They've Been Workin' on the Railroad

For a hundred years the FEC Railway has been chugging up and down Florida's east coast. The next hundred years shouldn't be much different.

Heading north out of the Hialeah yard, the engineer and conductor slump into position for the nine-hour haul to Jacksonville. Glenn Wade -- jeaned legs akimbo, one hand holding half of a peanut-butter-and-jelly-on-white-bread sandwich, the other hand on the throttle lever -- sits in the right corner; in the left corner of the shadowy, industrial-green engine cabin, Eddie Davis leans a shoulder into the side window and fixes his eyes down the track in search of stray humans and animals or daring drivers who zigzag their automobiles around blinking crossing arms. Wade yanks the horn chain to warn this afternoon's drivers: two long, two short, and one long horn sounding as the train crosses the intersection.

Florida East Coast Railway engine 441, pulling a short, eleven-car train of assorted goods, slowly rounds a 90-degree eastward turn near Okeechobee Road and the Metrorail corridor along NW 74th Street, and gradually increases its speed to 35 miles per hour, cutting through a dozen automobile crossings from Hialeah Park racetrack to NE Second Avenue, where the rail curves 90 degrees to the north. As Wade increases the throttle to 45 miles per hour, the backsides of Sixties-era cinder-block houses begin rouletting by like an unfurled roll of postage stamps. Baseball fields, Miami Shores Country Club, and Greynolds Park break up the monotony of shopping centers, office buildings, and restaurants. Approaching the Broward County line: dilapidated warehouses, more cinder-block homes, and a day-care center, all on the edge of the railroad's 100-foot right of way. Davis notices that an old-style McDonald's restaurant, where the golden arches once loomed large and airy, has been leveled and replaced with a nondescript building. He seems saddened by the change.

"From here to Lake Worth it's a concrete jungle," says Wade, his voice rising like a melodic riff over the reverberating drone of the train's 3000-horsepower diesel engine. Wade, 49 years old, and Davis, age 53, railroad and family men for more than twenty years, make the Jax-Miami-Jax roundtrip three times each week. Davis lives in St. Augustine, Wade in the Jacksonville suburb of Orange Park. They don't much like what they see in South Florida.

It's not until the train pushes north of West Palm Beach, especially up around Ormond Beach, that Wade and Davis truly enjoy the ride. "You see wild turkeys and hogs, deer crossing the tracks, trees -- nobody's throwing rocks at you," Wade points out. "It's God's country."

The funny thing is that Wade and Davis, who can't wait to turn their backs on metropolitan South Florida, are the beneficiaries of Henry Flagler's master plan. Flagler's Florida East Coast Railway, which he founded in 1895, spurred development from Jacksonville straight down to Key West. Then as now, the FEC Railway transports the materials and products that support South Florida's continuing development -- lumber, crushed limestone, and cement for roads and building construction; new cars that clog streets and highways; food and other consumer goods that sustain an ever-increasing population. Although Wade and Davis would rather be fishing and hunting in the north Florida wilds, their livelihoods depend on the uninterrupted growth of the state's east coast. And by the same token, that stretch has been largely dependent on the FEC Railway.

The first FEC Railway men who rolled into Miami in April 1896 aboard a Schenectady steam engine pulling a six-car passenger train could not have imagined the megalopolis of contemporary South Florida. Even their boss, Flagler, had modest expectations. He envisioned Miami, then an outpost of several hundred people, becoming no more than a year-round fishing village and a winter resort with a nice passenger train station. Instead Miami, with the help of the FEC Railway, took off, with the downtown passenger station at 200 NW First Ave. growing to become six tracks wide and tying up traffic until 1963, when a labor strike halted passenger travel and the company closed the station.

Even if it is no longer vital to passenger transportation, the old FEC remains integral to Miami commerce as a freight carrier. "The FEC is now a low-key operation but it is the freight lifeline of the east coast of Florida," contends FEC Railway historian Seth Bramson. "It's totally indispensable. Think about the total gridlock, the tens of thousands of trucks that would have to be on the road today. There would be a 350-mile, Jacksonville-to-Miami traffic jam, 365 days a year, 24 hours a day."

Jim Keeley, a paunchy, pipe-smoking gumshoe, drives around the FEC's Hialeah station yard in his blue Ford Explorer. The yard is located in unincorporated Dade County, wedged between Miami Springs and Medley from NW 25th Street at the south to NW 74th Street at its northernmost end. Squat, desert-brown barracks that house the security, operations, and maintenance departments dot the yard. A lime-green, three-million-gallon diesel fuel tank sits in the middle of the yard, the fuel piped in from Port Everglades. Hovering over the central track is a three-story lookout tower, which affords a great view of the hundreds of tractor-trailer containers that are parked diagonally in the yard, or that sit on railroad flatcars.

The railway subcontracts most of the work at the Hialeah yard, including the loading and unloading of freight containers accomplished through the use of 60-foot yellow cranes. A two-story building, with four traffic lanes on each side, serves as the receiving and checkout terminal for truckers. The yard handles about 1000 containers of freight every day.

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