Our next destination might not be providing the unique atmosphere of Key West, but having an ocean view from our campsite somewhat mitigated the lack of charm and character we had left behind. We would soon learn that this location had more than blue tropical water a few steps away from our doorstep to offer–it was very conveniently located to a prime sunset view, as well as one of the most historical attractions remaining along the entire span of the keys.
The prime viewpoint was located on our first evening in camp. Taking a customary tour around the facility of Knight’s Key Campground, we arrived at what appeared to be the community picnic area just as the sun was slipping below the horizon. We had the spot to ourselves–what luck! It seemed to present a good omen of things to come here in Marathon, Florida.
The town of Marathon, located on the exact midsection of the Keys, actually encompasses about a dozen separate small islands and keys. It has a year round population of about 10,000 and its primary businesses revolve around commercial fishing, scuba diving in the offshore reefs and the tourist-related industries. In addition, tucked away in the heart of the town’s shopping district lies a 64-acre tropical oasis . . . the destination of our first full day there.
Crane Point Nature Center is located on a slightly elevated patch of land known as a hardwood hammock. The preserve contains indigenous plants and trees that are unique to the keys, many of which are threatened or rare due to loss of habitat. The 64 acres is home to a large thatch palm hammock, a hardwood hammock, a mangrove forest, tidal lagoons, wetland ponds and the fauna that is associated with these various ecosystems. It is an ecological treasure and a place to retreat from the development that Marathon has now become. For one full morning we made the escape, enjoying its trails, some original buildings and the museum displays that chronicled the historical background of this tract of land.
The first settler on the Crane Point property was George Adderley, who came to the Keys from his home in the Bahamas in 1902. He built a traditional Bahamian stone home where he lived with his wife, Olivia, and their adopted daughter. The structure is the oldest surviving example of Bahamian tabby (a concrete-like material created from sand and seashells) construction outside of Key West.
Adderley made his living by gathering sponges from the crystal clear waters offshore and making charcoal from wood, both of which he would sell in Key West. Adderley’s restored home still sits on the property, in the area where a small settlement known as Adderley village once stood. The Adderley home has been restored and is a popular stop along the 2.5 miles of trails and wooden walkways crisscrossing the hammock.
The Adderleys lived on their property until 1949, when they sold the mostly untouched land to Francis and Mary Crane, a wealthy couple from Massachusetts. The Cranes hired a prominent Miami architect to design a modern Art Deco-style home for them. Built on a remote part of the property, it was landscaped with some imported exotic trees and shrubs. For the most part, though, they left the hardwood hammock and other native habitats untouched. As conservationists and horticulturists, they worked tirelessly to preserve the hammock, living on the property they renamed Crane Point until 1979. Having no children to pass the land on to, it was eventually put up for sale, consequently being purchased by the Florida Keys Land and Sea Trust, a private organization working to protect the Florida Keys.
The Crane’s 1950s home had a very unique design for its time, with walls of windows and large roof overhangs. It was the first modern house in the Florida Keys, yet it was built in a very remote and wild location.
Near to their home was the point of land from which the property got its name. Facing Florida Bay, the spot gave us a better idea of the natural shoreline of these keys. No sandy beaches . . . coral rocks line the water’s edge here in the keys.
The name Marathon dates back to the time of the Florida East Coast Railroad construction. Henry Flagler’s rail line eventually extended down the entire eastern coastline to Biscayne Bay. In 1904, at the age of 74, Flagler determined that the railroad should continue another 128 miles further south to Key West. Amazingly, at that time, Key West was the most populated city in Florida with over 10,000 residents, and Flagler envisioned it as the perfect site for a deep port that would be close to Cuba and the new Panama Canal. Critics scoffed and labeled it “Flagler’s Folly”. Engineers were aghast and his business partners wondered if the old gentleman had grown quite daft. But the determined Flagler, using his own money, became the driving force to accomplish the Key West Extension.
Besides the engineering and structural challenges, the labor force was a pervasive problem. Crews worked 14-hour days, 6 days a week under oppressive and grueling conditions. Many hired on, but after contending with the oppressive heat, swarms of mosquitoes and long hours of work, they soon gave up and left. But Flagler’s determination pressed the work on.
And thereby the town’s name came about. Due to the unrelenting pace and struggle to complete the project, many of the workers complained that “this [the project] is getting to be a real Marathon.” The reference was later used to name the local station along the railroad.
The Seven Mile Bridge begins at the western edge of Marathon, connecting Knight’s Key to Little Duck Key. Among the longest bridges in existence when it was built, it is one of the many bridges on the Overseas Highway stretching down the Keys. There are two bridges at this location. The older bridge is part of Flagler’s Overseas Railroad, which was converted to a highway after the devastating Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, from which the rail line never recovered. A new highway with a second Seven Mile Bridge (actually, 6.75 miles) was constructed from 1978 to 1982, running parallel to what remains of the original bridge. That new bridge has been featured in a few notable movies such as License To Kill, True Lies, 2 Fast 2 Furious and Mission Impossible III.
The majority of the original sections of Flagler’s bridge are still in existence and several are used as fishing piers. The old Seven Mile Bridge, Bahia Honda Bridge and Long Key Bridge were added to the National Register of Historic Places on August 3, 1979.
Extending 2.2 miles across open water, a span of the old Seven Mile Bridge was removed over a deep-water channel. Today this remaining section ends at Pigeon Key, a small island once used to house all the men working construction on the original bridge. Today the old bridge has become quite the historical attraction. It is a popular place to bike or walk, especially in the evenings at sunset time. We discovered that attraction at the end of our first full day.
To wrap up the story of Flagler’s Folly, the Overseas Railroad was completed in the early days of 1912. The last steel plate girder, Span #36, was placed on January 21. That afternoon, FEC Engine #201 left Knight’s Key for an inspection run to Key West.
The first FEC train arrived in Key West at 10:30 a.m. on January 22nd with Flagler, now 82, and his wife Mary Lily aboard their luxury Pullman car. Parties, parades and banquets followed the next day to celebrate the official opening of Flagler’s Overseas Railroad. The building of the Overseas Railroad, or Key West Extension, was the greatest single railroad engineering and construction feat in United States and possibly world history. The only near comparison would be the Panama Canal. Travelers would refer to it as riding on a cloud. From that day on, the Keys began to morph into what they have become today. Henry Flagler, living to see his final dream accomplished, would have a bad fall while residing at Whitehall the following winter. Never to recover, he died of complications on May 20th, at the age of 83.
We spent most of the following day biking our way through the 10-mile stretch of Marathon, making interesting short stops along the way. After having a hearty breakfast at a nearby Tiki hut, we set out on our tropical tour. The day was mild and sunny . . . very pleasant . . . we had the kind of ride that could have gone on for many more miles. As it was, we barely made it back before sunset.
That same Tiki hut was also a popular gathering place for locals and snowbirds each evening. It isn’t just in Key West where revelers gather each evening. The Sunset Grille was obviously a focal point for good times, tasty food, and Reggae music. It seemed the fitting place to end another great day, regrettably our last one here at Knights Key.
Chris got up early the following morning, heading out to do one last bike ride. He couldn’t leave without making the short trip out to Pigeon Key and back. It was still a cool early morning as he made his way out to that stretch of the old Seven Mile Bridge. Heading west, the low-hanging clouds reflected the pastel colors of the rising sun, and a string of pelicans was all the life he saw stirring.
Pigeon Key is now an historical landmark. It commem-orates the years back in the early 1900s when mostly immigrant workers toiled long hours in the baking sun to build that bridge across seven miles. Many buildings still remain from that time, now mostly used as museums, displaying historical photos and objects. There are illustrated documents giving insights to life on Pigeon Key back then. We had taken the full tour on our previous visit a year ago, and it was all still fresh in our minds. As he reached in end of the 2-mile stretch, taking a photo to document his destination, he turned around to return to camp. And fought a stiff head wind the entire trip back.
It seemed we had barely arrived at this picturesque site and now we were packing up. Our tour of the Florida Keys wasn’t quite over, we still had one stop left to make. Key Largo was an easy drive away, a scenic trip to the largest town in the Upper Keys.
Before leaving, a couple of photos were in order . . . to preserve the place we had enjoyed for our 3-day stay. Then a last look out over the shoreline from the back of our site . . .
And then we were off again.
Chris and Melinda