PIGEON KEY -- Driving along U.S. 1 through the Florida Keys it's impossible not to gaze out at the old Oversea Railway bridges that run parallel through the island chain.
Though many stretches are inaccessible to all but pelicans, herons and osprey, they serve as a monument to a railroad that cost one man millions of dollars and about 200 others their lives.
The most famous stretch is the old Seven Mile Bridge. It's featured in car commercials and movies and is the most amazing feat in an incredible project. These days one can only travel 2.2 miles before risking a fall into the shark-filled water below.
The bridges once helped open up one of America's richest cities to land travel. They now only serve joggers, fishermen, bicyclists and anyone who wants to enjoy breathtaking ocean views or a slice of Florida history.
"There's just something about this bridge -- you see bits and pieces of it in magazines and films. It's a focal point of the Keys," said Derek Bell after he finished roller-skating on the old Seven Mile Bridge.
"It's beautiful in the fact that it's historical and all the work that's been put into it."
Henry Flagler, whose railroads and lavish hotels helped open Florida's coast to development and tourism, began building the Oversea Railway in 1904.
The Key West Extension of the Florida East Coast Railway cost him an estimated $50 million. About 200 men died building the line, most during a 1906 hurricane.
"About 140 died that day," said Dan Gallagher, the Pigeon Key Foundation's education coordinator.
The extension was finished in 1912, stretching 128 miles from Homestead to Key West. It included 42 bridges over 18 miles of ocean.
The project "was inarguably the greatest single railroad construction feat in American and possibly world history," said Seth Bramson, the Florida East Coast Railway company historian. …