New exhibit marks railroad's arrival in Key West

Claudia Pennington raises her arm to show how one would stop the train, the sign would mark stations along the route. (Miami Herald photo)
Claudia Pennington raises her arm to show how one would stop the train, the sign would mark stations along the route. (Miami Herald photo)

The Key West Art & Historical Society celebrates the 99th anniversary of the arrival of the Florida East Coast Railway in Key West with "Flagler's Speedway to Sunshine," an exhibit that opens Jan. 23.

It's the beginning of special events and programs throughout 2011, culminating on Jan. 22, 2012, with the 100th anniversary of railroad magnate Henry Flagler's arrival in Key West.

The railroad operated in the Keys from 1912 until Labor Day 1935, when it was swept away in one of the most horrific hurricanes in history.

The exhibit will introduce the railroad workers, cooks, doctors, wives and children who came to Key West because of the railroad. It features quotes from the men and women that were there, such as 19-year-old Swedish immigrant Carl Sahlin.

"We worked six days a week, 10 hours a day, but to a young fellow this was not considered a hardship. I earned $1.65 for a 10-hour day, minus a charge for meals."

Violet Pierce Stickney and Gertrude Lowe Sandquist were teenagers when the first train arrived in Key West. "We milled around the crowd and after the dignitaries left, one gentleman from the group accompanying Mr. Flagler came up and asked us if we'd like to go aboard. Being typical 16-year-olds, we did."

The exhibit's set piece is a recreated Flagler railway car like the one that arrived 99 years ago. Visitors can sit in the railcar seats and gaze out the window via a flat screen TV that shows rare film footage a passenger shot as the train left Pigeon Key in the Middle Keys bound for Key West.

Another film produced by Historic Tours of America blends archival footage and interviews to tell Flagler's story, including the celebration in Key West the day the train arrived. A crowd of 10,000 people, including local schoolchildren, greeted the train's arrival.

In addition to the artifacts from the museum's permanent collection, Seth H. Bramson, a collector of Florida East Coast Railway memorabilia and author of more than 60 articles on transportation history, has loaned some pieces from his private collection.

"The conductor's uniform is an actual uniform of a Florida East Coast Railway conductor," Bramson said, "down to the original cap and uniform buttons."

Bramson's railway china, silver and serving pieces will also be displayed, along with "Havana Special" stationery that was used in the lounge cars.

Additionally, Middle Keys historian Dan Gallagher has built a railroad model and explains the building process in a DVD that uses rare archival photography.

The museum is open every day from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. It's at the Custom House at 281 Front St. A members-only reception to open the exhibit is planned for Jan. 22 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.