On Jan. 2, 1908, Henry Flagler began construction of the Florida East Coast Railway. It was Flagler’s dream, one he personally financed with $80 million of his own money, to see the coast of Florida connected by train from Jacksonville to Key West.
During this time, some 500 workers moved to a tiny island composed of coral rock that lacked even a single shade tree. The island was also covered with pigeons and thus aptly named Pigeon Key. The workers endured horrific living conditions and many died of malaria due to a lack of mosquito control.
Nonetheless, the railway was completed a full year and one day ahead of schedule on New Year’s Day, 1912. The crew worked 24 hours a day so the aging Flagler could see his dream realized before his death.
When the railway was complete, another crew that tended the swing bridge over Moser Channel inhabited the island. It was a fully functioning town with post office, grocery store, school, church and even a bar. More recently, the island was used for scientific research.
In 1992, the island was turned over to the newly formed Pigeon Key Foundation, which maintains the island to this day and has financed extensive restorations.
“What happened is a group of investors wanted to buy the island and put condominiums out here,” explained tour guide and island caretaker Dee Pitts. “A lot of people who cared about the history went to the state and said ‘if you let us take over the island we will maintain it on our own because we would like to keep it as a part of history.’”
The island and two-mile stretch of the old bridge connecting it to Marathon now serve as popular tourist destinations, and youngsters visit to learn about marine science. The old bridge teems with joggers and cyclists.
These days, visitors to the island take a ferry over, since the old bridge is closed to vehicular traffic. Guided tours depart Knight's Key at 10, 11:30, 1 and 2:30. The last ferry back leaves the island at 4 p.m.
To reserve a seat, call 743-5999. Reservations are not required, but advised for popular holidays and weekend events.
Admission is $11 for adults; $8.50 for locals and children 5 to 13; and free for kids for 4 and younger.
Pitts gives visitors a detailed Pigeon Key history lesson before a walking tour of the 4.5-acre island.
Visitors are encouraged to snorkel near the island’s dock, and there are a number of picnic tables available to relax and enjoy the steady island breeze. Fishing is also permitted, though it is catch-and-release only.
“ Bring a picnic lunch, go snorkeling, do the tour and spend the day,” said Pitts, “where else can you go down here for that price?”
For more information, visit pigeonkey.net.