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21 April 2010

Book Review: 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
by Les Standiford 


I wanted this book to be more but I blame my disappointment not on the book itself but on the fact that I read it directly after finishing Grunwald's fine tome The Swamp, which blew my little mind. In Last Train, Standiford tells the story of how Henry Flagler, the financial brains behind Rockefeller's Standard Oil, sunk much of his fortune into developing Florida and building a railroad down the east coast and across the ocean from the mainland to Key West. But having just read "The Swamp," I am in a mindset that southern Florida should never have been developed to the level that it has been; it just cannot sustain the population that now lives there. This is not Flagler's fault; he did not build all the cookie-cutter Miami burbs in the middle of the swamp and turn southern Florida into a hellscape of concrete and strip malls. But his railroad created Miami; and Palm Springs; and the whole east coast of southern Florida. It brought people to paradise. And they stayed. Too many of them stayed. And they built what they built. And they're running out of water and nature is disappearing. And what now?

But all of those concerns aside, the book itself is inherently readable. A bit heavy on the Flagler-as-hero; Standiford finds few character flaws in the man, if any. I wanted a little more about the people; a little more in-depth biography of the engineers who sacrificed, and even died, to see Flagler's dream achieved. A little more about the societies Flagler's project created. I wanted an anthropological study of the culture Flagler created. Standiford gives a play-by-play of how the rails were built.

There is no doubt that the railroad was a engineering feat of monumental magnitude. And having seen the bridges that still stand and imagining a day when you could get on the Havana Express in New York, arrive in Key West and immediately board a steamship for a short jaunt to Cuba gave me the requisite chills.

I picked this up because I was curious about the era but there's very little here to assuage my curiosity; very little tangible atmosphere. A disappointment, moreso, given how Standiford starts the book, with a description of driving US Highway 1. His sense of place and how he communicates it to the reader is exquisite in this section.

"It's an osprey's-eye view here at MM 84, out over the patchwork-colored seas. Splashes of cobalt, turquoise, amber, beige, and gray alternate, then fall away to deeper blue and steel, and off toward a pale horizon where sky and water meet at a juncture that's almost seamless on the brightest days ... the urge begins to creep in the back of the traveler's mind at about this moment: ... desert island, private island, island paradise. Buy myself one of these little dots, get a boat, and build a dock, kiss the world good-bye ..."

But Standiford gives us none of that atmosphere in his history. It's like there are three separate books stories here; the 1935 hurricane and Ernest Hemingway, driving Highway 1, and Henry Flagler. And Standiford gives the Flagler story the least of his cultural, narrative and descriptive energy. It's almost just a chronology. I wanted more.

"In a sense, the highway is what remains of one of the last great gasps of the era of Manifest Destiny and an undertaking that marked the true closing of the American Frontier. The building of "the railroad across the ocean" was a colossal piece of work, born of the same impulse that made individuals believe that pyramids could be raised, cathedrals erected, and continents tamed."