Off the southern tip of Florida, stretching 113 miles into the sea and creating an unofficial barrier between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, is one of the world’s most picturesque highways.
While America’s Route 66 might be the world’s most famous road, this is actually the beginning of U.S. Route 1, or the Overseas Highway. It links the Florida Keys with Miami, traversing the largest coral reef in the United States and creating one of the most beautiful drives in the world.
In September 1935, over Labor Day weekend, a hurricane smashed into the Florida Keys. It was the first ‘Category 5’ storm ever recorded to make landfall on the continental United States and remains, to this day, the third most intense Atlantic Hurricane on record. As well as killing over 400 people, many of them veterans working in the area, the hurricane crashed into the “Overseas Railroad” – a pioneering train route developed in the early 20th century by Henry Morrison Flagler, the “father of modern Florida”.
Flagler had identified the potential in establishing a consistent, modern trade route between the Florida Keys – the state’s largest city until 1900 was Key West – and Miami. The project took seven years and was described as the “eighth wonder of the world”. An 82-year-old Flagler was on the inaugural Overseas Railroad journey in 1912. He is rumored to have said, upon disembarking: “Now I can die happy. My dream is fulfilled.” Flagler died a year later.
The railroad remained in operation until the hurricane of 1935, which seemingly ruined Flagler’s dream. Though, remarkably, much of the route weathered the storm, the damage was still too extensive for the Florida East Coast Railway company to afford to fix it. The Florida government saw the opportunity, and bought the entire railroad for just $640,000. Considering the initial project had cost some $50 million (over $1.5 billion today), it was a bargain.
Converting the railroad into a highway had already begun, and by 1938 the Overseas Highway was complete. It became the southernmost point of U.S. Route 1 and was toured by then-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1939. Tolls were originally enforced on the road, charging one dollar per vehicle and driver in addition to 25 cents per passenger, but were scrapped by 1954 after investigations into the misuse of toll funds.
While new bridges have replaced original railroad bridges in some parts in the years since, 20 of Flagler’s original rail bridges still carry vehicles between Miami and Key West to this day.
Speaking to the BBC, Dr. Cori Convertito, a Florida Keys historian, described the Florida Keys railroad as the “most influential event in the history of the Florida Keys.”
“It would undoubtedly be the completion of Flagler’s Oversea Railway,” Convertito continued. “Through his vision, dedication, enterprise and foresight, the Keys were, for the first time, connected to the American mainland. The commercial and travel advantages for residents and visitors to the island chain cannot be overstated. It forever influenced the trajectory of the Keys’ economy and opened the door to the tourism industry we have today.”
The Route 1 mile zero sign is a popular tourist destination found in Key West, at 501 Whitehead Street.