In Last Train to Paradise
novelist Les Standiford has written a lively, felicitous account of the building of the Florida East Coast Railway, which, for a little over two decades, connected mainland Florida with Key West. Henry Morrison Flagler, John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil partner and, in many eyes, the true genius behind that company, embarked on the project in 1905 when he was 74 years old. The railroad, which crossed more than 150 miles of open sea, was an engineering feat nearly equal in scale and difficulty to the digging of the Panama Canal. Standiford's narrative skillfully blends tales of construction perils (not the least of which were escadrilles of mosquitoes) with brief, illuminating travelogues and natural histories, pocket descriptions of life in early 20th-century Florida, and a truly gripping description of an epic standoff between Mother Nature, in the form of a monstrous hurricane, and a stalled, 160-ton steam locomotive. With nary a single missed note, this fascinating tale is popular history at its best. --H. O'Billovich
From Publishers Weekly
A good idea to have a novelist tell the story of Henry Morrison Flagler, the 19th-century mogul credited with developing Florida as a vacation paradise goes sadly astray here. Readers hoping to learn about the man will be disappointed, as will those looking for a good yarn about the engineering marvel that is this tale's centerpiece Flagler's creation, in the early 20th century, of a rail line that traversed 153 miles of open ocean to link mainland Florida with Key West. The narrative bumps along, frequently veering off into tantalizing detours that lead nowhere. Standiford presents pages about the power of hurricanes to destroy property and savage the human body, an emphasis that is the book's undoing: readers are led to believe that storm damage in 1935 was the sole reason for the railroad's abandonment. This prompts Standiford to argue that Flagler's undertaking was a "folly" from the start, as his contemporaries claimed, and that his story constitutes a classic "tragedy." In fact, the Florida East Coast Railway (FEC) was undone as much, if not more, by a force Standiford never mentions: the internal combustion engine. After the hurricane of 1935, investors and the government considered rebuilding the FEC, but decided instead on a highway. The book's conclusion references Shelley's cautionary poem "Ozymandias," a gloss on the impermanence of man's works. The warning might apply to this unsatisfying book. 8 pages of b&w photos.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.