Don’t just drive by! Peg Fong explains why Pigeon Key is a true Florida gem.
By Peg Fong
A very wealthy man once had a very grand plan. If he could build a train connecting Key West to mainland Florida, that access would link the United States’ closest deep-water port to the markets in Cuba and Latin America.
It almost worked out. Henry M. Flager’s Florida East Coast Railway did make the Keys accessible to mainland Florida and his Seven-Mile Bridge was considered an engineering feat when it opened and began operating from 1912 to 1935 before it was destroyed by a hurricane.
What remains is Pigeon Key, a five-acre property where railroad workers lived while constructing and operating the final instalment of the railway.
Here are five reasons why this five-acre property is a must-see during your next trip to the Florida Keys.
Imagine a time during the height of construction when four thousand men were employed and four hundred of those men lived on the island to work on the seven year long construction project. Today, the visitors are tourists and school kids on educational marine and science camps.
Tens of millions of Keys visitors have traveled along the railroad’s route both before and after the railroad was destroyed in 1935. This is arguably the most important spot along the 120 mile Overseas Highway, the construction headquarters for the massive project which cost more than $50 million.
3. Construction Marvel
The famous Seven Mile Bridge started here and in order to speed up construction, work was divided into four sections. Steel-girder spans laid on top of concrete foundation piers were the base of Key Bridge, Pigeon Key Bridge and Moser Channel bridge. The piers were secured to bedrock which in some cases was 28 feet below the waterline. A 253 swinging span was inserted for passage of boats between the Atlantic and Gulf. The fourth section of the bridge was called the Pacet Channel Viaduct and it consisted of more than 200 53 foot concrete arches.
4. Eye of the Storm
They say the “Storm of the Century” which partially destroyed the railroad was unprecedented and people still talk about it with awe around these parts. To this day, it is believed that storm on Labor Day Sept 2, 1935, was the strongest and most intense hurricane to make landfall in the United States and the Atlantic Basin in recorded history. The strong winds and surge of that hurricane, which people recorded as being compact, caused major damage in the upper Florida Keys, destroying nearly all structures between Tavernier and Marathon, including partially Henry M. Flagler’s dream, the Key West Extension of the Florida East Coast Railway.
5. The old, new and rehabbed Seven Mile Bridge
Even from the ruins, there is new life. We got there before the the old Seven Mile Bridge closed for repairs which will take place from July 2016 to April 2017, as part of a three decade rehabilitation project. The old bridge was decommissioned in 1982 when the adjacent new Seven Mile Bridge opened but remains, until the renovations begin, a spot for pedestrians, cyclists and people on rollerblades. When it reopens, the $2 million project will include a handicapped-accessible walkway, pavilions for picnics and scenic overlooks.
Pigeon Key is accessible by ferry boat which departs from the Pigeon Key Gift Shop at mile marker 47 on Knights Key. Ferry service runs daily at 10 am noon and 2 pm. Admission to the island including ferry transfers, museum access and guided tours is just 12 dollars per person and 9 dollars for students and children under 12. Proceeds benefit the Pigeon Key Foundation and its preservation and restoration efforts. Ferry departures are tentative, please call the gift shop at (305) 289-0025 ahead of arrival to confirm ferry times.