The book “Speedway to Sunshine” by Seth H. Bramson is an unabashed love letter to the Florida East Coast Railway. The author is the railway’s biggest fan and makes no bones about it.
I bought the hardcover version of this book at a local book sale for $3. This is far outside of my normal reading material, being American, and in a state that I have never visited. To be honest, my only contact with the Florida East Coast Railroad was a flatcar I saw in June 2012.
Mr. Bramson has been a fan of the railroad since the early 1960s, and has been the official historian of the FEC for some time now. The first edition of the book came out in 1984, and it was updated in 2003 with three more chapters and more photos. I have the 2003 version, the third printing.
The book starts by describing how Florida was before the railroad came – sparsely settled with very little development. The first few railroads made some inroads but it wasn’t until the “Empire Builder”, Henry M. Flagler, took an interest in establishing an “American Riviera” in Florida that development really started. The railroad was kind of an afterthought, a way to get people to the hotels and resorts that he was building.
Flagler earned his wealth as a major player in Standard Oil with John D. Rockefeller, and visited Florida over several winters and really took an interest in the state. He had a huge hotel built in St. Augustine and bought an existing short line railroad to help bring people to the hotel. Over time, the railroad was extended further south and was instrumental in founding Miami.
The Florida East Coast Railway ended up building all the way out to the Florida Keys, a great engineering achievement at the time. Unfortunately, the Overseas Railroad was mostly destroyed in the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 and ended up being sold to the state and becoming a highway.
The FEC was in bankruptcy at the time, having “gone under” around the time of the Great Depression and only emerging after World War 2. It then entered a protracted labour conflict with its unions.
Today the FEC mostly operates unit rock trains and intermodal trains, on a scheduled basis. It pioneered a number of improvements, from two-person crews and cabooseless trains to Positive Train Control (PTC). It is considered a “Class II” railroad by size.
This book covers the history of the Florida East Coast Railroad in great detail, especially the first fifty or sixty years. The enthusiastic text is complemented by many photographs and maps.
I found some of the prose a bit “over the top”, with some run-on sentences and turgid prose like:
It was almost as if a Biblical scene was being recounted. What he (Flagler) saw was good. Flagler said, “Let there be hotels,” and, lo, there were hotels. Then Flagler said, “Let there be railroads – and land companies – and cities – and paved roads – and water works – and visitors” – and lo, there were all of these things.(Speedway to Sunshine, p.52)
Aside from those issues, and the relentless bias the author has for the railroad, I found it to be an interesting book and I did enjoy reading it. I learned a lot about the railroad – and about Florida too – and I recommend this book for anyone interested in the area.
(this article contains affiliate links to Amazon, which means that I receive a small commission if you purchase anything using those links, at no additional cost to you)