Brian Spears

Poet, Editor, Teacher, Blogger.

The Old Bridge

The Old Bridge

From Fort Lauderdale, drive south. It doesn’t matter whether you take the Florida Turnpike or I-95 because you’ll drive beyond where they end, through Florida City, off the mainland, into the Keys. Follow the trail Henry Flagler laid out, more or less, when he connected the mainland to Key West with a series of rail bridges, his ultimate (albeit unreached) goal to get to Cuba without a boat or a plane. Many of these roads are only two lanes wide, as are most of the bridges between the smaller Keys.

When you get to the west end of Marathon, on Knight’s Key, you’ll see the Seven-Mile Bridge, the longest of the bridges on the way to Key West. If you want to see Ernest Hemingway’s House, you’ll keep driving, because Key West is farther on. Driving the new bridge is an experience in itself, since seven miles over one of the channels which connects the Atlantic to the Gulf of Mexico makes for one hell of a view, even if it is on a relatively modern bridge. But a better experience, in my view, is to bike over the old bridge, which is right beside the new one, out to Pigeon Key.

One reason you want to do that is because you have to stand on the bridge to get a sense of just how narrow it is. It was converted to an auto bridge from what was left of Flagler’s rail bridge after the Labor Day hurricane of 1935, and the highway builders didn’t widen it much beyond a standard rail bridge, as you can see. There’s no photographic trickery going on in that photo–my bike is nearly a lane wide. Now picture being in a typical 1960’s sized car, midway on this length of bridge (which was two miles), fighting wind gusts and with a truck coming the opposite direction. Oh yeah, and there are sharks in the water. (Our friend Kate got a picture of the one we saw–we saw a number of rays as well.) The most scared I’ve ever been behind the wheel was when I drove up the side of the Capulin Volcano in New Mexico on the outside lane with no guardrails. This, I imagine, would be close.

Here, at least, there are guardrails, made from the railroad steel from the original bridge. They’ve rusted considerably, and I wonder if there are any plans to maintain them for pedestrians and bikers in the future. On the unmaintained part of the bridge (seen from the new bridge), many of the rails have rusted away completely. There’s also a tree growing up out of the new bridge–wish I’d gotten a photo of it, but I was driving at the time, and the bridge, while spacious by comparison, still requires full attention.

On Pigeon Key, there’s a series of buildings, many of which were used to house railroad workers from Flagler’s original project. When we visited, most of the buildings were closed–a group of kids, probably junior high school age, was there as part of a camp, and the buildings were being used as dorms.

Amy found this conch shell right near the shore. I convinced her to put it back, largely because there was a big sign saying that harvesting conch brought a $500 fine, and I wasn’t sure if that included empty shells. It was gorgeous, though, and my iPhone photo doesn’t do it justice.

The weather was nice, the company was terrific, and I recommend the experience completely, even if we did spend six hours total in driving for only about 4 miles on the bikes. Next time we go to the Keys (hopefully for a couple of days), I’d like to do it again. Below is a slideshow of all the pictures I uploaded. Enjoy, and if you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment. I’ll answer what I can.

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May 13, 2010 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. I love your pictures! 🙂 Flagler never really got had any plans to span the Florida Straits, but Cuba was a lucrative destination, and even after the hurricanes destroyed the bridges, there was ferry service from Miami and Marathon direct to Havana. The draw of Cuba had a lot to do with Flagler’s plans, and I’m sure he would have loved to have built a bridge from the Keys to Cuba if such a thing were possible, but even today I think the best we could do is a tunnel, and no one would do that. I’d settle for ferry service.

    Comment by amy | May 13, 2010 | Reply

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