Below is a really great guest article by Pete Geiger in the Clay Today Online
Would we make the same mistake today? Chances are we will do so.
Flagler was mesmerized, it would seem, by the impending completion of the Panama Canal in the early 20th Century. He persuaded himself that inter-ocean steamship traffic transiting the new canal would have to stop in Key West to take on coal and to offload shipments bound for the U.S. Southeast.
So Flagler did the impossible. He spent himself nearly dry to push his Florida East Coast Railway from Miami across the Keys in anticipation of new riches to be made in haulage to-and-from the canal traffic.
Now Flagler’s Folly is about to be repeated.
The Panama Canal Authority will open in late 2015 or early 2016 new, larger locks on the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea. I watched work last week on the northern locks and I thought about good ol’ Henry.
Oh, the locks will allow larger ships to transit the canal, alright. Just as the original Panama Canal, completed 100 years ago this year, spared shipping many days of sailing and dangerous storms around Cape Horn at the tip of South America.
It’s just that, by the time the canal and Flagler’s “overseas railway” were finished, improved efficiency in steamships meant they had no need to stop at Key West to take on coal. It was far more profitable to continue past Florida and up the East Coast to harbors nearer to their markets.
By the time it was destroyed by a hurricane in 1935, Flagler’s railroad was already in receivership.
Now Flagler’s figurative successors in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and local Chambers of Commerce are being mesmerized anew by the promise of the Panama Canal’s larger locks. They’re blowing their horns and beating their drums for deepening of the St. Johns River channel from 40 to 47 feet for 13 miles from Mayport to Jacksonville to accommodate the deeper-draft ships transiting the new Panama locks.
The massive cost of such a project – and no one can say how much it would be – will be offset by the increase in shipping through Jacksonville’s railroad connections. The project will mean thousands of new jobs, they say, but no one can say how many thousands nor how long the jobs might last.
Nor can anyone explain why shippers might prefer to unload cargo from low-cost container ships onto higher-cost rail cars for travel to their destinations. The shippers gave their answer to Henry Flagler a century ago – better to sail northward and unload where the rail transport would be cheaper.
It should be noted that the Corps of Engineers seeks no return on investment. It’s mission is to build dams and dig channels.
In order to pursue the channel-deepening scheme, the Corps would employ dynamite to remove the natural rock bed of the St. Johns. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the St. Johns Riverkeeper have both pointed out that such alteration would result in partial draining of the wetlands lying adjacent to the river’s estuary and would impact the area’s fishing industry dramatically. It would also introduce brackish water farther upstream, beyond Clay County.
The massive changes to the river could not be undone if the project proved to be misguided.
In the case of Flagler’s “overseas railway,” the bridges from key to key were repurposed and a highway was built on the old railroad right-of-way. The bridges have since been replaced, but the highway still occupies Flagler’s Folly.
In the case of a deepened but useless St. Johns channel, there would be no repurposing possible. So I went down to Panama to observe the canal’s centenary and I thought about ol’ Henry Flagler. Would he make the same mistake again? Will we?
In other Florida rail news: Environmental study of All Aboard Florida project draws 8,000 comments