In the early 1900s, visionary industrialist Henry Flagler built the Florida East Coast Railroad to deliver wealthy Northeasterners to his extravagant “sunshine state” resorts. After being assured it was possible to build a railroad bridge connecting the islands of the Florida Keys, Flagler decided to go “all the way” south, and financed an engineering feat which was once known as the 8th wonder of the world: The Seven Mile Bridge.
If you’ve seen the action thriller “True Lies,” starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis, you’ll clearly recall the harrowing finish, which took place on this very bridge. It’s an iconic landmark, linking the Middle and Lower Keys, and is believed to be the world’s longest segmental bridge. Thousands of Bluegreen vacationers have pictures of the unending line of asphalt that breaks the blue waters in half.
Imagine how many people it must have taken to build such a monumental project in the early 1900s. Over 400 of them wound up living on tiny Pigeon Key, a 5.31 acre island halfway across the span between Marathon at the north end and Bahia Honda State Park to the south.
As hard as it is to imagine 400 people living on five acres without a high-rise,
Historic Pigeon Key was home to this uncomfortable “village” for four years. Today, many of the buildings still stand, and the island’s colorful history is shared in an on-island museum. Pigeon Key is reached by foot, bicycle or ferry boat. While you’re there, you can snorkel or shop in the gift shop.
The collection of Olde Florida-style buildings and cottages – some of which are original – are swathed in Henry Flagler’s signature pale yellow paint. Their now-cheery facades belie the nearly unbearable conditions that Pigeon Key residents endured from 1908 to 1912. Mosquitoes were horrifyingly thick, and all fresh water had to be transported from the mainland. During summer and fall, fears of another hurricane were prevalent; a 1906 monster had just killed 130 railroad construction workers and many others when it struck the Keys.
Flagler’s crew pulled off an amazing technological feat for their day. On January 22, 1912, when Flagler’s private rail car departed Miami and headed south, all the suffering seemed to have paid off: the final leg of the Florida East Coast Railroad was a reality, and a flood of tourism dollars would now find their way to the Keys.
Sadly, Flagler only lived for two more years, but his amazing railroad was in use until the Great Depression. (An early ‘30s hurricane took out a large portion of the bridge and there were no funds to replace it).
Today, historic photos, artifacts, maps and models bring the whole Pigeon Key story to life. The museum is a great way to while away some hours during your Bluegreen vacation to the Florida Keys, and the ferry ride makes for a nice way to get out on the water. Guided tours depart Knight’s Key / Marathon at 10:00, 11:30, 1:00 and 2:30. Return trips depart Pigeon Key at 10:30, 12:00, 1:30, 3:00 and 4:00. Times can change slightly due to weather.
The Pigeon Key Visitor Center is located at Mile Marker 47 oceanside. This is where you’ll purchase your tickets. Cost is $11 per adult and $8.50 for students 14 and under.
Like the Seven Mile Bridge, Pigeon Key is on the National Historic Register. If you’re not feeling historic yourself, the walk out to the island can be a pleasant 2.2 mile hike; just take water and wear sunscreen. History awaits. Find it with Bluegreen.