William Krome, Henry Flagler Railway

Krome’s imprint on South Florida

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

Krome’s imprint on South Florida

Known for connecting the Keys to the mainland, Henry Flagler’s chief construction engineer William Krome was also an agricultural pioneer.
by Janette Neuwahl Tannen
UM News

Krome Avenue. This 37-mile stretch of asphalt links Homestead to Miami’s western suburbs. It is also one of the last visible markers separating South Florida’s rapid development from the subtropical wilderness of the Everglades.

The thoroughfare, which honors William Julius Krome, also reveals a bit about a man whose life had a major influence on agriculture and the development of Miami-Dade County and the Florida Keys.

William KromeKrome rose through the ranks to become chief construction engineer of the Florida East Coast Railway during its most audacious venture, the 153-mile oversea extension from Homestead to Key West. The stretch of tracks, detailed in a blueprint recently donated to the University of Miami after being discovered in Krome’s former home, had been a farfetched goal of company owner Henry Flagler. Yet, Krome saw the project to completion in 1912. 

“Krome is interesting because he was this engineer and surveyor for the extension project, but he was also an agricultural force,” said University of Miami architecture professor Rocco Ceo, an expert in local historical architecture. “I’m sure he realized that the railroad represented the movement of materials and goods in a lot of different directions, which was important because ships were unreliable and the railroad ensured that produce would get to market before rotting.”

Although Krome died in 1929 at just age 53, his impact on South Florida is inescapable. Besides his role as the engineer who — at 36 — accomplished what many say was the most complex construction project of its time, he also revolutionized the agricultural industry in South Dade, and is credited with naming Islamorada, one of the most popular fishing destinations in the Florida Keys today.

“The Krome family was instrumental in developing the avocado, lime, and mango industry in Florida,” said Jonathan Crane, a tropical fruit crop specialist at the University of Florida’s Tropical Research and Education Center near Homestead.

Yet Krome’s foray into agriculture did not come until later in life.

According to historical books, obituaries, and family letters, Krome was born in Edwardsville, Illinois in 1876 and was the eldest and only son of his parents’ seven children. Krome began college in Chicago at Northwestern and DePauw universities, and went on to Cornell University to study engineering. He left before earning a formal degree and after a few railroad surveying jobs in Florida, Georgia, and Missouri, Krome learned of plans to extend Flagler’s railway south. He applied to be a surveyor and was hired in 1902.

Related Stories

Henry Flagler Railroad
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.

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

William Krome William Krome
Survey crew working on Key Largo circa 1905. Photo courtesy of Jerry Wilkinson, Florida Keys History & Discovery Center.

At the time, railway officials were pondering a few different routes to Key West. Flagler believed extending his tracks to the southernmost point had the potential to open up new trade routes with Cuba and Latin America, particularly if the Panama Canal was built.

Krome first led an expedition along the Everglades’ Cape Sable, which would take the railway west through the Everglades and then south across Florida Bay. After a miserable trip through the marsh, sawgrass, and mosquitoes, which Krome documented in his diaries, the company decided to build a track that would follow the natural line of the islands to Key West.

Construction on the extension began in late 1904 and during that time, Krome served as assistant construction engineer for chief engineer Joseph Meredith. Around the same time, Krome acquired property in what is now Homestead. Today, Krome is regarded as one of the city’s first residents and its current main street still bears his name.

Medora Krome
Medora Krome, William Krome's Granddaughter

In 1909, Meredith died and Krome assumed the position as chief engineer, overseeing nearly 4,000 workers at the height of the effort. Although he tried to quit a few times, Krome and his crews finished the line after a grueling eight years of construction and some major hurdles, including three hurricanes. Krome detailed the losses in letters to his father, said his granddaughter, Medora Krome, who still lives in the Homestead area today.

“It was a horrendous job. He was not only building, but devising techniques no one had ever used before,” said Tom Hambright, Monroe County historian. “There were all sorts of headaches every day and logistics of getting stuff down there. They got cement from Germany, rocks from New England, and they brought fresh water down from the Everglades. He had to get everything in the right place at the right time.”

During his sixth year on the project, Krome married Isabel Burns, and the couple had four children, Mary Elizabeth, Bill, Robert and Jack. In addition to raising her family, Krome’s wife was responsible for maintaining the family’s citrus groves. Luckily, she had grown up on a citrus grove near Cape Canaveral and knew a great deal about horticulture. The couple later befriended David Fairchild, the famed tropical botanist who headed the U.S. Department of Agriculture from 1904 to 1928, and Wilson Popenoe, a plant explorer who worked for the USDA in Latin America.

In his autobiography, The World is My Garden, Fairchild wrote about Krome’s green thumb: “W.J. Krome, the young active engineer whom Mr. Flagler had put in

David Fairchild and William Krome

David Fairchild, his wife Marian Hubbard Bell (daughter of Alexander Graham Bell), William J. Krome and Nicholas Matcovich at Matcovich's homestead on No Name Key. Photo taken by James Hare of Collier's Magazine in 1912, courtesy of Jerry Wilkinson, Florida Keys History & Discovery Center.

charge of building the Overseas Railroad, was at heart almost more interested in commercial horticulture than in that great engineering work. He and his associates had homesteaded land around what is now the town of Homestead. It was there that I first saw tangelo in fruit. Krome had two bearing trees and was planning to put out ten additional acres the following year.”

Soon after, when canker threatened the state’s citrus crop in 1914, Krome was in charge of eradicating the disease through controlled burns, his granddaughter said. And when he retired from the railroad in 1919 to focus on cultivating citrus, avocadoes, and mangoes, Krome was vice president of the Florida Horticultural Society, a post he held until 1927, records indicate.

Bill Krome
Bill Krome, William Krome's first son

Though Krome died young, his first son, Bill, gained a love for horticulture from both his parents. Throughout his life, Bill was a proponent for the Florida agricultural community, and helped develop standards for the optimal picking time for avocados and limes, which improved the reputation of local fruit, Crane said. He also managed the family groves as his mother aged and officially took over when she died in 1977. Bill Krome died in 2000, but his daughter still maintains about 200 acres of the family groves where 40 different varieties of avocados are cultivated.

 Information for this story was gathered from “The Villages of South Dade” by Jean Taylor, “A Journey Through Time” by Paul George, “Last Train to Paradise” by Les Standiford, the Florida State Horticultural Society, family letters provided by Medora Krome, the Homestead Historic Town Hall Museum, the Jerry Wilkinson archives, and the Florida Keys History & Discovery Center.