Last Train to Paradise : Henry Flagler and the Spectacular Rise and Fall of the Railroad that Crossed an Ocean
Last Train to Paradise is acclaimed novelist Les Standiford's fast-paced and gripping true account of the extraordinary construction and spectacular demise of the Key West Railroad-one of the greatest engineering feats ever undertaken, destroyed in one fell swoop by the strongest storm ever to hit U.S. shores.In 1904, the brilliant and driven entrepreneur Henry Flagler, partner to John D. Rockefeller and the true mastermind behind Standard Oil, concocted the dream of a railway connecting the island of Key West to the Florida mainland, crossing a staggering 153 miles of open ocean-an engineering challenge beyond even that of the Panama Canal.
A good idea to have a novelist tell the story of Henry Morrison Flagler, the 19th-century mogul credited with developing Florida as a vacation paradise goes sadly astray here. Readers hoping to learn about the man will be disappointed, as will those looking for a good yarn about the engineering marvel that is this tale's centerpiece Flagler's creation, in the early 20th century, of a railline that traversed 153 miles of open ocean to link mainland Florida with Key West. The narrative bumps along, frequently veering off into tantalizing detours that lead nowhere. Standiford presents pages about the power of hurricanes to destroy property and savage the human body,an emphasis that is the book's undoing: readers are led to believe that storm damage in 1935 was the sole reason for the railroad's abandonment. This prompts Standiford to argue that Flagler's undertaking was a "folly" from the start, as his contemporaries claimed, and that his story constitutes a classic "tragedy." In fact, the Florida East Coast Railway (FEC) was undone as much,if not more, by a force Standiford never mentions: the internal combustion engine. After the hurricane of 1935, investors and the government considered rebuilding the FEC, but decided instead on a highway. The book's conclusion references Shelley's cautionary poem "Ozymandias," a gloss on the impermanence of man's works. The warning might apply to this unsatisfying book. 8 pages of b&w photos. (Sept.) Forecast: An author tour will concentrate on Florida, where this book should sell well.Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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December 31, 2001
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Excerpt from Last Train to Paradise by Les Standiford
Labor Day Weekend, 1935
At about four o'clock in the afternoon on Labor Day Saturday in 1935, Ernest Hemingway, by then one of Key West's most notable residents, thought it time to knock off work on weaving together what an editor had called "those Harry Morgan stories," an undertaking that would eventually be published as a novel titled To Have and Have Not. He left his studio, went into the kitchen with its tall, built-to-Papa cabinet tops, to pour himself a drink, then walked out onto the spacious porch of the two-story home on Whitehead Street that he and his second wife, Pauline, had bought in 1931.
The day's work had been good. Now he intended to wind down and have a look at the evening paper.
The weather was typical for late summer in Key West: the temperature in the high eighties, the humidity about the same, but the skies were clear, and there was a sea breeze sweeping over the mile-wide island to soften the heat, especially in the shade of a broad front porch.
It was a new-found pleasure for Hemingway to indulge himself in such a simple fashion, even in his own home. The year before, a zealous Federal Emergency Relief Act administrator had published a pamphlet intended to boost tourism, listing Hemingway's home as among the top twenty-five attractions on the island of some twelve thousand souls.
Though Hemingway well understood the value of cultivating a certain mystique, it had nonetheless galled him to find himself, on the way to or from his workroom on the second floor of a then-unattached outbuilding, staring back at a queue of gawking visitors on the other side of the chain-link fence that protected his property. Thus, only a few days before, and after much wrangling with a city bureaucracy that considered it an eyesore, work had been completed on a stone wall that now marched about the three open sides of the house's corner lot, giving him some measure of privacy at last.
It is easy to imagine Hemingway in a reasonably affable mood that afternoon. "Now that I've gone private," he'd remarked to his longtime handyman, Toby Bruce, once the wall was up, "they might even take me off the tourist list."
And because it was the off-season, there would be no crowds in Sloppy Joe's Bar to annoy him during his late-night rounds. Nor had the "mob"--as he sometimes referred to the annual coterie of friends and hangers-on from the North--arrived to lure him from his work on fishing expeditions out to the nearby Gulf Stream or Dry Tortugas, or to an endless round of parties there on land.
Earlier that summer he had turned in a completed manuscript of The Green Hills of Africa, which he privately considered his best writing since Death in the Afternoon. With publication scheduled in October, Hemingway was eager to see if the public's approbation matched his own. Though he'd had similar hopes for the bullfighting book when it was published in 1932 and had been disappointed by the decidedly mixed opinion of the critics, he was certain he would receive his due this time.
He'd received a nice little bonus in the form of a five- thousand-dollar sale to Scribner's for the magazine serialization of Death in the Afternoon, things were going well between him and his second wife, Pauline, and he was intrigued with his current project in To Have and Have Not, where he intended to bring fictive life to all the Key West lore and legend that he had accumulated since moving to the island city in 1928.