A link to Miami’s past

UM Libraries has acquired blueprints of the Florida East Coast Railway that help shed light on the growth of Miami and the development of the Florida Keys.

A link to Miami’s past

UM Libraries has acquired blueprints of the Florida East Coast Railway that help shed light on the growth of Miami and the development of the Florida Keys.
by Janette Neuwahl Tannen
UM News

Wallpaper. They thought it was just a few rolls of antique wallpaper tucked away in a friend’s attic.

Yet as the women stared down at a chalky, vivid blue map and read the inscription, they knew they had uncovered something special.

They had, in fact, unfurled a relic from Miami’s very beginnings.

Henry Flagler RailwayAmong 13 rolls of drawings, University of Miami English senior lecturer Judy Hood and her friend had unearthed a brittle 1905 blueprint for the Oversea Extension of Henry Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway that connected Miami to the Florida Keys. Measuring 10 feet long, the blueprint reflects the most ambitious railroad engineering and construction project of its time, and belonged to Flagler’s chief construction engineer, a man whose name also graces one of Miami’s most iconic roads: Krome Avenue.

“This was a surprise find, a gift,” said Hood. “There’s something about having an artifact that documents what people back then cared about and what they hoped and dreamed.”

Flagler’s railroad, which first reached Miami in 1896, and later stretched south to Key West by 1912, led to the rapid growth of South Florida. Before that, Miami was merely a settlement called Fort Dallas.

“The railroad entered Miami when it was a wilderness, and it was the most important single element behind the development of Miami,” said Miami historian and former UM lecturer Paul George. “It crossed the Miami River in 1901 and went south to develop all these neighborhoods including [Coral Gables], where the University of Miami is today.”

Shortly after recognizing the value of the artifacts, Hood’s friend Frances Mitchell decided to donate them to UM and Hood learned about the Conservation Lab located in the Otto G. Richter Library, so she brought the documents there. The blueprints, drawings, and maps are now being preserved, with plans to digitize them so students, faculty, and the community can access them.

Krome house
William J. Krome's former Redland home, where the blueprints were found.

Martha Horan, UM Libraries head of preservation strategies, said the conservation project, which is the lab’s most extensive project to date, will likely not be finished until 2020 because it entails stabilizing 13 different documents that are more than a century old. After they are treated, Horan said the blueprints will likely need to be stored in low light to retain their color, but should be available to the University community in the library’s Special Collections area.

“The enthusiasm for integrating these blueprints into the curriculum is tremendous, but the fragility of these documents necessitates digitization,” Hood said.

School of Architecture Professor Rocco Ceo, an expert in local historical preservation, said the documents are intriguing because they “opened up the idea that you could build anything, anywhere.” Flagler’s railway extension to Key West essentially made the previously disconnected Florida Keys a viable place to live, Ceo said.

“There’s nothing more monumental than that project for South Florida,” Ceo said. “Even on a national scale, it rivals the Federal Aid Highway Act (1921), the Hoover Dam (1931-1936) or the Interstate highway system (1956) because it predates all of those things. It’s one of the earliest examples of a difficult—even epic—infrastructure project because it was built in the tropics.”

Cristina Favretto, UM Libraries head of Special Collections, said the maps and blueprints also will enhance the University’s local archives. Although UM has documents about the formation of Miami, it does not have much about the railroad, Favretto said.

“We collect materials on the history of Miami,” Favretto said, “but we had a big gap at the very beginning, which was, how did Miami get started?”

While the blueprint may not be one of a kind, Flagler experts said it’s a rare find. The HistoryMiami Museum in downtown Miami has about 50 maps and drawings of the railroad in its collection, yet archive manager Ashley Trujillo said she is unaware of any as large as the donated blueprint. Local historian, author, and ad junct professor at Barry University, Seth H. Bramson, who has written five histories of the railroad and serves as company historian for the Florida East Coast Railway, said: “while it is not the only one known to exist, it is an outstanding find.”

Related Stories

Henry Flagler Railway
Flagler’s journey to Florida

Henry Morrison Flagler developed the Florida East Coast Railway which accelerated development throughout the Sunshine State.



William Krome
Krome’s imprint on South Florida

Known for connecting the Keys to the mainland, Flagler’s chief construction engineer was also an agricultural pioneer.

What’s old is new again: Reviving history at the U
A unique Conservation Lab at the University of Miami’s Otto G. Richter Library is giving history a new lease on life.

Henry Flagler

Key moments in Flagler's career

1881: Flagler’s first wife Mary passes away and he buys his first hotel, named Satan’s Toe on Long Island Sound. By this point, Flagler had already garnered fame and fortune as a partner in Standard Oil, an extremely profitable company he founded with his friend, John D. Rockefeller. At Standard Oil, Flagler had negotiated agreements with rail companies to transport his oil that put his company ahead of the competition, but also brought him under fire for creating an alleged monopoly.

Henry Flagler
Henry Flagler Railway

1884: Henry Plant brings the railroad to Tampa, Florida.

1885: On their honeymoon, Flagler and his second wife Ida Alice Shrouds fall in love with St. Augustine, Florida as a winter vacation spot and Flagler decides to build a hotel there. To bring in clientele, Flagler buys land to connect the northernmost Florida rail line in Jacksonville south to St. Augustine where his Ponce De Leon Hotel would be located (today this is the site of Flagler College). 

Henry Flagler Railway
Hotel Ponce De Leon, Henry Flagler

1888: Flagler’s first Florida lodging option, Hotel Ponce De Leon, opens for business in St. Augustine, FL. The lavish hotel reportedly cost $2.5 million.

1889: Railway from Flagler’s company is extended to Daytona Beach.

1891: Flagler’s western rail competitor in Florida, Henry Plant, opens his own hotel called The Tampa Bay. Julia Tuttle appeals to Flagler to bring his rail line to Fort Dallas, then a tiny settlement, to later become Miami.

Hotel Ponce De Leon, Henry Flagler
The Breakers, Henry Flagler

1894: Flagler’s Palm Beach Hotel Royal Poinciana opens and he starts construction on another luxury hotel, now known as The Breakers.

1895: Shocked by one of the worst freezes in Florida, Flagler receives a letter from Julia Tuttle, who was spurned by her appeal to Plant. She explains that the freeze did not affect any of the crops in Fort Dallas, so Flagler visits and decides to bring his railroad south. He tells the state that it is his intention to extend the railway south to Key West.

The Breakers, Henry Flagler
Hotel Royal Palm, Henry Flagler

1896: Rail line from Palm Beach to Miami opens, although the area is still known as Fort Dallas.

1897: Flagler’s 350-unit Royal Palm Hotel opens in the recently incorporated city of Miami, with a population of 1,500 (in comparison, Key West had 20,000 residents). It had electric lights, elevators and rooms with private bathrooms.

1905: Flagler announces his intention to expand the Florida East Coast railway all the way to Key West.

Hotel Royal Palm, Henry Flagler
Henry Flagler Railway

1906: Major hurricane destroys major sections of the railway extension and kills 125 men, or 5 percent of the construction crews working on the Homestead to Key West Extension.

1909: Chief Construction Engineer James Meredith dies and William J. Krome, at 33, is convinced to become the new chief engineer of construction for the Florida East Coast Railway.

Henry Flagler Railway
Henry Flagler Railway

1912: At the age of 82, Flagler sees his dream come to fruition and he rides the Florida East Coast Railroad’s Over Sea Railway to Key West.

1913: Henry Flagler dies.

1929: William J. Krome dies at the age of 52.

1935: Labor Day hurricane destroys major sections of the railway, and kills at least 250 World War I veterans working to build a roadway alongside the railroad tracks.

Henry Flagler Railway

The path to Coral Gables

The blueprints’ journey to UM sheds light on the people who once used them. Hood’s friend was given the blueprints and early railroad maps from the Redland home of Medora Krome, the granddaughter of William J. Krome. Although Krome started as a land surveyor for Flagler, he was the Florida East Coast Railway company’s chief construction engineer from 1909 to about 1916, when the extension to Key West opened to the public.

His granddaughter no longer lives in the house, but while her ex-husband was cleaning out the attic, he found the rolls and gave them to Hood’s friend, Frances Mitchell, who makes holiday ornaments with antique wallpaper. However, when she discovered their value, Mitchell donated them to UM for preservation.

Medora Krome said she is glad that the University will be able to share them with a wider audience.

“While I am not terribly involved in the history of South Florida, I know that these are of historical significance and I’m glad someone is interested enough to preserve them,” said Krome, who still lives near the Redland home where the blueprints were found.

Henry Flagler Blueprints Henry Flagler Blueprints
When the rolls of drawings were donated to UM Libraries, they first spent 72 hours in a freezer to eliminate any mildew or insects.
Henry Flagler Blueprints Henry Flagler Blueprints
a mist of water is piped into the hood while conservators slowly unravel the documents in timed increments. This is done to relax the paper fibers so older documents can be unraveled without further damage or tearing.
Henry Flagler Blueprints Henry Flagler Blueprints
Once the map was unrolled through humidification, layers of fiber and cardboard were placed above and below the map to soak up moisture for at least a day. Then, small weights were placed on top of the blueprint while conservators worked on each section.
Henry Flagler Blueprints
Eraser shavings are painstakingly massaged into the document to get rid of residue collected over time.
Henry Flagler Blueprints Henry Flagler Blueprints
Conservators manually join any large tears using handmade wheat paste and Japanese paper to reunite the torn edges. This was the most time-consuming part of the conservation process.
Henry Flagler Blueprints Henry Flagler Blueprints
For this final part of the process, conservators mixed watercolors to match the rich blue hue of the document and then filled in any areas of discoloration.

Maintaining a piece of history

The process of preserving documents that are more than 100 years old is a nuanced one. Hood knew this, and therefore decided to apply for a CREATE Grant through the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in order to fund the treatment of these documents. Hood’s application represented an opportunity for several departments at the University to collaborate, which is the aim of the program, said Dean of Libraries Charles Eckman, who co-chairs the CREATE grant committee. In collaboration with UM, the Mellon Foundation will continue to gift awards to qualified professors for its remaining two academic years.

Much of the preservation work is being done through UM’s Conservation Lab. After seeing the documents for the first time, conservators Duvy Argandona and Laura Fedynyszyn, led by Horan, created a multi-step treatment plan that is still in motion. This process began with placing the rolls of drawings in a freezer for 72 hours to kill any organisms that may have been living inside them, continued with a humidification process to relax the paper, so the documents could be flattened without further damage, and then meticulously cleaned using eraser shavings to pull excess dirt from the maps. Finally, conservators began mending any tears in the blueprint — which included joining a long rip down the middle of the 10 foot blueprint—using Japanese rice paper and a handmade wheat paste. Last, Argandona and Fedynszyn worked to restore the blue color where it had faded using watercolors they mixed themselves in a process called “inpainting.”

Although many of the smaller maps and Krome’s drawings can be preserved and digitized in UM’s Conservation Lab and library, the 10-foot blueprint of the Homestead to Key West extension needs to be digitized at another facility because it’s so large. Most of the grant funding will be used to cover that expense, and Argandona is now working to get it ready for shipping.

George, who leads tours of the city for HistoryMiami Museum, said UM students can learn a wealth of information about Miami’s roots from these artifacts, including the fact that much of U.S. 1 was built just east of the rail tracks to mirror its predecessor.

“They can get the essence of what it was like to build that whole railroad,” George said. “It’s a little known story today, but it’s an unbelievable story.”

Information and photos gathered from “Last Train to Paradise” by Les Standiford, Flagler Museum Archives, the Jerry Wilkinson archives, the Florida Keys History & Discovery Center and the Monroe County Public Library archives.