane and ship.  Pan American Airways flew to Key West. Using the remaining car ferries the City of Key West and Florida Keys, a temporary landing for limited automobile travel was quickly planned by the WPA to the lower end of Upper Matecumbe Key.  Two additional steel Mississippi River automobile ferries, were brought on line and the Lower Matecumbe Key ferry landing was restored after washed out fill was replaced.

     The Florida East Coast Railway was out of business, it was bankrupt just like Monroe County.  Monroe County's whose population, of which resided in Key West, needed to have either the railroad or the highway in order for the county to survive.   The highway in the Upper Keys was not seriously damaged by the hurricane, so the emphasis had to be put on the completion of the highway to Key West.  The Florida East Coast right-of-way from Florida City to Key West was available for $640,000 plus some tax debts being forgiven.  The Public Works Administration approved a loan to the Overseas Road and Toll Bridge District for $3,527,429.   The District in turn issued revenue bonds to be repaid with road tolls. The grand total was now about $8 million, roughly one-seventh what it cost Flagler to build the railroad, and roughly equal to the Army Corps of Engineers estimate just to bridge the water gaps.   Bridges for the highway had to be much wider than the width of a railroad track, work was contracted out and the repurposing of the railroad bridges to highway bridges got under way in May of 1937.  Steel beams were laid across the more conventional bridges and a layer of reinforced concrete encased the beams. Each bridge was given a nine-inch high and a twenty-inch wide curb. The road itself was twenty feet, curb to curb. All of this was done without loss of life.   The big challenge came when they reached Bahia Honda Key, this was a narrow trestle style bridge across the deepest section of the waters. The top of the camelback trestle rose a dazzling sixty-five feet in the air. The final solution was to build a concrete road slab on top of the trusses and start the rise and decent before reaching the high point of the bridge for safe auto travel. The Bahia Honda Bridge was the finally bypassed when a new four-lane bridge was constructed in 1972. 

President Roosevelt Arrives in Key West
     The highway was opened for traffic on March 29, 1938.  The nation was first made aware of the Overseas Highway on February 18, 1939 when President Franklin Roosevelt passed through the Upper Keys in route to Key West.  Key West mayor, Willard Albury, met the president at the west end of the Bahia Honda bridge on West Summerland Key where he accompanied the president to Key West and a tour of the mothballed Key West Naval Facilities.   It was a long time coming, but it was finally finished and there was a road from Key West to the Mainland.