All aboard the Florida East Coast Railway

Before there were highways, there were railroads. And how they were built is quite a story, one involving some of the most famous names in Miami, from Julia Tuttle to William and Mary Brickell. Starting from the early 1800s onward, the history of Florida’s railroads mirrors the history of Florida itself.

We sat down to speak with Seth Bramson, the company historian for the Florida East Coast Railway, for a fascinating discussion on what it took to crisscross the state with tracks, connecting cities long before cars were invented.

How do you know so much about the Florida East Coast Railway?  

Well, I moved to Miami from New York at the age of 2. I have loved this railroad from the time I was 3 years old, after my dad started bringing me to the Buena Vista yard, which is now called Midtown. We even have pictures of me climbing on the steam locomotives at Buena Vista. I started collecting pictures and memorabilia when I was 9 years old, and last May was my 58th year. I am now the senior collector in America of memorabilia from the following four categories: Florida East Coast Railway, Florida, Miami, and Floridiana. There is nothing else in terms of Florida transportation in private hands as large as the Bramson archive. I maintain the FEC railway’s historic archives. Today, I am the only person in the country who bears the title of company historian with an American railroad company. My collection of the FEC Railway is the largest in the world, larger than the state museum and even larger than the Flagler Museum. My book, Speedway to Sunshine: The Story of the Florida East Coast Railway, is the company’s official history.

When was the first railway laid?

The first tracks that we know of in the State of Florida were put down sometime around 1836 to 1838. The original idea was to take the rails down to a small, no longer existing port on the Gulf of Mexico in the Panhandle. It was used to transport turpentine because that was a big product at the time.

When did the Florida East Coast Railway come into play?

The first company that would eventually become part of the Florida East Coast Railway was the St. Johns Railway, and that was built in 1858. It was torn up during the Civil War, and then it was rebuilt. Henry Flagler bought this railway on Dec. 31, 1885. That was a narrow gauge line that ran from the south bank of St. Johns River on the south side of Jacksonville down to St. Augustine. Flagler bought the railway because hotels in St. Augustine were under construction, and the little railroad was in such bad condition that they couldn’t get the building material up to St. Augustine. Flagler went to visit the owner of the little railway. He was named Mr. Astor — Mr. Astor kept promising to fix the railway, but he never did, so out of sheer frustration, he bought the railroad, with no intention of becoming a railway magnate. They immediately began upgrading it. The materials were transported, and the hotels opened for the 1888 winter season. They had a great season, and all three of his hotels did well.

How did the railway start expanding?

Well, at the end of the hotel season, two young men came up from Ormond Beach to see Mr. Flagler. John Anderson and James Price, who had built the beautiful Ormond Hotel, wanted him to extend the railroad down to Ormond, saying that if he didn’t, they would have to go bankrupt. Mr. Flagler went down to Ormond to take a look at the hotel. Long story short, Flagler tells Mr. Anderson and Mr. Price that he would buy the hotel and extend the railway, but only if Anderson and Price became managers of the railway. They stayed on as managers for 30 years.

Where was Flagler headed next?

Now, he was in Daytona when he heard about an island on the east coast. He told James Edmundson Ingraham and Joseph R. Parrott to make arrangements to see the island, so they took a boat and buckboard to an island off the lower east coast. Flagler decided to buy that island, which today is Palm Beach. He then built the Royal Poinciana and bought the Palm Beach Inn, changing the name to The Breakers. He now had the two hotels in Palm Beach and extended the railway opening in Palm Beach in 1894, and he decided he was done expanding the line.

How did he get to Miami, then?

Well, there was a couple who lived about 65 miles south of Palm Beach begging him to extend their railway. Their names were William and Mary Brickell. They offered half of their holdings south of the Miami River if Flagler agreed to expand the railway to Biscayne Bay. Flagler was pretty much uninterested. But from December 1894 through February 1895, we had the most horrific freezes in Florida history. Those freezes wiped out all of the citrus owned by a fellow named William Burdine in Polk County. That made him want to go into retail, and that’s how the old department store Burdines was founded. But that’s neither here nor there.

So another woman named Julia Tuttle sent Flagler a telegram boasting that the region around the shores of Biscayne Bay was untouched by the freezes. The telegram read: “Please come and see.”

Flagler sent Ingraham and Parrott, who were amazed. Everything was destroyed from about Palm Beach to about the line of Broward County, but everything south of Broward was still growing. Ingraham and Parrot brought back a truck full of citrus, which was enough to convince Flagler. He sent a telegram to Ms. Tuttle, which read, “Madam, what is it that you propose?”

Tuttle asked him to extend his railroad to the shores of Biscayne Bay. If he obliged, she offered half of her holdings north of the river and 50 acres for shops and yards, provided that Flagler build one of his great hotels. This was in addition to the land already promised by Mr. and Mrs. Brickell. Flagler agreed and extended the railroad to Miami. He also built the great Royal Palms, which was the first great hotel in Miami. The Florida East Coast Railway arrived on the shores of Biscayne Bay in 1895. Today, the Florida East Coast Railway is the oldest business still in existence in Miami-Dade County. No other business has survived for 119 years.

Did it stop in Miami?

Flagler intended to build a great deepwater port by Cape Sable but was not to able build a railway across the Everglades. Instead, he decided to extend the railroad to Key West. On Jan. 22, 1912, Flagler arrived on his own train, own rails, own railway in Key West, and it was a great celebration. The Florida East Coast Railway remains the single most important transportation entity and the east coast of Florida.  

What’s the weirdest thing that’s happened on the FEC railway?

I think one of the most unusual pieces of history is that the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad, which was our partner in the 1935 to 1936 winter season, operated the only swimming pool ever to be installed on a passenger train in America. They ran it for one season between New York and Miami on the Florida special. Though I have actual written references, so we know it existed, I’ve never seen a photograph of the pool inside the passenger car. Apparently, they took a baggage car, filled it with warm water, and at every stop they had to refill the pool with warm water. It was really more of an oversized bathtub.