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Last Train to Paradise: Henry Flagler and the Spectacular Rise and Fall of the Railroad that Crossed an Ocean Hardcover – September 24, 2002

4.5 out of 5 stars 393 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Crown; 1 edition (September 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0609607480
  • ISBN-13: 978-0609607480
  • Product Dimensions: 5.7 x 1 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (393 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,439,589 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
"Last Train to Paradise" is a nonfiction account of the construction of the railroad connecting Key West to the Florida mainland, a project headed by Henry Flagler.
It is a well-researched and documented history of an exciting time in the exploration and development of Florida that reads like a novel.
Building a railroad over 150 miles of water under the harshest of conditions was the vision of one man, Henry Flagler. Mr. Flagler used his personal fortune to make this dream come true.
When he first arrived in Florida he was the second wealthiest man in the country. His fortune was made in partnership with John Rockefeller and the creation of Standard Oil.
The ingenuity necessary to accomplish this task is absolutely incredible. The obstacles overcome included the brutal weather (heat and hurricanes), having to import every item from drinking water to food to nails.
As I read the story I found the task more impossible with each accomplishment along the way. The closer they got to their objective, the more unattainable I thought the goal was. They truly did the impossible.
That Mr. Flagler and his crew succeeded is a testament to the pioneer spirit of America.
Dr. Standiford has written a fast paced book. He is a wonderful story teller. It is where truth and fact is so improbable, that one could not make up a superior fictional account.
The photographs are a wonderful addition.
With all the scandals in business today, it is enlightening to read the story of a man who put his reputation and own money on the line for what he believed in.
As Dr. Standiford said: "Henry Flagler evolved from acquisitive robber baron to creator."
Henry Flagler may not have discovered Florida, but he saw all the state's possibilities and created the framework and infrastructure that made Florida livable.
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By A Customer on October 5, 2002
Format: Hardcover
I loved this book. Standiford is a tremendous storyteller, as good as Sebastian Junger, or David McCullough. The rise and fall of the Key West railroad, which was built over 150 miles of water by tycoon Henry Flagler, is a story I knew little about. Great fun and I learned a tremendous amount as well. One warning--be prepared to go to work a little bleary-eyed tomorrow--you won't be able to put this down until the last hurricane has hit...
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Format: Hardcover
Les Standiford has put together a spell-binding tale of the last of the privately financed infrastructure projects undertaken by the larger than life 19th century businessmen. Here Henry Flagler races against his own mortality to complete a railroad from Jacksonville to Key West, with the final run south from Miami requiring herculean engineering, management, and financial resources. Flager was a partner of John D. Rockefeller in an earlier venture known as Standard Oil who decided in his 70's to pursue a second career in railroading, land development, and luxury hotels in the then desolate country of South Florida and the Keys.
Standiford weaves together Flagler, Rockefeller, their arch-rival trust-busting Teddy Roosevelt, WWI bonus armies, and big-game hunting author Ernest Hemingway. While Rockefeller also owned vacation homes in Florida, he and Flagler ultimately had a parting of the ways, with Rockefeller pointedly not attending Flagler's funeral. Flagler had been an early supporter of Roosevelt in his successful bid for the New York governorship after Roosevelt's success in the brief Spanish American war. Later Roosevelt brought antitrust action against Standard Oil and at least in Flagler's mind was behind government resistance to his plan to build a deep water harbor in Miami. Ironically, the US victory in the Spanish American War, together with confirmed plans to build the Panama Canal, were the motiviation for Flagler's railroad adventures, as Flagler projected, incorrectly as it turned out, that Miami and Key West would grow in stature as ports.
The final thread introduces Hemingway into the mix. The author was already a well-known Key Wester when the hurricane of Labor Day 1935 ravaged the Keys.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Having made the drive from Miami to Key West a couple of times, I've been curious about the abandoned bridges that you see all the way down the Keys. When someone recommended this book to me I was excited to learn how those bridges got there - which I did - but I learned a lot more too.

Henry Flagler, who made his fortune as Rockefeller's early partner at Standard Oil, spent that fortune as the pioneering developer of the East Coast of Florida. One of the most fascinating things you learn in this book is just how late in US history the development of Florida came about. As recently as the 1890s, Miami was just a small outpost called Fort Dallas that was reachable only by a trip of train, then boat, then horse-drawn carriage. In the 1890s!

At the same time, Key West was the most populous city in Florida with 20,000 inhabitants and a thriving economy. Flagler imagined that Key West would become the most important deep-water port on the East Coast with the completion of the Panama Canal and that his railroad would carry all of that freight to the continental US. It never happened, and by the time contruction was halfway done Flagler knew it was incredibly unlikely, but by that time he was committed to "ride his own steel to Key West before he died."

All of that is part and parcel to this story of man against nature in a manner that just can't happen in today's era of heightened environmental awareness (I guess we shouldn't block the flow of the Gulf Stream after all). In the end, all is undone by the biggest Gulf storm in recorded history, the Labor Day storm of 1935.

A great read for any fan of history or anyone who is interested in the Keys or Florida.
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