A hurricane destroyed the railway in 1935, but the bridges survived. In fact, they have withstood all hurricanes since then, including the four deadly ones that ripped across the state in 2004. In the late 1930s, the bridges became the links for the Overseas Highway, the southernmost leg of U.S. Route 1. They now make up more than 15 percent of the drive between Florida City, just south of Miami, and Key West.
42 Bridges. Today, the journey across 42 bridges is still dreamlike for the thousands of drivers who make it each year. The islands are no longer as sleepy as they once were, and many of the bridges commissioned by Flagler have been renovated or replaced. But the drive provides the same unparalleled ocean-meets-sky views experienced by Dos Passos and his fellow train riders.
Still, the panoramic views of the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean from the bridges of the Overseas Highway leave the greatest impression. The vistas seem richer with each successive bridge crossing toward Key West. Travelers can see vibrant turquoise swirls infiltrating the dark blue water and flocks of egrets and gulls flying in and out of view.
Some of the bridges, such as Snake Creek, are no bigger than a boat ramp. Others, such as the Seven Mile Bridge, stretch on endlessly and lend credence to the road’s nickname, the Highway That Goes to Sea. Most intriguing are the old Flagler bridges that run parallel to the newer ones and offer glimpses of turn-of-the-century structural architecture and the vacation routes of early American motorists. Here are a few worth noting.
Long Key Bridge. This bridge marks the beginning of the Middle Keys region. It runs parallel with the striking Long Key Viaduct, which is no longer used by cars, but continues to provide a favorite photo opportunity for travelers. Drivers looking to stretch their legs can pull off the road just before crossing the new bridge and check out the stacks of crayfish traps that line the old bridge’s graceful arches during the spring. The new bridge angles toward Conch Key – a tiny island inhabited by fishermen, retirees and more crayfish traps – before it reaches the heavily developed town of Marathon.
Seven Mile Bridge. When the old Seven Mile Bridge was completed in 1912, some dubbed it the Eighth Wonder of the World. It was replaced by a new $45 million bridge in 1982 but remains intact save for a couple of mid-sectional cuts that allow ships to pass. Today, the original structure serves as a favorite spot for joggers, fishermen and picnickers. Movie buffs also might recognize the old bridge as the site of the climactic helicopter-limo chase scene in the 1994 Arnold Schwarzenegger film, “True Lies.” At about the halfway point along the Overseas Highway, this is a great place to stop for a picnic lunch and enjoy spectacular views of the Gulf of Mexico.
Bahia Honda Bridge. The name Bahia Honda means “deep bay” in Spanish, referring to the unusually deep channel that made this Flagler railway bridge the most difficult to build. When Overseas Highway engineers showed up to remodel it in 1936, they deemed the original bridge impossible to widen. It was enclosed by railroad trestles on both sides. So the engineers built their road over the top. From the newer bridge beside it, the old road looks more like a roller-coaster ride than a thoroughfare for cars.
Nearby, the 300-acre Bahia Honda State Recreation Area is one of the best places in the Keys to take a dip in the two-toned waters.
From the Bahia Honda Bridge, the Overseas Highway wends its way into the laid-back ambience of the Lower Keys, home to the tiny and endangered Key deer population, the ultra-luxurious resort of Little Palm Island and the tourist epicenter of Key West.
Mile Marker 0. The road ends at mile marker 0 in Key West. Nearby on South Street, an oversized, multicolored buoy welcomes visitors to the Southernmost Point in the U.S.A. It’s fitting that the southern tip of the drive unfolds into yet another panorama of aquamarine waters, reminding travelers of the string of spectacular views that awaits them on the drive back. A century after it all started, Henry Flagler’s impossible dream lives on in the Florida Keys.
For more information: Contact the Florida Keys & Key West Visitors Bureau at (800) 352-5397, or visit www.fla-keys.com.