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Drive Down One of the Longest Bridges in the World

When business tycoon Henry Morrison Flagler first conceived the idea of connecting the Florida Keys to the mainland, he was endlessly mocked for what almost everyone saw as an impossible task.

However, Flagler didn’t make his fortune playing it safe like so many others but through taking personal risk. Flagler’s interest in Florida didn’t just begin with the idea of connecting the Keys to the mainland but from his own keen observation about the underdevelopment of Southern Florida. Seeing how underdeveloped many of the cities were and how welcoming the climate was, Flagler saw the huge boom tourism could bring to the area if only he could generate interest in bringing people there.

Morrison Flagler

Flagler invested millions of dollars of his own fortune into developing St. Augustine, Miami, and Palm Beach as well as laying down the railway to connect the southern half of the state with the rest of the country. His initial investment more than paid off as tourists and manufacturers began making their way down south in droves. While most people would have contented themselves after this massive success, Flagler wanted to keep going; he didn’t just want to connect most of Florida to his railroad empire he wanted to connect all of it, so he set his sights on connecting a railroad as far as Key West.

Marathon Key

The initial construction of the project was massive and Flagler utilized the best civil engineers and modern technology he could get his hands on to achieve his vision. Workers toiled in the hot sun and waded through swamps to lay down the steel and concrete piece by laborious piece. Construction moved steadily along until the workers eventually reached Marathon Key with nothing ahead of them but seven miles of the empty ocean until Key West.

Not one to stop so close to the finish line, Flagler set his workers to keep on building until they reached Key West utilizing scuba divers with specialized fast-drying concrete to lay the foundation and tugboats to always bring a steady supply of steel and workers to continue on with the project. By 1916 the massive construction project was finally completed and the seven-mile-long bridge was dubbed the eighth wonder of the world.

The railway served the communities of the Keys very well. Bringing in tourists and supplies much faster than by shipping. However, tragedy would strike in 1935 when a massive hurricane swept through the area and damaged the railway so severely that it was inoperable and sold to the government. As the demand for railway travel dwindled the government set about converting the old bridge into a massive highway.

Although another civil engineering marvel, the converted seven-mile bridge was incredibly narrow and required an incredible amount of focus and careful driving to cross. Nonetheless, a narrow bridge was certainly better than no bridge at all. The new highway served the community until 1960 when another massive hurricane swept through the area and made the bridge too dangerous for cars to safely cross. It became clear that a new bridge was needed but unlike the old highway, they could not rely on an already existing foundation because of safety concerns.

Florida Keys

Just as Flagler before them, the government and a new generation of civil engineers would need to construct a new bridge from scratch. The project was more streamlined after over a half a century of construction innovations but still proved to be challenging work. Prefabricated concrete structures were poured on the mainland and were brought out to sea and put together piece by piece. The massive project was finally completed in 1978 and although it wasn’t dubbed the eighth wonder of the world it is certainly a lot safer and wider.

The new bridge even rises tall enough to allow large ships to pass safely under it without the need for a drawbridge and plenty of scenic views of the ocean. You’ll be sure to cross it if you decide to visit Key West while attending one of our CME CEC conferences in the Florida Keys. Both the old and the new seven-mile bridges are impossible to miss if you visit the area. Although the old bridge used to serve as a pedestrian walkway and biking path it has recently been closed as a part of a multimillion-dollar renovation project.

However, you can still get very close to it if you decide to take a boat trip to Pigeon Key where you can see the bunkhouses railroad workers slept in to make Flagler’s dream come true. Whether you’ve always had the dream of visiting the Florida Keys, enjoy learning about history, or just want to complete your CME requirements in a relaxing and fun environment the Florida Keys has something to offer for everyone.

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