National Geographic : 1971 Jan
The Lower Keys, Florida's "Out Islands" said. "That's Mitzi's problem, not overwork. And she lets me know about it. She'll cuss me out if I don't pay attention to her. "I don't understand the words," he con cluded, "but I know one thing. They aren't nice words for a lady to be using." From Grassy Key the Overseas Highway leapfrogs across Crawl and Fat Deer to long, narrow Vaca Key, where commerce clusters in busy Marathon-a town, one resident told me wryly, "half a block wide and about five miles long. Nobody here goes shopping on foot, I can tell you that!" Then the highway makes its most dramatic leap, where the Seven Mile Bridge vaults blue Moser Channel. About a quarter of the way across, as you head west toward Big Pine, sits the island I consider the prettiest of them all, the little key whose picture is mailed home from Florida on thousands of postcards a year. Today, 31/2 acre Pigeon Key is leased to the University of Miami. College students from all over the country converge here for summer courses in the biology of the reef that lies at the key's emerald doorstep. Islet Preserves Early Railroad History Many students, I suspect, wind up back in Minnesota or Nevada still unaware of the history of the cheerful white-frame houses that sit under Pigeon Key's feathery coconut palms. They were put up more than half a century ago to house the men who built the "railroad that went to sea," the keys' first land link with the rest of the United States. The dream of a railroad between Key West and mainland Florida was a long time com ing true. The first surveys were made just after the Civil War. When it did come true, it was the work of public-spirited Henry M. Flagler, who had already developed much of Florida's east coast. In 1904 the financier, then an old man, decided to extend his Flori da East Coast Railway to Key West. But it Almost extinct 20 years ago, Florida's Key deer have increased from fewer than 50 to more than 500. They stand only about 30 inches at the shoulder and weigh less than 100 pounds. Here at the refuge on Big Pine Key, a ranger tags a deer and equips it with a radio transmitter. The project, to learn more about the animals' habits by tracking their movements, receives support from the National Geographic Society. was not until 1912-four hurricanes, 27 mil lion dollars, and many human lives later that Flagler's luxuriously appointed private car, Rambler, carried him all the way by rail -a cross 29 islands connected by bridges and causeways-to Key West. In the city itself, ten thousand people many of whom had never before seen a train -crowded round to welcome Flagler, while school children scattered roses before him and sang. In this moment of triumph, tears welled from the old man's eyes. "I can hear the children," he said sadly, "but I cannot see them." He was nearly blind. Flagler's railroad died in one terror-filled night in 1935. On September 2, Labor Day, while people watched with sickening appre hension, winds rose and barometers plunged to 26.35 inches-the lowest sea-level reading ever recorded in the Western Hemisphere. KODACHROME BYEMORYKRISTOF© N.G.S.