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Arts & Culture

Almost a century later, remnants of the Overseas Railroad are still an integral part of the Keys

Two men work to remove a damaged mile marker from the Overseas Railway in the Keys.
Kristen Livengood
Monroe County
The damaged mile marker lost its "K" more than five years ago. The marker will be restored and placed at the Big Pine Swimming Hole, near Pine Channel Bridge.

The Overseas Railroad ended its working life in 1935, when the Labor Day Hurricane destroyed part of the tracks.

But the railroad is still a living part of the Keys. Monroe County just pulled up one of the last mile markers remaining, still near its original location on Big Pine Key. The marker will be restored and placed at the new Big Pine Key swimming hole near Pine Channel Bridge.

Until that happens, there are lots of other remnants of the railroad you can see and visit:

The old bridges are the most obvious. Many of them have been incorporated into the Overseas Heritage Trail, a state park that links the Keys. Some of the bridges you can use as fishing piers, and you can cross most on foot or bicycle.

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According to Monroe County, there are just two other trail markers from the railroad left. One is at the Gold Coast Railroad Museum in Miami-Dade County; the other, from Key Largo, is now restored and has been relocated behind the Caribbean Club at mile marker 104.

an overseas railroad marker that has been restored and is now located behind a club in key largo
Brad Bertelli
A mile marker from Key Largo has been restored and is now behind the Caribbean Club, mile marker 104.

At Long Key State Park, mile marker 67, a long-buried segment of the railroad was unearthed by Hurricane Irma in 2017. It's since been restored, and the park has created anewexhibit around its history.

One segment of the Old Seven Mile Bridge, which leads from Knight's Key to Pigeon Key, was recently restored and re-opened to the public. It's Marathon's favorite sunset-viewing place, a kind of subtropical High Line.

an aerial view of the old seven mile bridge section that leads to pigeon key
Andy Newman
Florida Keys News Bureau
The old Seven Mile Bridge section that leads to Pigeon Key was restored and re-opened to the public in January of this year.

The Old Seven Mile Bridge leads to an island called Pigeon Key, which was once the headquarters camp for the entire railroad project. You can walk or bike to Pigeon Key, or take a ferry from Marathon, but keep in mind there is an admission charge for the island — $15 for adults and $12 for children. For Keys residents, it's $12 for adults and $9 for children.

Bahia Honda State Park, around mile marker 37, is famous for its beaches. But it also has the only Keys bridge with a steel truss superstructure. When the bridges were converted to highway use after the 1935 hurricane, the roadbed was laid on top of the bridge, instead of through it. Engineers thought the bridge was too narrow for cars to safely fit through the structure.

Key West is where the railroad terminated, and the Key West Art & Historical Society has created a permanent exhibit about the railroad at the society's Custom House museum, 281 Front St. The exhibit includes a film with historic footage from the railroad, along with artifacts like old timetables and china from the railroad's dining cars.

If you can't actually make it to the Keys, but still want to see images from the railroad, check out this online photo album from the Monroe County Public Library. The library collected images of the railroad — from its construction all the way to its destruction — as part of the railroad's centennial anniversary back in 2012. .

Want to learn even more about the railroad? "Last Train to Paradise," Les Standiford's account of the railroad's construction and the hurricane that ended it, was the subject of Sundial's Book Club in January.

a group of kids on Pigeon Key waves at a train on the Seven Mile Bridge in the early 20th century
Library of Congress
A group of kids on Pigeon Key waves at a train on the Seven Mile Bridge.

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Nancy Klingener was WLRN's Florida Keys reporter until July 2022.
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